What Does It Take to Be a Mexican Boxing Hero?

On November 21, the Puerto Rican boxer Miguel Cotto will step into the ring in Las Vegas to fight Mexico’s Saúl “Canelo” Alvarez in a much-anticipated match up to celebrate the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.

The last major face-off for a Mexican boxing star was in 2012, when Juan Manuel Márquez knocked out Manny Pacquiao in spectacular fashion.

Márquez’s first words after the fight dedicated his victory to “the new president of Mexico,” Enrique Peña Nieto. With that short phrase, the great fighter lost his chance to win over the Mexican people and instead Márquez will be remembered for taking sides in a broader and more divisive political bought.

The week after Márquez fought that night, I was among several reporters waiting for the champion at the Romanza Gym where he trained in a gritty neighborhood near Mexico City’s airport. “Dinamita Márquez” showed up driving a red Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4. The flashy car felt out of place in a working-class barrio and helped foment a sense of disillusionment among his admirers, who were humbly waiting for him to arrive while eating street cart quesadillas.

What does it take to be a Mexican hero?

His trainer Ignacio “Nacho” Beristáin said it best at the time: “Juan Manuel made a mistake by deciding to get near those in power, siding with those that screw people over, instead of siding with the common people. He will never be the people’s idol.”

Now that another Mexican champ is preparing for a showdown on such a symbolic date, one question hangs in the air – what does it take to be a Mexican hero?

Soon after the start of the Mexican Revolution, the American writer Jack London asked the same question in a moving short story about boxing and the Mexican psyche.

London first published The Mexican in the Saturday Evening Post on August 19, 1911, and the story was later incorporated into an anthology of his works called The Night-Born.

In the story, 18-year-old Felipe Rivera is inspired by the revolutionary fervor of 1910 and longs to contribute in his own way. But with no skills, he can only find a job scrubbing the meeting room floors of the junta fighting against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. On the inside, he witnesses the unglamorous scramble for cash needed to keep the revolution going. Rivera wants to help desperately and decides to offer up the only resource he has: his fists. He volunteers to fight in a boxing match against an experienced gringo lightweight named Danny Ward in the hopes of winning $5,000 in prize money to hand over to the cause.

Mexico is now far away from the unity of spirit that brought the country together during the revolution.

London describes Rivera as a primitive boxer, a wild wolf, a rattlesnake, a centipede, a destructive angel – the Mexican revolution incarnate.

In the story, London reveals not only his passion for the sweet science, but his own sympathies for the revolutionary movements of the era.

Danny Ward calls Rivera a “little Mexican rat,” but in the end he beats the American so – in the final words of the story – “the revolution could go on.”

London had loved boxing since childhood – his mother said that he was always involved in fights as a kid – and it was the only sport that interested him. It seems as though within the confines of that squared circle, London was able to see all the virtues and horrors of humankind, and equated boxing to revolution, rebelliousness, and political militancy.

Mexico is now far away from the unity of spirit that brought the country together during the revolution. In the ring, Rivera put everything on the line for a political cause and was a hero. Márquez linked his fight to politics and only created more divisions.

The truth is sadder than fiction. In Mexico these days, it’s hard to find someone who fights for the people.