The forthcoming book “Brute” follows two Sacramento boxers: Mike Simms, a cruiserweight who trained with the Olympic team in 2000, who when I found him had lost five successive fights; and Stan Martyniouk, a young, Estonian-born featherweight, who when I found him had just fought and won his professional debut by decision, despite breaking his right hand in the first round.
Over the next few months I look forward to sharing the stories of these two fighters with the readers of the Sweet Science, and I look forward to hearing from any and all of you. –KS
The afternoon of the Mike Simms fight was the warmest of the year. It was Thursday, the 15th of May, and I had spent the preceding six days south of Los Angeles in Seal Beach on assignment for another magazine, where, although it had been windy, it had been cool. But stepping off the plane in Sacramento I felt as if I were suddenly tending a brush fire. I was in a foul mood, also, because the day before I'd been forced to purchase a ticket to the fight that evening. The week previous, Nasser Niavaroni, who manages Mike Simms and who was promoting the fight at the Red Lion, told me two things that required follow-up calls. Firstly, the fight might be cancelled because of Simms' truant blood-test results. Secondly, if the card weren't discarded, he would be sure to get me a ticket, since the management at the hotel had declined my request for press credentials on the grounds that I wrote for an internet publication. So, I'd called Niavaroni on his cell-phone the Monday before the fight. He did not answer. Undaunted, I called the gym. Eric Regan answered.
"This is Kaelan Smith from the Boxing Herald," I said.
"Hey, Kevin," he said.
When I asked to speak with Niavaroni, he told me to "hang on a minute, Kevin," and ineffectively holding his hand over the receiver, explained to Niavaroni that it was "the guy who was hanging out in the gym last week." I heard Niavaroni say, "Tell him I'll call him back."
"He's not in right now," said Regan, "but I can have him call you when he gets in this afternoon."
"Is the fight still on?" I asked.
"It's still on," said Regan.
Suffice it to say, Niavaroni never called. But having made a foolish emotional investment in the greatly devalued Mike Simms Corporation, I was not about to miss the fight. By the time I got around to purchasing a ticket online, though, the $50 seats were sold out. I got one for $75, but with the service charges, it was $86. When I completed the transaction I sat in front of my computer, knowing I wouldn't get reimbursed, and feeling like the gambler at the blackjack table who puts his last chips on the felt and then gets dealt a seven and a five.
The fight was scheduled to commence at seven in the evening. I arrived at six in order to get my ticket from will-call and talk with whomever might be milling around the lobby. I parked and walked through the lot to the entrance. The Red Lion is in an inauspicious location, between the Arden Fair Mall and the Capital City Freeway. It is a two-story building, and guests enter their rooms from exterior walkways, much as patrons of a motel would. But I believe the management offers room service, and that at least separates the Red Lion from its architecturally synonymous inferiors.
In the foyer there were a number of men already gathered. There was a sign before the gift shop indicating that pre-purchased tickets could be acquired therein, and I stood in line behind three young men, one of whom, according to the conversation I overheard, used his father's credit card to purchase tickets for he and his friends. I got my ticket, eventually, and went back into the lobby and took a seat in an armchair. To my right was an older gentleman speaking Spanish with two younger men. Near the entrance I saw two women, escorted by a man in a striped, collared shirt, and hoped that they were the ring girls, although, from the way they were dressed, it was simply illogical to assume otherwise. The shorter and thicker wore a red dress with an elastic hem that cinched the skirt to her thighs and made the waist balloon around her hips. The other girl was effectively wearing a men's blue dress shirt, well tailored, and gathered at the waist with a belt. She had no pants on. They walked past me and up to a heavy man who, it appeared, had difficulty tucking in his shirt.
"No," said the heavy man, "You won't be wearing the swimsuits tonight."
"Oh," said the girl in blue. She seemed disappointed. I was, too.
The older gentleman on the couch saw that I was taking notes on my pad. "You are a writer?" he asked. He spoke very quietly.
"I'm doing a story on Mike Simms," I said.
"Oh," he said. He seemed as disappointed as the girl in blue had about not getting to wear the swimsuit. "He is a boring fighter. It's over. He's over."
"He has lost five in a row," I said. "He needs to win."
I moved over to the couch beside him and he introduced himself as Sergio Sanchez. "I've been training boxers for forty-two years," Sanchez said. "I have a gym in Vacaville. I train the kids there." He added immediately, as if to establish his credentials, that he'd been in Salvador Sanchez's corner the night he knocked out Wilfredo Gomez in Las Vegas in 1981. "That was the fight of the century," he said.
