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Original Issue

Beating a triumphant retreat

The junior lightweight champ was upset by a cabbie who knew about backing up

He is a small, worried man, constantly checking his watch. He bobs out of the room for another anxious look down the empty corridor. He pops back in and points out how foolish it is to worry, then says, "I'm worried because he's so late. I told him, 'Be here at 10:30.' I don't live close to him; I live in Queens. He don't tell me if anything goes wrong. He's been doing all right, 134, 135 pounds, but the last minute, you never know. You can have a fighter two, three days ahead and he's fine. Then, on the day...well. That boy puts on weight just breathing."

This is Peter Miranda, trainer. It is already 11:30 a.m., and he is waiting for his boy, Vilomar Fernandez, at the office of the New York State Athletic Commission on lower Broadway. In the evening ahead, Fernandez, who has a 21-6-3 record, is to meet the great Alexis Arguello of Nicaragua in a 10-rounder at Madison Square Garden. Arguello is the WBC world junior lightweight champion and the former WBA world featherweight champion. In the view of most experts, this non-title bout will be merely a tune-up for Arguello on his way to a projected 1979 confrontation with Roberto Duran for the lightweight championship. This fight, they say, will be a useful yardstick against which Arguello can measure himself. Fernandez fought Duran in January 1977, and despite the fact that he was knocked out, he lasted 12 rounds. Arguello is now looking to dispose of Fernandez much more quickly than that.

Smooth, self-contained and neatly mustached, Arguello had been right on time for the morning's weigh-in, in keeping with the disciplined way he seems to handle his life. This added to Miranda's unease. "Always, I worry," he said, watching enviously as Arguello pulled up his jeans after weighing in at 135¼ pounds. "I worry about my kids, about their weight. I spend a lot of my own money. Most of my boys are poor; they need this, they need that. I wasn't always in this racket. For 20 years I worked for the sanitation department."

By 11:35 a.m., just when Miranda is clearly regretting having left the sanitation department, Fernandez arrives. He weighs in half a pound lighter than Arguello, and Miranda sighs with relief. "Where you been?" he says.

Fernandez is all innocence. "I lost my way," he says.

Fernandez was born in the Dominican Republic, but he has lived in the Bronx for 12 years, which is half his life. He is a New York City cab driver, a calling that ought to make it more difficult for him than for most folks to lose 270 Broadway. And while Miranda's immediate crisis is over, he still frets. "He made the weight," he says, "but I hope he's in good shape."

Earlier in the week there had been no such downbeat musings in the Arguello camp. If a building could develop psoriasis, Bobby Gleason's gym on West 30th Street would be getting sunlamp treatment now, but even the peeling, sweaty walls, with a portrait of President Eisenhower looking down disapprovingly, couldn't dampen the confidence of Al Silvani, Arguello's trainer, as his fighter worked in the wicked humidity.

"In the present state of life in this world," said Silvani, who has a weakness for the baroque in his statements, "I would say that pound for pound, Arguello is the best fighter in the world. He has the necessary jab and the necessary right cross; he's got the left hook to the body, to the head. He's got the right uppercut. He weaves. He has a lot of foot movement. He has the hardest punch in the division. You can't call for more than that. He will take Duran in the early part of next year." Silvani might have added that Arguello, the first Central American boxer to have won two world titles, also has an intimidating record in both divisions: 59 fights, 49 KOs and three losses. "In five or six months he'll be there," Silvani said. "He's fighting Fernandez to see how he stands up to a full 135-pounder like Duran."

Silvani was born in Greenwich Village; he won't say when, except that he says he was first involved in a pro fight in 1926. Now he lives in Burbank, Calif. "Just finished teaching street-fighting techniques to Clint Eastwood," he said. "And did you see me in Rocky? I was the cut man in the movie Rocky." He came back to the present. "Now, this Fernandez is short and thickset. My fighter is going to have to throw uppercuts, hooks to the body."

