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Big Fish In A Big Pond

Even in the deep pool of lightweight talent, 20-year-old Edwin Rosario may be the toughest boxer to catch

Edwin Rosario should not be going near the water. He's fighting off la monga—the logy feeling that precedes a cold—and he has decided not to work out this afternoon, his first break after five weeks of intense training. Someone jokes that Rosario's trainer, Manny Siaca, is spying nearby, and Rosario laughs nervously; Siaca would not want him here on the shore of the Punta Lastra lagoon in Toa Raja, a city about 20 miles west of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Rosario lives a few miles away in the small village of Campanulas, but the lagoon is as close to his real home as anything. He has been swimming in it since he was three years old. The blue-green Atlantic, in which Rosario often goes spearfishing, is a few hundred yards away, separated from the lagoon by Route 167, or la carretera de la muerte, the highway of death, so named because of the local legend that murderers dump bodies off the road here.

Rosario sheds his yellow tennis shorts, tucks them between the headlight and fender of his 1977 Buick Landau, dons his mask and snorkel and slides into the lagoon in his underwear. "Ah, a millionaire couldn't live any better than this," Rosario says. He disappears under the water to espy the sawfish, barracuda, whitefish and occasional sea bass that drift in from the ocean, and in an in-your-face challenge to la monga, he won't return to the beach for an hour.

At 20, Rosario isn't yet a millionaire. But he will be—and soon. He's the brightest star in a lightweight division that, even with the abdication of Alexis Arguello as WBC champion, boasts a galaxy of young notables. But unlike Boom Boom Mancini, the current WBA champion, Howard Davis, the 1976 Olympic 132-pound champion, and the brash Hector (Macho) Camacho, Rosario is virtually unknown.

On Sunday, Rosario and Jose Luis Ramirez, the WBC's No. 1 and 2 contenders, respectively, will meet at Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan for the right to succeed Arguello. The biggest-money fight in the 135-pound division, it's generally considered, would be Rosario vs. Camacho, a pairing of precocious 20-year-olds who are polar opposites in style and temperament.

"Camacho, Camacho, Camacho," Rosario says. "He's too young yet. He has speed but he doesn't have this [Rosario points to his temple with his right index finger]. No combinations, just speed. He's just a boy who likes to talk too much."

Cus D'Amato, who trained champions like Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, is a Rosario fan. "In a match between Rosario and Camacho, I would lean toward Rosario. They are equally fast, but Rosario has a better sense of anticipation."

Partly because Rosario doesn't talk too much—and speaks only Spanish when he does—and also because of his lack of exposure—ABC's broadcast of Sunday's fight will be only his third network appearance—he remains mainly a local hero. Around Toa Baja, pop musicians dedicate songs to him, and some of the young fans wear T shirts bearing his likeness and the caption ROSARIO, NUESTRO FUTURO.

If Rosario is indeed "our future," however, he will not ride into the limelight on the same wave of showmanship that brought national acclaim to fellow Puerto Ricans Wilfredo Gomez, the WBC super bantamweight champion, and Wilfred Benitez, a three-time champion. Though Rosario and Benitez are both managed by Jimmy Jacobs, they are hardly amigos. A few months ago, in fact, they honeymooned simultaneously at the same hotel in Dorado Beach, but only nodded at each other once or twice in the dining room. "They're just not my type," Rosario says of Gomez and Benitez. Too stylish in the ring, too talkative out of it for his taste.

However, Rosario's lack of flash could work against him. "He's a mechanical fighter, a stoneface," says Mort Sharnik, a boxing consultant for CBS. "He doesn't fight with any great flair. He doesn't move to any mambo beat.

"When I saw Camacho the first time I knew he had incredible talent and presence. Sure, Rosario could change, he's young. But I have the feeling it's like the leopard with his spots."

Jacobs, who purchased Rosario's contract from Siaca three years ago for $80,000, likes his spots. "I think he'll turn out to be a better investment than Benitez," says Jacobs, who, along with a partner, bought Benitez' contract for $75,000 in 1978. Benitez, the former junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight champion, has made about $6.5 million in purses since then.