We talked for a while, and I mentioned to him that I'd spent three days the week before at Niavaroni's gym, watching Mike Simms and Otis Griffin, and that Niavaroni had reneged on his promise to furnish me with a ticket. Sergio was deeply offended by this. "I have had some problems with that man," he said.
I looked up then and saw, leaning against the information desk counter, Niavaroni himself, talking with the heavyset man, who had been speaking with the ring girls a few minutes earlier, and whose shirt had crawled out of his pants again. Niavaroni saw me, and though he is not a timid man, he gave me a rather timid wave, as if he were out to dinner with his wife and he'd seen across the room an old girlfriend with whom things had ended indecorously.
"I don't think he wants to talk to me," I said to Sanchez.
"That guy," said Sanchez. "I can't beleed that guy. You cun in to help him. I can't beleed that. I understand if you try to bring in four or five guys. Bud it's just you."
I continued looking over at Niavaroni, who refused to look me in the eyes, and I felt content that I was making him uncomfortable. Sanchez offered to buy me a soda, and I walked with him back to the gift shop. While we were standing in line, a man came up behind us and started talking with Sanchez. Sanchez handed him a $20 bill, and then explained to me that the man was the father of one of the fighters he trained in Vacaville. "You'll have to learn Spanish if you're going to write about boxing," the father said. I agreed. Then Sanchez explained to the man that Niavaroni had failed to get me a ticket for the fight. The other man seemed as disappointed as Sanchez had been.
I got my soda and thanked Sanchez and we went back to the couch. The girl who had been wearing the blue shirt emerged from the southern wing of the hotel wearing a short, black dress. Sanchez and I both looked at her, and then Sanchez asked if I would like him to introduce me to her.
"You know her?" I asked.
"No," he said.
It was nearing seven o'clock, so I thanked Sanchez again for his hospitality, and went to find my seat. I exchanged my ticket for a wristband at the table where the security guards were searching bags, and then went into the ballroom. It is a modest room, with dark red, short-fiber carpeting, and a bar in the southeastern corner. The only decorative flourishes are the four chandeliers (likely not crystal), arranged in a square at the center of the room above what must usually be a dance floor. On it now was the boxing ring. I walked around the perimeter of the gallery and found my chair. It was in the center of a row, almost the last before the wall, and sandwiched between two parties who, because of their collective waist girth, had exhausted their allotted space and overflowed into mine. Deciding that I would not like to watch the fight sitting in a strange man's lap, I went over to the bar and ordered a soda. I asked the bartender if he would mind my using the bar as a desk so that I could take notes, and he said that that was fine as long as I didn't get in the way of the cocktail girls. I promised that I wouldn't.
"Are you a journalist?" the bartender asked.
This was, I remembered, a small venue and an even smaller fight, and though one of the local Hispanic television stations was broadcasting the fight, there was not even a press section. I imagine at larger venues the media presence is more pronounced, but at the Red Lion the people covering the fight were, it seemed, as few in number as the boxers fighting, and even though I wasn't credentialed, I was being treated like a semi-precious commodity. I told him that I wrote for the Sweet Science and was doing a feature on Mike Simms.
"I saw Mike fight at Arco," the bartender said. "I think he'd just gotten out of jail. Looked like he was fighting somebody's dad. Big out-of-shape white guy. Funny thing was, though, guy gave him a good fight. And Mike's from Sacramento, but the crowd turned and started rooting for the other guy. It was awful." He put down my drink and I paid him.
On the fight card in the lobby, Mike Simms' name had been near the bottom. The boxers at the top were Brandon Gonzales and Stan Martyniouk, both of whom were scheduled to fight TBA. According to all promotional materials, they were expected to be the most exciting. Gonzalez had had three fights and three first round knockouts. Martyniouk had had two fights, both ripping rows, to borrow from Nabakov, which he'd won by decision. Otis Griffin, on the other hand, had been knocked out in his last two fights, and my man, Mike Simms, hadn't knocked anyone out in almost four years. I expected, therefore, that Simms would be in the first bout. And when you are amongst the preliminaries, and especially if you fight the opener, your observers are as likely to have their backs to you as their faces. It occurred to me how humiliating it would be to box perhaps your final rounds while being actively ignored. I hoped, therefore, that the size of the venue and the exorbitant cost of the tickets would inspire the patrons to get their money's worth by actually facing the ring.