Back in 2009, I spent four months in Peru as the principal sparring partner of Jonathan Maicelo. In sum, I more or less acted as a human punching bag during my stay, and this was when he was a only marginal star in the world of boxing. Since then, he moved to the United States and built his career the hard way. On May 20, he finally made it onto HBO for an IBF title elimination bout.
His opponent was the hard-punching Ray Beltran, who himself had struggled to be where he is, both in his career and in his life. The highlighted backstory on the broadcast detailed the immense poverty that Beltran had fled from his native hometown of Los Mochis, Mexico, and had since been searching for a way to remain in the United States. According to his lawyer, lbout was an opportunity for a green card since applicants displaying exceptional skill in some area increase their chances of approval. For Beltran, that area was boxing. With three children born in the United States, the stakes of May 20’s outcome certainly rose.
Marcelo came in as the underdog, the evidence shown in how much time the announce-team spent talking about his story in comparison. But he had been in that position before. Back in 2013, Maicelo was KO’d by Rustam Nugaev on ESPN, and it was the first time he made it onto American broadcast television. Two fights later he was on the station again, this time facing Art Hovhannisyan, coming in as a 7-1 underdog. I know this because Maicelo told me about it when I went back to visit him for a piece I wrote shortly after his triumph over Hovhannisyan. We were sitting at his mother’s dinning room table when he recounted his feelings.
“They took me off the map after I lost. The fight [against Hovhannisyan] was the new beginning of my career or the end of it. If I lost, I would not be able to have another possibility to fight on ESPN or any other station that mattered,” Maicelo told me. “I was set up to lose, the ‘package’ as they call it. But that gave me more courage to win, like I kept thinking, ‘I’m not going to let this happen. He’s not going to win because I’m going to change my destiny.’”
I’m guessing this was also his mindset before entering the ring May 20, but such fortune would not shine on him twice. Beltran landed a flush left hook in the middle of the second stanza and knocked the Peruvian out cold. Maicelo was carried out on a stretcher, punching the air involuntarily. I was worried to say the least.
I didn’t know much about Beltran before the fight. I knew tidbits about his career and that he was once the main sparring partner for Manny Pacquiao. But I didn’t know how he was as a person. I’ll admit that I might have made him a villain when I saw him climbing the ropes corner to corner, beating his chest in triumph. I couldn’t tell if he being so boisterous for the fact that he won, or for the way he disposed of the opposition. His post-fight interview told me what I needed to know.
“When I fight I never really expect to hurt my opponent really bad — no harm, you know what I mean?” Beltran said softly. “That’s what we do, you know, but I really felt bad because I didn’t expect for him to go down that bad.”
HBO’s Max Kellerman tried to reassure that seldom do major complications arise from a one-punch knockout so early in the fight; usually complications occur when one side endures a beating over a longer period of time. Beltran slightly nodded to the fact, and I’d like to think it brought his conscious some comfort. Kellerman then proceeded to discuss the green card situation, saying the win may have guaranteed his ability to stay. The crowd cheered at the statement. Kellerman asks for his thoughts and it was that here Beltran got a bit more emotional.
“I’m feeling really happy and I can’t really express my emotions right now,” Beltran sputtered. He took a moment to wipe his eyes. “I hope I get my green card and my title shot.”
Kellerman asked why that’s important.
“It’s a hope for my family,” Beltran said. “A better future.”
During the telecast, broadcasters mentioned how Beltran grew up in a house made of cartons and sheet metal. When I heard that tidbit, I immediately thought of the time I visited Maicelo at his home. He grew up in Los Barrancones del Callao in Lima, Peru. It’s known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, and consists of structures that people in the area call “box-homes,” These are places made of any material that can be procured in the neighborhood – discarded wood, aluminum sheeting, leftover bricks, etc. — and they’re thrown together into rectangular living spaces. Maicelo and his single mother grew up in one of these places, and perhaps the most touching memory I have of him is that when he won the WBC Latino title, the first thing he did was build his mother a new house. Him and Beltran are basically from the same place, and in many ways, they are the same people.
The thing the general public doesn’t get about fighting is that most times the fighters aren’t actually fighting against each other; most times they’re fighting against the circumstances that they’ve been forced into. In this way, the two are actually working with one another, since the better the fight a pair can put on, the more paydays they might land in the future. It’s not an easy job to take as a career.
There are many discomforting things that happen in the sport of boxing. Seeing my friend carried out on a stretcher is one of them. But beauty can be birthed from tragedy; sacred bonds formed through battle. It proves that reconciliation can be found in our adversaries, no matter how brutal the conflict.
One day after the bout, Maicelo posted this message on his Twitter. It read:
“Congratulations my friend. You recognized my defeat before saying anything to anyone celebrating your victory. You are a great person.”
Beltran responded in kind.
“My brother it was a complicated fight. You are a great person and fighter. I admire and respect you. Come back stronger and continue giving hope to Peru.”
This is why boxing is one of greatest teachers we have.
(Pictured: The author sparring with Maicelo)