On a hot and humid Panamanian Sunday, the jeep of the legislador—the junior senator, as we might call him—swerves to avoid the live cockerels, bounces past the dead cars and arrives at the Softball game in the dusty hamlet of Buenos Aires. At this precise instant a hapless outfielder, backing up to make a catch, disappears into the surrounding rain forest. The crowd goes wild as Villa Unida takes a 2-1 lead over Deportiva Alvarado, and for the moment the visiting politico is badly upstaged.
But only for a moment. The game is abruptly stopped. Tardy as he may be, the serious-looking visitor must throw out the "first" ball. And then there are ladies in hair rollers to be complimented and village elders to be conversed with in low, confidential tones, and finally, of course, there is a speech to be given. The P.A. system blares out an entirely unnecessary introduction—unnecessary because everybody knows who is honoring the village today. He's not merely a member of Panama's Legislative Assembly; he's El Campéon Mundial de Peso Pluma himself, Eusebio Pedroza, the WBA's featherweight champion and, statistically at least, the most successful professional boxer in the world. Furthermore, he's quite likely the only champ anywhere who is an elected representative of the people.
Awesome has become a cheap word, but it is hard to find another that adequately describes Pedroza's boxing achievements. He won his title with a 13th-round knockout of Spain's Cecilio Lastra on April 15, 1978 and has successfully defended it 19 times, which ties him with heavyweight champ Larry Holmes (who won his title in June 1978) for longest run by a champion since Joe Louis's 24 straight defenses from 1937 to '48. The Panamanian's overall record is 38-3-1, with one no-contest and 23 KOs, and he hasn't lost in nine years. In London on June 8 Pedroza will put his title on the line again, against Barry McGuigan of Northern Ireland. If Pedroza wins, he will be one shy of Abe Attell's record for successful defenses by a featherweight, set between 1906 and 1912.
For all this, his countrymen worry that Pedroza is less interested in his ring performance than in his political career. Indeed, only seven weeks before the McGuigan fight Pedroza weighed 144 pounds, 18 more than the featherweight maximum. Instead of training at the Pascual Gonzalez gym in downtown Panama City, he had taken two days off for "senatorial duties."
"I had to go to the assembly to do a different type of fighting," says the champion, who was talked into becoming a candidate as an alternate legislador for the Revolutionary Democratic Party early last year and was elected in May 1984, "People in the legislature are educated; you have lawyers, engineers, doctors. But the problems we debate are basic. I must fight for my people, the things they need and want in my district."
Now it is Pedroza's two trainers who seem to be looking for a fight on a sultry afternoon. They have been working with him ever since he turned pro, and now they are boiling angry about his absence from the gym. Both are out of Caledonia, Panama City's Harlem; both are descendants of Jamaicans who came to Panama to help build the canal; and both are in their 70s. Lyonel Hoyte is a giant of a man with a face carved like a Dahomey juju mask, while Henry Douglas, who is always called Matty Baby, is Hoyte's perfect foil. Matty Baby is small and bouncy and always wears a flat leather applejack cap set at a degree of jauntiness not seen anywhere since Jackie Coogan was the Kid. The pair look malevolently at the champ. "He behind" says Matty Baby.
"He not ready" agrees Lyonel.
"His leg not well," says Matty.
Recently, you learn, Pedroza had been rousted out of bed at 4 a.m. by his sister-in-law. A thief was breaking into one of the champ's cars. He stopped the audacious constituent with a single shot—not his favorite left jab but the 9-mm kind, from an Uzi machine pistol, the kind of heavy-duty armament that suddenly appeared in the hands of U.S. Secret Service agents when John W. Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Reagan. "This man must thank God he alive with just a wounded knee," says Matty Baby, "but my fighter pull a muscle in his left leg running him down." All the same, sparring to a 100-watt rendition of Madonna's Material Girl Pedroza looks fast and supple, and when he begins to work over the heavy bag, it is clear that he can still hit with power.
Later, in the locker room, Pedroza speaks again of his unhappiness at being an unsung hero outside of Panama. "Why, at last, am I getting attention?" he asks. "When I was screaming to fight Little Red Lopez, Wilfredo Gomez, Azumah Nelson, Salvador Sanchez, where was the press then? Where were the promoters?" Earlier, his manager, 50-year-old Santiago del Rio, had his own complaints to make. "This is the toughest fighter in the world," he declared, and then paused for effect and added, "to promote.