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Rubies for a great big mouse

Raul Rojas, a tough, slugging featherweight, survived a ballooning right eye to lay claim to a flashy belt and a WBA-type world title

Mickey Davies, the matchmaker, was sitting at his desk in the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles last week. It was the day before Raul Rojas was to meet Enrique Higgins of Colombia for the WBA's version of the featherweight title. Davies was asked if he wanted Rojas' name engraved on the silver plate on the front of the championship belt.

"Yeah, put Rojas' name on the plate," he said. "If he blows it we'll change it. And while you're at it, get some rubies or something and fasten them around the plate. Put some flash in it."

The next night, pounded and stung, Rojas rescued a 15-round decision from Higgins. Rojas is little more than jockey-sized—featherweights cannot weigh more than 126 pounds—and he staged the kind of exciting fight that is typical of boxing's little men, who brawl all the time in California, Mexico and the Far East but rarely in Madison Square Garden. "I can't understand it," said Davies. "They provide more action than the big men."

One reason for the Garden reluctance is that it can be a full-time job just keeping the little fellows categorized and memorized. For example, Argentina's Horacio Accavallo, 33, is the current WBA flyweight (112 pound) champion. In 12 years he has lost only two of 84 fights, but the WBA isn't the only boxing commission around, and Britain, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand recognize Chartchai Chionoi of Thailand as their flyweight king.

Lionel Rose of Australia, a mere 20, is the bantamweight (up to 118 pounds) champion. Rose won the title five weeks ago in Japan from Fighting Harada, and within 48 hours he was cheered by a crowd of more than 100,000 that lined Melbourne's streets. Ironically, Rose got the match only after Jesus Pimentel of Los Angeles—who may be the best fighter in any division—backed off when refused a larger share of the purse.

Los Angeles' Raul Rojas, no doubt injudiciously, never backed off from a fight in his life. Born 26 years ago, he grew up in places like Watts and East Los Angeles and was in and out of reform school more times than he can remember. There were 12 in the family, he thinks, but he cannot be sure. It was not a good family. Two brothers, in fact, have served sentences in San Quentin. Rojas was known as "Little Roy," and led a gang named, appropriately enough, "Little Roy's Gang." They carried guns and knives. During one eventful afternoon when the gang was hanging around a street corner a shot rang out and the boy next to Rojas toppled over, dead, a bullet between his eyes. There was a chase, a fight and more shooting, and Rojas wound up with the California Youth Authority once more. When he was released in 1962, the warden told him that if he got into similar trouble again it would probably mean the gas chamber for him at San Quentin.

So Rojas turned to boxing. "All I ever was was tough," he said. "I thought I'd put it to work." In the first round of his first pro fight Rojas marched to the center of the ring and clobbered his opponent in the mouth. "I'd always worked with heavy gloves before," Rojas said. "It felt as though there was nothing on my hands. I nailed him good, and he didn't get up."

During the next five years Rojas lost only once—to Featherweight Champion Vicente Saldivar in 1965. Last October, Saldivar retired unexpectedly, and the WBA, ignoring World Boxing Council ratings that put Howard Winstone of Wales first and Japan's Mitsunori Seki second, organized a championship elimination tournament. Rojas, No. 1, signed to meet Higgins, No. 2, with the winner agreeing to fight Frankie Crawford, No. 3, within 90 days.

Nobody in Rojas' camp knew much about Higgins, except that his record was 30-2 with 23 KOs and that he had never been off his feet. He was supposed to be a slugger who never took a backward step, and he did nothing to allay this impression when he announced through an interpreter: "I'm going to start swinging from the opening bell and will not stop until Rojas is at my feet."

Rojas was not impressed. He scorned Higgins' 2½-inch advantage in height and 4½-inch edge in reach. "I like guys taller than me," he said. "My overhand right goes straight down their barrel."

Last Thursday night more than 10,000 smoking, drinking, whistling fight fans squeezed into the 43-year-old Olympic. Rojas, entering the ring first, raised his arms to the cheers of "Andale, Raul, àndale!" and "Viva, Rojas!" When Higgins, lean, wiry and curly-haired and a 3½-to-1 underdog, raised his arms he drew only scattered, sympathetic applause. Then the bell clanged and the crowd was treated to surprise No. 1: Higgins was not a slugger; he was a counterpuncher, nimble and very smart. Through the first five rounds he ran, and he was behind on points.

By the sixth round, Rojas had grown disdainful of Higgins' ability to hit. Shaking off the light blows, he plodded ahead in his wide, flat-footed style that affords the leverage for some very heavy punching. It was here that he got surprise No. 2: Higgins won the sixth. Big.

The Colombian's left jab suddenly became stiff and penetrating, and his right hand shook up Rojas twice. Higgins gained momentum in the seventh round, and in the eighth Rojas walked into a straight right hand that left him stunned. In the ninth Higgins opened a cut over Rojas' left eye; in the 10th he blasted the tape off of that cut and by the end of the 11th was leading on two cards and was even on the third. Angry and frustrated, Rojas was losing his poise.

Then, with 30 seconds gone in the 12th round, Higgins caught Rojas with a solid right to the cheek. Rojas, flurrying instinctively, struck back, and this time Higgins failed to get out of the way. A hard right followed by a left hook left Higgins teetering near the ropes. Then Rojas launched a long, sweeping right. His forearm cuffed Higgins along the left side of the head. The force and weight behind the blow sent Higgins sprawling through the ropes.

That was the fight. Higgins, aware that he was suddenly far behind, tried to slug it out the rest of the way. But, as he had proven so admirably, he is not a slugger. The decision was unanimous.

Afterward, strangely, Higgins hardly looked like the loser. He was unmarked, except for a small welt on his forehead, while Rojas' right eye was purple and closing fast and the left one not far behind. "It was a beautiful fight," Higgins said. "I congratulate Rojas. But I could beat him easily next time."

If Rojas is wise, there will be no next time. Supine on a bench in his dressing room, he wore the black championship belt—with rubies—around his waist and an ice pack over his right eye. "That was the hardest jab I've ever run into," he said. "And I was running into it all night."