Arguello agreed. "I make this fight, then I make two more defenses—maybe four or five bouts—before Duran. Duran say he going to kill me, but I will speak to him in the ring about that. I saw Fernandez against Duran, and I say Fernandez is a good fighter, with a good movement. He wanna beat me. He wanna opportunity for world title." But these, one feels, are stock responses. What Arguello really wants to talk about is the souvenir of New York he will bring home: a pair of Dobermans. "I have monkey. My mother have two monkey. I have parrot. I love all animals." An odd, genuine passion. But this time he left his 18-year-old wife at home in Managua and uncompromisingly says why. "She make too much trouble. She like to go to plays. She buy too much. I come to New York for work."

And he found it when he and Fernandez got into the ring last Wednesday night. The opening rounds went as expected. Arguello, with a longer reach, set the pace against the stockier Fernandez, popping out lefts as Fernandez retreated. Yet even in retreat, Fernandez showed footwork that was faster and more sophisticated than Arguello had been led to expect. In the second round, Arguello caught his man with a couple of right hooks, but Fernandez countered sharply and danced away again. And by the third round, the Garden crowd began to appreciate that while Fernandez was fighting defensively, his was a planned and controlled retreat. What's more, he was scoring with his right hand, even though the punches weren't hurting Arguello.

By the fourth round, Arguello was looking a bit puzzled as he attempted to herd Fernandez into place, like a cop on crowd duty. Fernandez retreated, scoring more points. Not until the fifth round was there a serious exchange, and that was when Arguello lost his impassive look. The cop was getting irritated now. He started to catch Fernandez with combinations. In the sixth, he stepped up the pace even more and it looked as if Fernandez, in spite of his careful plan, was going to be overrun. For 10 seconds at the end of the round, Arguello was scoring at will with head and body shots and, most damaging of all, with an overhead right. It looked like the kill. Boring in, Arguello had Fernandez on the ropes, his dancing feet stilled. And then came the bell.

No way Fernandez could survive, it seemed. But surprisingly, Arguello made no attempt to finish Fernandez off in the seventh. And Fernandez just as surprisingly demonstrated that the battering had not affected his footwork: clear-headed again, he was retreating even faster than he had in the early rounds. And he was still capable of hitting back and scoring points. He unloaded three lefts that puzzled Arguello, and he ended the round with a flurry of body blows. Not only was Fernandez still in contention, but almost certainly he was ahead on points.

In the eighth, desperate and frustrated, Arguello stood in the center of the ring, pleading with Fernandez to mix it. Fernandez did not. Arguello came on again. Fernandez retreated and scored. The ninth was a repeat performance. It was clear that Arguello was not only being outboxed but, uncharacteristically, was also lacking in aggression. Only an aggressive breakthrough in the last round could save the fight for him.

He came very near it. He managed to close with Fernandez and for 25 seconds battered him with furious rights and left hooks to the body. As in the sixth, it seemed to be the finish. But then Fernandez was dancing away from the ropes again, and he was still dancing at the bell. Peter Miranda ran to him, hugged him, then swung him high in delight. Fernandez won on a majority decision. Two officials scored it 6-4, 5-4-1 Fernandez, the other had it 5-5.

In his dressing room, Arguello sat unmarked. He could even smile urbanely. Answer urbanely too. "He knows his work," he said of Fernandez. Did the decision upset him? "I respect the boxing commission," he said. But some things he had to say. "He didn't fight with me. I wanted 10 more rounds. He just wanted to stay alive for 10 rounds. But I was discouraged how he took my punches."

Silvani insisted that the loss didn't matter. "Here's a guy going from side to side, going back. He's not just a bicycle, he's a motorbike." He smoothed the wrinkles in his Hollywood Executives Health Club T shirt. "This fight will not affect the Duran plans. At least Duran will fight my boy. At least he will trade punches."

No doubt about that. If there is one thing that Duran is not, it is a cyclist. And if Arguello does, indeed, get the 1979 match he seeks, he will have to show to greater advantage to have a chance against the hard-hitting Duran.

Fernandez, meanwhile, was holding court. Yes, he had planned this fight strategy; Arguello's mistake was in being too wild. "He just tried to knock me out," Fernandez said. "And he couldn't."

Clearly, Fernandez is a better boxer than was expected. But for the moment, the worried look leaving his face at last, Peter Miranda stood and grinned. "I've just been born!" he told anybody who would listen.


Hitting occasionally, running a lot, Fernandez (right) made it a frustrating night for Arguello.