I had been training at the squat, red and yellow boxing gymnasium in Panama-city for years. The house of stoush that stood on the edge of improving anarchy, had become my second home on each of my irregular trips to the small Central American country. A solid construction, but leper like in its decay: peeling walls, floorboards cracked and rotted, toilets and showers in constant flood. Dust pirouetted on drafts, bleaching and scarring the mirrors, distorting the reflection of the rope jumper, the man boxing shadows, until they resembled a stranger’s silhouette. Cockroaches regularly scurried, even the occasional rat, lured by rubbish thrown from next doors-high rises, the plastic bags bursting beside the gym wall, sometimes landing on its sun-blistered roof. A loud bang- refuse spewing.
Only a few years earlier, Pistoleros had controlled these high rises: drug gangs armed and dealing. Things had improved. All was subdued-to an extent. The poor barrio had the reputation as the worst, now it was only rough-could still be dangerous, but it had lost its number one notoriety status. Police on every corner, the special ones scouring the streets, two to a bike, the pillion’s machine weapon held upright and cocked, keeping the rats in their holes.
Money had made the difference. The place borders on the Spanish colonial grandeur of Casco Viejo. Cobblestone streets and stucco walls. Red-clay roof shingles and wrought iron balconies draped with gaily flowering bougainvillea. Foreigners had moved in, and much later when they thought it safe, the Panamanian elite. That was when it really started getting better.
I had become close to a trainer called Enrique Maravilla Pinder. In the beginning, only because we both had something to offer. He had been champion of the entire world, fought the main twice at Madison Square Gardens in New York; a mecca for boxers and cherished as zealously by their followers, but he was often short. I had been a failed boxer but had some cash. I could take him out for a meal, buy him a beer, slip him a few bucks when things were a bit tough. He gave me status, carried me on the enormity of a noble reputation.
Everybody knew him. They would wave and call in the streets. In Panama, boxing was still revered, a reason for pride; there were still newspaper journalists specialized in the square ring. It’s a Latin thing, you find it from Mexico down to Colombia- blood and sweat spilled for the barrios still meant something.
‘Hey Maravilla , campion, como esta…’ They would greet him in the most intimate way because he was a brother who gave the battling poor a sense of respect. A small black man who rose from the fodder of the marginal masses.
Enrique Maravilla Pinder still acknowledged and enjoyed the attention that boxing had brought him and never failed to offer a nod to an admirer, a smile, a few words, but he carried his years of fighting like a weight. There was no speed or lightness in his gate, his speech would stumble or change pace as if his thoughts and tongue were not working in tandem. His charm was to be found in his modesty, his deep bright-laugh, mouth open, lips pulled back, shining teeth displayed; the blazing floral shirts that he preferred. His manicured moustache, hair kept short and groomed.
Enrique was my trainer, but that was an exaggeration. He was officially employed by the barrio to instruct any youth who might want to take up a glove, but there were few and that was the way he liked it. But he was dependable, leaving home each morning at 4 am to beat Panama’s hellish traffic. The Diablo Rojo bus left him a twenty-minute walk; most days he exited the club at 10 am, his work done. I would arrive at 7am and Enrique would set me skipping before a workout on the heavy bag. He rarely varied the routine, never offered advice, and would often walk away and forget me, leaving me to punch or skip in the morning furnace much longer than body and soul should take.
‘Time Mr Wayne,’ I would finally hear when my shouts of frustration reached him in the front office. He always spoke English to me, un-understandable most of the time: the accent and fighter’s occupational slur.
Really, he did not think I should be training at all. He never punched a bag, swung a rope. Done is done- old school. Besides, I had never made anything of myself from fighting, what was the point now.
‘Fitness,’ I tried to explain to him, but it was more than that, it was unfinished business- I was sure the Latins could show me where I went wrong.
One time I spared with Mus Caballero, a top Panamanian featherweight. There were three of us, alternating. Mus was training for a fight, waiting for a second shot at a world title after recently losing to Daniel Ponce de Leon, a Mexican brawler, in a world title elimination bout.
‘Don’t spar, you’ll get hurt,’ he said to me when he heard. He was almost pleading. I didn’t get hurt, just bruised and beaten up a little when Mus opened up at the end of the last round, but it showed he cared. That was why Enrique Maravilla Pinder, former world champion, worst trainer in the world, was my man whenever I returned to Panama. But I didn’t stay completely loyal. After nine years of travelling back and forth, I took another trainer, a man named Agrazal: guider of champions. But not full-time, I could never do that to Enrique.