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
I realized I'd grown rather restless waiting for Mike Simms to get into the ring. I wanted to see him win, as if I had a financial interest in that outcome. Really, though, I had become sentimental about him, knowing that he needed this win if he wanted to pay his child support. I knew, also, that Derrick Harmon must have had his own semi-tragic story, but it was better for my conscience if I viewed Harmon as a heretic, and Simms as a hero. This admission does not reflect any journalistic objectivity; clearly I had lost mine.
Up in the ring, the announcer had taken up the microphone again. "You need a mortgage?" he was saying. "You should go to Andy Nortega." I wondered if Mr. Nortega was that last predatory lender who had been away at the ends of the earth counting his money during the onset of the sub-prime recession, and upon his return had yet to be notified that the banks weren't approving such loans anymore. No offense to Mr. Nortega, who is cursed to be in a business where association is a connotation of guilt, in the current climate. But then the lights dimmed and a man walked into the ballroom in a red, sequined robe. When he climbed through the ropes I wasn't sure, because of the hood over his head, if he were Simms or Harmon.
"Is that your man?" Mehrad asked.
"I don't think so," I said. I didn't want to think that Simms would have worn such garish clothes to his final fight.
When the man took off his hood, he was clearly not Simms, and by a simple process of elimination, I decided he must be Derrick Harmon. His second took his robe, and Harmon bounced on his toes in his corner. Then the music switched, and I saw coming through the crowd, with a white, terrycloth poncho over his shoulders, the famous Mike Simms. I say 'famous,' because when the announcer introduced him a few minutes later, that was the nickname he employed. (I have an intemperate relationship with such monikers. I saw a mixed martial artist fight in a small club last year in Boston who went by the name of "the Barn Cat." His name has stuck with me because I found it both hilarious and humble. Whereas calling yourself the "Axe Murderer" denotes in a high, harsh tenor that you kill men with axes, advertising yourself as the "Barn Cat" conjures up in my mind a mangy cat in a barn. I see these two names as the poles of self-nomination. I esteem "Barn Cat," and the "Axe Murderer" I disdain, both for reasons of perceived humility. Mike Simms calling himself "Famous" seems to me less conceited than ironic. He is not, even in Sacramento, a celebrity. But I have already admitted my biases.)
Eric Regan was in the corner with Simms, and when he helped our fighter off with his shawl, I saw that Simms looked soft around the middle. In the opposite corner Harmon looked to be in real fighting shape. I know that muscular definition is not a reliable indicator of ring performance—take for instance the heavyweight Jason Estrada, who looks as soft as a winter apple and has the stamina of a titanium featherweight—but Harmon looked decidedly the better, and lighter, man. Lighter fighters do not have advantages in boxing, but whatever disadvantage Harmon would face having to throw around Simms' extraneous five pounds would get offset by Simms' sub-par conditioning. I had seen Simms in the gym the week before and knew he was not an aficionado of hard training.
Before the bell rang, Stan Martyniouk came in wearing street clothes and joined Mehrad and Gerrell, who were standing to my right, and Mehrad introduced us. "This guy is a journalist," said Mehrad. Martyniouk and I shook hands.
"It was a hell of fight," I said. He seemed pleased. "Stan the Man" is not a humble subtitle, but Martyniouk, although he was glowing after the victory, was very polite. "I'd like to maybe do an article on you," I added, remembering that I was at the fight for business and not personal reasons.
"He needs all the press he can get," said Mehrad.
By this point, only the primaries were left in the ring. I saw Nasser Niavaroni, sitting at the trainer's table, staring up at Simms. He looked skeptical. Simms was already in his southpaw stance, rocking from his trailing foot to his lead and back, his shoulders hunched forward and his forehead lowered aggressively. After the bell rang, a man in the crowd yelled, "Don't be a soup can tonight, Simms." Excluding myself, most of the crowd laughed. I agreed with the instruction, but I was not relaxed enough to find it funny.
As Simms stalked forward, it was clear that he had the height advantage, but he was fighting small. He moved in using his jab, preparing, I suppose to set up something more insidious, but for the first minute it was an innocuous prod. Another person in the crowd, this time a woman, yelled, "Come on you little girls."
The audience found this funnier even than the soup can comment. But perhaps Simms had needed to be insulted, because in the seconds immediately following, he double jabbed and appended to that brace of punches a left as straight as a spear shaft that knocked Harmon onto his back. In that moment all I could think was that Simms was delivering on his promise. He claimed he was shooting for an early knockout, and had, halfway through the first, made great strides towards achieving that. I wanted desperately, despite the money I'd paid to see a whole evening of fights, for Harmon to stay down for the full count. But he got up at seven. With the rest of the partisans I was yelling for Simms to finish what he'd started, but Simms was tentative, as if he didn't believe he'd knocked Harmon down. "Go in there and work, Mike!" I yelled. "Double jab, cross!" But Simms, suddenly again in favor of plodding and punching the air, escorted Harmon safely to the bell.
The round girl, whom I had seen wearing her blue shirt in the lobby, came out in her short, black dress and was circumnavigating the ring holding up the number two. Regan was kneeling in front of Simms, nursing him with a water bottle. Then the referee shoed the seconds out and the fighters stood. Regan must have reminded Simms that he was boxing for his livelihood because Simms came forward to fight inside and was administering body shots to Harmon, whom he'd pushed against the ropes, within the first thirty seconds of the second. For a moment, Harmon looked unstable, and I think the crowd pondered briefly the potential miracle of witnessing two liver knockouts in one night. But Simms gave up, either because he had already exhausted himself, or because he feared he would. Harmon took the opportunity to slap him around a bit while Simms guarded his face. "Why you playing with him?" yelled Regan. Simms responded with neither gestures nor words, and when the bell rang, I gave the round to Harmon.
The third started as the two previous had, with Simms exacting the initial damage. He hit Harmon with a good, leading right hook, and whipped him with a few, good, snapping jabs. But Harmon, rather predictably, after taking a minute to formulate an answer, presented Simms an eloquent right hand. Mehrad looked over at me and said, "So, Mike has a hard time finishing?" I told him that it had been years since Simms had knocked anyone out, and I was starting to understand why. Harmon finished the round busily. At the bell I scored the round even, but thought it might have, in the judges' minds, gone to Harmon.