On the morning of his WBC lightweight title fight last Sunday, Edwin Rosario sipped homemade sopa de paloma (pigeon soup) out of a thermos cup. The real paloma, however, was his opponent, Jose Luis Ramirez of Huatabampo, Mexico.
The unanimous 12-round decision—it was scored 115-113 for Rosario on all three judges' cards—that gave Rosario the title should have come as no surprise to Ramirez' handlers. They had agreed that this mandatory fight between the WBC's top two contenders for Alexis Arguello's vacated title be staged in Rosario's backyard, in the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And Ramirez settled for only $45,000 against the $175,000 purse of Rosario, the No. 1 challenger and now the third Puerto Rican, the others having been Carlos Ortiz and Esteban DeJesus. to win the 135-pound championship.
It was the 18th victory in a row for the undefeated Rosario, and it was staged only 20 miles from Toa Baja, his hometown. And this decision had definite leanings in that direction, at least according to many ringside journalists. However, in fairness to the three judges—Lou Filippo of Downey, Calif., Spider Bynum of Dallas and Lou Tabat of Las Vegas—Arthur Mercante, the respected referee who worked the fight, agreed with them. His vote no longer counts in WBC fights, but he mentally scored it 7-5 in rounds for Rosario, in effect the same conclusion reached by the judges.
The 20-year-old Rosario, a 3-1 favorite according to local oddsmakers, fought well enough to win most fights, particularly in view of the fact that he was coming off a 10½-month layoff, the result of a bone fracture in his right wrist suffered in training. Said Ramirez, "Rosario hits much harder than Arguello and sustains more." Rosario showed deft movement beyond his years that impressed both Ramirez and his trainer-manager, Ramon Felix.
"Rosario got very tired in the fight, but he's an agile boxer and so fast," Felix said. "I believe he's a worthy champion." Rosario also displayed an uncanny ability to counter from the corners in the early rounds, which ultimately turned into a liability against the relentless Ramirez. And the young champion demonstrated a lot of guts in the later rounds after his left eye had been nearly closed by Ramirez' punches; it was the first time he'd been marked in his four-year pro career. "It was good for me to feel what my opponents have felt," Rosario said after the fight. "I have heart to do the job."
Ramirez, a 24-year-old southpaw, proved he, too, has heart. In 87 professional fights, only Ray Mancini (12th-round decision in 1981) and Ruben Olivares (second-round KO in 1978, the only time Ramirez has been on the canvas) have beaten him decisively. His other loss was a controversial split decision against Arguello in 1980 in Arguello's adopted hometown of Miami.
Given that precedent, Ramirez should have steered clear of San Juan. But the steering for this fight was done by Rosario's shrewd manager, Jimmy Jacobs, who, with partner Bill Cayton, also manages former three-time world champion Wilfred Benitez. Jacobs knows the networks, and even though Rosario's layoff made him a question mark, "We had no hesitation about him," said Bob Iger, a sports executive at ABC, which telecast the bout. "If we had any misgiving it was based on the feeling that Ramirez may not be a good enough match for him," he said before the fight. Right. And Moses Malone would not be a "good enough match" for Ralph Sampson. Unfortunately for Ramirez, Rosario had the home court.
"I felt that if it had been outside Puerto Rico it would have been a much tighter decision." Ramirez said.
Fittingly, the pigeon had trouble getting his U.S. visa to go to Puerto Rico and arrived in San Juan only five days before the fight, a week later than he'd intended. But he was in fighting shape. After the fight, he was breathing almost normally, a stark contrast to the nearly wiped-out Rosario. "That's one strong fighter," Jacobs said, looking in Ramirez' corner and shaking his head before the start of the final round.
Rosario, too, appeared in excellent condition, but his seven weeks of training had been clouded with doubts raised by his injury. At least one San Juan journalist wondered in print why Rosario had laid off so long if, as his camp said, the injury was minor. Others were confused by the nature of the injury, mistaking it for a broken hand, which can ruin a boxer's career. Trainer Manny Siaca. meanwhile, questioned the necessity of the surgery, even though the physician who operated. Dr. David T.W. Chiu of the New York University Medical Center, said it was essential. "I didn't think they had to do it," said Siaca, who spent about 20 minutes painstakingly taping Rosario's wrist before each training session.
After some concern as he resumed training—"In the back of my mind, I said, 'This is it. What am I going to do now?' "—Rosario gradually put it out of his thoughts. Indeed, in the weeks before the fight he seemed impatient with the "soft" sparring sessions that Siaca ordered to protect the wrist. But in the final days before the fight Rosario was letting loose with everything he had.
He took that aggressive attitude into the ring Sunday, accompanied by the support of the crowd shouting his nickname: "Cha-PO! Cha-PO!" In the first round, he stung Ramirez with, among other things, two rights to the temple and a left jab to the eye, and he looked confident. Strangely, Judge Filippo gave Ramirez the round, though it clearly belonged to Rosario.
In the second round, Rosario stunned Ramirez with three rights and moved in for the kill. But Ramirez struck back with a right uppercut that sent Rosario reeling backward. It was too early to say the fight was turning—Rosario was firmly in control through the fifth—but it showed Rosario that Ramirez wasn't the pigeon in the ring that he had been at the negotiating table. Ramirez, Rosario now knew, would not be as easy as was Edwin Viruet, the tough veteran Rosario stopped in the third round in May of 1982 to earn the No. 1 ranking.
By the sixth round. Ramirez was doing all the stalking. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem for Rosario, who likes to punch his way out of corners, except that now Ramirez was punishing him before Rosario could fight his way free. Siaca had already begun telling Rosario to get out of the corners more quickly, and only his extraordinary agility kept him from getting into trouble.
Rosario still had enough in him to win the ninth on all cards, though Ramirez dominated the 10th round to the extent that Jacobs, sitting at ringside, shouted to Siaca, "Manny, he's got to go forward." Siaca already knew it—long before he had been shouting to Rosario, "¬°Adelante! ¬°Adelante!"
The fight hinged on the 11th. Rosario, now boxing mostly with one hand (the left) and one strategy (don't go down), won it on all three cards, but many ringside observers disagreed with that assessment. When Ramirez took the 12th unanimously, it was too late for him—he had won only four rounds on all three cards before that.
The victory raised some questions about Rosario. How will he come back from this close call in his next bout, a mandatory defense against fourth-ranked Roberto Elizondo. who is even more of a banger than Ramirez? Already Jacobs has moved the fight from July to August to give Rosario's eye time to heal. Does Rosario have real punching power? If speed and agility are to become his main weapons, can he beat a Hector Camacho or even a Howard Davis, lightweight contenders who may be even faster and more agile? And does he have bad hands? Rosario admitted that he had hurt the knuckles on both hands in the third and fourth rounds when he was tattooing Ramirez' bony head and face. "I couldn't fight the fight I wanted," he said. "I had to resort to my boxing."
Hours after the fight, Rosario arrived at The Palace Hotel, walking slowly and wearing sunglasses because his left eye was nearly closed. He could barely speak above a whisper because he had bitten his tongue early in the fight and it was cut badly. That meant plenty of soup for the next few days. Make it vegetable. He has had enough of pigeons for a while.
During the first five rounds Rosario was in control, constantly beating Ramirez to the punches...
...but by the 12th, only Rosario's left eye was shining.