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Juan Soto and Francisco (Pancho) Sánchez aren't lost, but they're stumbling. They've taken some blows as they've searched for the path to the good life, that well-worn but elusive trail that lies out there in the growing darkness, the highroad to the American promised land. Juan and Pancho aren't down, but they're on one knee and the count is at five.
Maybe boxing can save them.
On a Sunday afternoon in late winter they walk into the basement of the rec center at Clarendon Park, on the North Side of Chicago, with their two volunteer coaches, Arturo Salas and Luis Berumen, ready to sign up for the 63rd Annual Chicago Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament.
Juan, 18, has bristly black hair with a pigtail hanging down his neck, a ratty pubescent goatee and scattered pimples on his broad, smiling face. He is from Mexico and has been in the U.S. for five years. He speaks English poorly and has not been to school since November, when officials at Wells High School on the Northwest Side asked him to leave because he had passed only two classes in two years and he hung around with members of a street gang. Juan has been boxing for two years, having reached the second round of last year's Chicago Golden Gloves competition as a 147-pounder.
Pancho is also 18 and from Mexico, but he has been in the U.S. only three years and his English is worse than Juan's, which is to say that even a diner menu is incomprehensible to him. He is a sophomore at Wells, enrolled in the bilingual program, and he is so short—5'1"—that at times, scurrying between classes, he resembles a grade-school kid lost in the halls. Pancho has been training as a boxer for four months, but he has yet to fight someone in the ring. Outside it, he has done occasional damage in whirlwind confrontations with larger people, propelled by a sudden rage that boils from the pool of dignity hidden in his tiny chest.
Pancho enjoys drawing and music, and recently he bought threads of different colors and wove a delicate bracelet that he wears on his right wrist. The bracelet says CHOORY—Shorty, another of his nicknames. Pancho is peaceful by nature, and his street fights are not statements of machismo—rather, they occur when heat waves of frustration overwhelm him. "I'm not proud of them," he says softly. "But I must stand up."
He is looking forward to proving himself within the confines of a sport, within something recognized by society as real and valid, something with rules and a clock and observant adults, a beginning and an end, history. Pancho is shy, has a silver-capped front tooth, and short hair that stands out from his head like fuzz on a dandelion. His family is fragmented; Pancho's father takes little interest in him, and his mother has moved back and forth between Mexico and Chicago. Juan has no one in the U.S. but a brother and a sister.
The national Golden Gloves tournament was started in 1927 as a charitable event sponsored by the New York Daily News. The paper's sister company, the Chicago Tribune, started the Chicago tournament in 1928. Since then the Golden Gloves has seen good and bad times, though it now seems fairly secure as a national institution, with 32 regional events leading to the national tournament, held this year in Des Moines in May with 365 finalists. Each regional tournament is run a bit like a fast-food franchise, with the local managers responsible for promotion, advertising and the bottom line. You can squeeze a buck out of the Golden Gloves if you're lucky, but there are easier ways to make a living.
Winning the Golden Gloves national championship does not qualify a boxer for the Olympic or Pan American Games or any other international amateur competition. All it does is give the boxer status. Ray Leonard was a national Golden Gloves champion. So were Tommy Hearns, Michael Spinks, Evander Holy-field, Mike Tyson and Joe Louis. A Louisville kid named Cassius Clay used to daydream in school, drawing pictures of a glorious coat with the words NATIONAL GOLDEN GLOVES CHAMPION on it. Clay would win two national Golden Gloves titles before turning the pro ranks upside down and becoming Muhammad Ali. In a vague way, Juan and Pancho are aware of all this and are eager to be part of it.
Amateur fighters and the usual friends, trainers and fight-game hangers-on mill about the Clarendon Park basement, which doubles at times as a shelter for the homeless. The boxers have papers to sign, rights to waive, photos to be taken. An old black man with a derby and a pocket hankie talks to a woman dressed in black who has white-blonde hair, blood-red lipstick and a lit cigarette that she dangles above an empty soda can. The woman is Lois Berger, p.r. assistant for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's Office of Special Events, which cosponsors the Chicago Golden Gloves. Though she sits through many bouts with a hand covering her eyes, she loves the fighters and dutifully types up press releases stating their virtues.