Till now, the undefeated Rosario has been primarily a puncher with a cannon in either hand. Only one of his 17 pro fights has gone the distance, and in that, a decision over James Martinez on the Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns undercard in Las Vegas on Sept. 16, 1981, he won all 10 rounds according to two ring officials and nine according to the third. A sampling of what he has done:

He knocked out Refugio Rojas on June 25, 1981 with a right to the chin, followed by a left cross. A smashing left to the nose took out Roberto Garcia five months later. In his next fight he flattened Ernesto Herrera with one punch to the body. He unleashed a barrage of rights and lefts to chop down the latter-day Ezzard Charles in the third round of his next fight. Impressive, yes, but hardly a championship strain of opponents.

Most observers thought Edwin Viruet, a tough, experienced pro who had gone 25 rounds in two losses to Roberto Duran (one of them a split decision) and 15 rounds in another loss to Esteban DeJesus, Rosario's personal hero, would be a tough match for Rosario when they met in Las Vegas in May of 1982. But Rosario stunned Viruet with a straight right in the second round and nearly finished him off. In the third, Rosario was against the ropes when Viruet hit him with a left to the head. Rosario quickly spun off and threw a bomb of a right to the head that knocked Viruet out.

Rosario may appear to be less skilled as a boxer than he is because the style taught him by Siaca calls for him to stay close to his opponent. He slips punches primarily by bobbing and weaving, rarely by stepping back or ducking his head, and he does very little dancing. Though he's not a Joe Frazier type—take three punches to give one good one—he's usually in a position to strike. The big test for him, then, will come when a heavy hitter like Camacho stuns him and forces him to alter his close-range attack. It hasn't happened yet. In 30 amateur bouts—Rosario lost only two—and 17 as a pro, he has never been in real trouble.

Certainly, Rosario would like to score a knockout Sunday, in his first bout before the home folks in more than three years. But he may have to rely on his boxing skills more than his punching power because last June he broke the scaphoid bone in his right wrist on the head of sparring partner Blaine Dixon. Only time, and Ramirez, will tell if the injury has affected his punching power.

The boxing genes in the Rosario family were passed down from Pastor Rosario, Edwin's paternal grandfather. Pastor was a handsome man with smooth mocha, or trigueño, coloring like Edwin's, but he was tough and he liked to fight in the streets. "He would fight anywhere, anytime," says Antonio Rosario, Pastor's son and Edwin's father. "He hit someone and they could not get up."

Pastor and his wife, Juanita Montes, had 19 children, of whom Antonio is the oldest. All except one of the children were born in Puerto Rico, but Antonio's parents spent much of their life in Allentown, Pa. Antonio liked it better in his native land and stayed in Santurce, a suburb of San Juan. At age 19 he took a civil service job and later married Elizabeth Rivera. Shortly after the last of their five children was born, the Rosarios bought a lot in Ingenio, a suburb of Toa Baja, where they live today in a small house.

When Luis, Edwin's 29-year-old brother, was a teen-ager, a neighbor brought him to Siaca's gym in Levittown, about 10 miles from Ingenio. One of Luis' nicknames was "Chapotin," after the dolphin Flipper. Luis was an excellent boxer, and almost anyone who saw both brothers in action says Luis was better than Edwin. "He was as good a boxer and puncher as you'll see," Siaca says. "He would've been a champion, I'm sure of it. I saw him put Wilfredo Gomez down in the gym. He had a straight right hand like nobody's you ever saw."

Luis had 18 victories in 19 professional fights—the only loss was a disputed 10-round decision to former bantamweight champion Alfonso Zamora in Madison Square Garden on Jan. 18, 1979—an excellent record considering that he'd been using heroin for several years. Mostly at the urging of Edwin, Luis checked into Promesa, a drug rehabilitation center in the Bronx last November. Edwin visited him when he came to New York for treatment on his wrist. Luis is improving, but it's doubtful that he'll ever box again.

"They say each mind is a different world," says Elizabeth, the boys' mother. And she's glad of that. "Edwin has observed what his brother has gone through. He has taken the right road."

That road began, as it did for Luis, at Siaca's gym when Edwin was eight years old. The place is well-equipped, well-attended and well-managed by Siaca. It's situated in a room built by Siaca in a corner of La Pista de Levittown, a dilapidated public stadium now used primarily as a jogging area. Siaca doesn't suffer interlopers lightly: There's a guard at the door, which is kept locked during workouts, and Siaca has installed a barbed wire "net" to greet those who would gain entry through a crawl space between the ceiling and the side wall.

