Kid Pambelé, the boxer whom the gods loved

15.06.07 -By Jaime Castro-Núñez: After a whole morning trying to resell the contraband cigarettes he had bought at dawn, boyish Antonio Cervantes stopped on top of the Cartagena Walls, sat next to the now-rusted cannons that the Spanish Empire had placed to defend the city against piracy in the Sixteenth Century, put the cigarettes next to the artillery, and contemplated the Caribbean Sea. He heard the tolling of the bells...taan, taan. He did not need to hear them to understand that it was twelve o’clock. He was hungry enough to hear the cats fighting in his empty stomach. He took a second breath, decided to visit boxing manager Nelson Arrieta, and resumed work, voicing with a renovated energy: “Cigarettes, cigarettes.”

Antonio talked to Arrieta the following day. He introduced himself as Antonio Cervantes Reyes, the son of Manuel Cervantes and Ceferina Reyes, born on December 23, 1945, in San Basilio de Palenque, the first independent, walled community established in Latin America in the Seventeenth Century by escaped slaves. “I want to box,” he said. Arrieta took Antonio to the boxing gym, placed him in front of a punching bag, and ordered: “hit it.” Confident, Antonio started to move around the bag, releasing both hands, looking at the sac as if it was the incarnation of poverty, hammering it without compassion.

To Nelson Arrieta, a name like Antonio Cervantes Reyes seemed quite inoffensive, so he nicknamed his new protégée “The Black Threat.” But soon The Black Threat disenchanted him. In his first bout, the Black Threat looked more like a pink joke. As the opponent schooled Cervantes, Arrieta’s enthusiasm depleted. Arrieta was losing interest and using Cervantes as a fifth-class pugil, one night introducing him as “The Black Spider,” and the next as “The Killing Panther.” Eventually, Antonio adopted the moniker that the boxing gods had for him since the foundation of the world: Kid Pambelé. If at the beginning, Arrieta was impressed by Cervantes’ movements, after the first bouts he was convinced that Pambelé was nothing but a “paquete,” the pejorative adjective used in Colombia to describe sloppy boxers. In 1967, and after three years of fighting pro, the gods used a clever trick in order to put him on the right path.

Two days before facing Jesús González, Pambelé received a tempting offer. Two guys offered extra pesos if Pambelé let González knock him out in the fourth. The fight started and, in the third round, down went Jesús. Totally disconcerted, Antonio waited for González to stand up, but he seemed hurt, as the referee kept counting. Not wanting those extra pesos to go, Pambelé screamed: “Stand up, mother fucker. I did not even hit you. You son of a bitch, stand up and fight as a man.” Eight, nine, ten. Pambelé was so sloppy that he had been set up for fun. That year, the Colombian Boxing Federation suspended both fighters. Since he was unable to fight in Colombia, the gods sent him to Venezuela, where the rough, tarnished diamond was transformed into the finest piece of boxing jewelry ever, thanks to promoter Ramiro Machado, and to boxing trainer Melquíades “Tabaquito” Sáenz.

Up in the Olympus, the gods made sure that Machado and “Tabaquito” had the patience to mold the loved one. In 1968, when they met, Pambelé was a clumsy, 23-year-old boxer whose hopes relied on his punching power. But “Tabaquito” taught him how to box in a professional, artful manner. From 1968 to 1971, when he challenged champion Nicolino Locche for the World Boxing Association Light Welterweight Title, “Tabaquito” polished the diamond so much that it would shine in the division for the rest of the decade.

Pambelé fought Locche in 1971 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at Estadio Luna Park, eventually losing by UD. The following year, Locche lost the title to Panamanian Alfonso “Peppermint” Frazer, who defended the belt three times before meeting the loved one, on October 28, 1972, in Panama City at Gimnasio Nuevo Panamá. In an inspired night, Pambelé knocked the champ out in round ten, thus initiating a god-led boxing empire that would sparkle until 1980. Pambelé’s life had changed forever! During the first epoch as a champion, Tabaquito’s pupil successfully defended the crown 15 times, wrecking Locche, Frazer, Kadota, Furuyama, and many more. In 1976, he lost the belt to Wilfredo Benítez, just to recapture it the following year.

During his first epoch as a champion, Pambelé made so much money, that he went from traveling on the back of a donkey to first-class airplane seats. Although he used to eat plain rice, now he could pay for caviar, sirloin, and wine. From living in the poorest areas, he moved to Boca Grande, a Malibu-like neighborhood in Cartagena. Owner of all sorts of gems, cars, condos, farms, and motorcycles, fame and wealth conspired against the gods to betray the champ. It seemed that the more money Pambelé spent, the bulkier his pockets got. Accepted into Colombia’s white, wealthy circle, he thought money would last for ever. On top of the glory, he went from cigarettes to crack –and everything in between. In the meantime, Machado, Sáenz, his family, the gods, the boxing world, and the whole nation, paid tribute to the greatest, the biggest, the richest, the champion, Kid Pambelé.

In 1977, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, the once “Black Threat” faced Carlos María Giménez for the Vacant WBA Light Welterweight Title. Six rounds were enough for Pambelé to destroy Giménez. In his second epoch, Pambelé defended the crown seven more times, until losing it to Aaron Pryor in Cincinnati, OH, in 1980. After eight years reining, an old rooster faced young Pryor, who knocked the loved one out in round four. Pambelé retired three years later, doing everything he could to waste his 1.5 million-dollar fortune. His final record was 91-12-3, with 44 KO´s. Antonio Cervantes Reyes, better known as Kid Pambelé, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2000, the Colombian Boxing Federation honored him as Colombia's Fighter of the Century.

Colombian journalist Juan Gossain defined Pambelé as “The Colossus who decided to put dynamite to his own statue.” Twenty-four years after his retirement, we boxing fans look at the ruins of the bombarded monument just to see the breathing pieces of his wealthy, splendorous past. And while we contemplate the ruins, Pambelé returns to the Cartagena Walls to sit next to the rusted cannons, where he used to spend his time wishing for a better future. The cathedral’s bells start to toll announcing the time, but Pambelé only needs to hear the cat fighting in his empty stomach to realize that it is twelve o’clock. Contemplating the Caribbean Sea, Pambe gives the impression that he is looking for some sort of protection against the piracy of daily life.

Article posted on 16.06.2007

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