THE BEAT-UP Plymouth Voyager putters and sputters down La Brea Avenue, as unassuming a ride as any in car-mad Los Angeles. Pulling into the parking lot outside the Pound-4-Pound gym, the blue minivan grinds to a halt as empty water bottles, candy wrappers and a variety of children's toys roll around the faded interior. And then, from out of this Pimp My Ride reject steps the welterweight champion of the world.
For Carlos Baldomir the car—along with too many meager pay-days and the disrespect that has dogged him all the way up to his fight this Saturday night with Floyd Mayweather—is a daily reminder of a life he has worked so long and hard to leave behind. At 35, he is boxing's modern Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock to Mayweather's Max Baer, a quiet fighter with a granite chin who prefers the comfort of family to the seclusion of training. He blends into a crowd as easily as Mayweather stands out, a T-shirt guy in a velvet-tux world. "Carlos Baldomir," says veteran trainer Teddy Atlas, "is proof that what doesn't glitter can still be gold."
Baldomir, who stands 5'7", fights as a welterweight (147 pounds), trains as a middleweight (160) and occasionally vacations as a cruiserweight (180). His recall of a career that includes 58 professional fights in 13 years borders on encyclopedic (Quick, Carlos, who did you fight in October of 1998? Dingaan Thobela!) while his recollection of other topics can be a little fuzzy (Quick, Carlos, what year did you get married? Ah...).
The son of a salesman, Juan, and a stay-at-home mom, Marion, Baldomir was raised with his older sister, Beatrice, in Santa Fe, Argentina. He first put on gloves at 13 because he admired Argentina's world middleweight champ Carlos Monzón. He would show up almost daily to train at a dusty old gym that offered the dozens of fighters in attendance one ring, two punching bags and enough gloves for about half of them. He went pro in 1993.
Though Baldomir was training regularly, he wasn't really getting any better. Married when he was 18 and a father at 22, Baldomir had to follow in his father's footsteps—rising at dawn to sell feather dusters door-to-door. ("That was my cardio," he says.) Afternoons were spent fishing ("Sometimes if I didn't catch anything, we didn't eat"), and at night he would go to the gym, the spirit willing, the body weak and the results, predictably, abysmal. By 1998 he was a mediocre 24-8-3 and thinking about quitting.
But that September, Baldomir got a call from a promoter offering him $4,000 (about $3,000 more than his biggest purse) to fight in South Africa against Thobela. "I couldn't believe it," says Baldomir. "I couldn't figure out why they wanted me." Sensing an opportunity, though, he trained hard and in October fought his way to a draw.
Over the next six years he had 18 consecutive fights without a loss and finally, in 2005, earned a shot at Miguel Rodriguez in a WBC eliminator. Baldomir scored a unanimous decision, setting up a title fight with Zab Judah in New York City last January. Baldomir stunned Judah—and most boxing pundits—to become the WBC champion, and in July he stopped Arturo Gatti with a ninth round TKO, which set up his match with the undefeated Mayweather, now widely considered the best fighter in the world, pound-for-pound.
Financially secure for the first time in his life (he earned $1 million against Gatti and will more than double that against Mayweather), Baldomir built a five-bedroom home in Santa Fe this summer. Still, he knows when to pinch his pennies. Following a recent press conference in New York City, Baldomir and Mayweather found themselves boarding the same flight for L.A. Mayweather took his seat in first class; Baldomir, family in tow, settled into coach.
"As long as Floyd's not flying the plane," said Baldomir, "I don't care where he sits."
The welterweight division is the most competitive in boxing; these formidable fighters loom as challengers to the winner of the Mayweather-Baldomir bout.
Antonio Margarito—The WBO champ is arguably the most feared fighter in the division; the 28-year-old native of Mexico has won his last six fights by knockout.
Zab Judah—Back-to-back losses to Baldomir and Mayweather cost him credibility; losing his cool cost him his license. The Nevada boxing commission suspended Judah, 29, for a year for his role in a melee during his Mayweather bout last April.
Kermit Cintron—The newly crowned IBF champ has bounced back from a brutal 2005 loss to Margarito. One of the most physical fighters in all of boxing, Cintron, 27, has KO'd opponents in 25 of his 27 wins.
Paul Williams—The rangy (6'1") Williams, 25, is the No. 1 challenger for the WBO title; the Punisher has won 23 of his 31 fights by KO.
BUSY BEE Baldomir hopes to swarm Mayweather (inset, left), just as he did Judah.
[See caption above]