Siaca has a number of assistants, including Antonio, who has been helping out—holding Vaseline jars, lacing up gloves, etc.—since Luis started boxing. Antonio is now cornerman for Edwin and dominoes partner when they travel. Antonio always wears a cap, and Edwin chuckles at the sight of his father, who's only about 5'2" compared to his 5'6", peering through the ropes when he fights. "All you can see of him is his face and that hat," Edwin says.

Siaca requires that each of his boxers shakes hands with everyone else in the gym, friend or stranger, upon entry and departure. "I think you have to show respect to everyone," says Siaca, who with his short hair, goatee and roundish body resembles a Beat Generation jazz musician.

Edwin didn't command respect when he was a skinny youngster. "It was kind of a joke when Edwin started boxing," Siaca says. As a pre-teen Edwin was a better shortstop and second baseman than a boxer—"I was a champ on the double play," he says—and even when he started boxing as an amateur at age 13, "he used to tell me, 'I'd rather play baseball,' " Antonio says. But once he gained confidence, helped by sparring sessions with Luis and other pros around the gym, he became unstoppable.

He also has no lack of confidence with women, as 36-year-old Rafael Torres, a fisherman who shared Rosario's house before Rosario's marriage three months ago to 18-year-old Alma Linda Melecio Rodriguez, can attest.

Rosario's sense of humor runs from the subtle to the bizarre. When Siaca says he doesn't care for Rosario's fishing expeditions, Rosario says, "No, he only likes to eat the fish." Then there was the time that Rosario hired five locas (homosexuals) to pounce on Torres when he awakened from a nap. He seems to be the quintessential quiet boy who instigates from the back of the classroom without getting caught. He admits that while he stays relatively tranquilo, he likes his friends to be the opposite. That probably explains the success of his relationship with the hyperactive Siaca.

Though Alma says Edwin doesn't like to be told he's wrong, he has to this point avoided the excessively macho displays of many Latino boxers. A short while ago the newlyweds learned that Alma is pregnant. "He's infatuated with the idea, very proud, much more than me," Alma says. Edwin is also serious about the conga drums on which he practices regularly in his home, and a local trio, Los Faraones, is considering recording a song he wrote several years ago entitled Llevame Contigo (Take Me With You). The first two lines: "Take me with you wherever you go/I wait for you crying, crying for your love."

Rosario admires the old fishermen around Toa Baja more than he does any boxer except, perhaps, DeJesus, who's now serving a life sentence in a Puerto Rican prison for murder. Out of the ring, Edwin walks the road of the pescadores, and it has kept him away from the temptations that brought down others around him.

Rosario has been fishing since he was a boy. A few months ago he and Torres snagged a 700-pound hammerhead shark with a net and sold the meat. He fishes from a boat or underwater with a speargun, or he spends his time setting lobster traps. "Everything but sitting on the shore with a pole," Edwin says. "That's for old men."

His love of the sea goes beyond fishing. He likes to row or take walks on the beach with Alma, or he'll just swim alone, staying in the water for four hours at a time. Naturally, he does his five-mile morning run on the Punta Salinas road along the ocean. He seems to most enjoy playing tour guide for visitors as he hops barefoot along the needle-sharp coral rocks at the ocean's edge: "Look here, look here. This is where we caught the shark. This is where we go for shrimp. That point over there is good for catfish." Asked whether he prefers boxing or fishing more, he replies, "Fishing."

"Sometimes I can't believe it's the same guy in the ring that I know," Torres says. Rosario doesn't train with any ferocity. Siaca sets his regimen; Rosario just follows. "He's gotten a lot more serious lately," says one of Siaca's gym rats, 17-year-old Edwin Rodriguez. "He used to fool around and make jokes, but not anymore."

For Rosario, boxing is a means to an end. "All I want someday is to have a house by the beach, to be near the water, do my fishing," he says. And while he goes after that goal, it's going to be no day at the beach for his opponents.



Rosario is a boxer who fights to fish, whether he's trapping lobster, netting sharks or spearing bass in the Atlantic off Toa Baja.



Siaca (right), Rosario's trainer since he was eight, keeps the mood in the gym serious.



In his most recent fight, last May, Rosario crumbled Viruet, a tough cookie, in three.



Rosario has treated all opponents as if they were drums.