There was a time, about five years ago, that Antonio Escalante would peer across the Rio Grande, and daydream. Daydream about getting across that sliver of water and making something of himself.
He wasn't sure what. At the time, he was too busy fanning the fire that burned in his belly to decide exactly how he would beat life's odds and force some kind of opportunity.
But he knew he wanted to get there. He was tired of being hungry and broke. No — he was angry about being hungry and broke. Which is why he was always getting into street fights and knocking people out.
He was mad. Pissed off. You would be, too, if you never had any money and your stomach ached from a lack of food.
He was willing to do whatever it took to get out of being poor.
“I grew up in Cuidad Juárez, Mexico, in the Colonia Primero de Septiembre (neighborhood),” Escalante said. “I remember getting on the mountains, and looking over to El Paso, thinking, ‘We're going to get there sometime. I don't know what I'll be doing. But I'll make my family proud.'
“And, now, I'm doing something good today.”
He is doing something good. And if you believe some people, he may soon be doing something great.
Escalante, Juárez-born and El Paso-bred, is a fast-moving super bantamweight contender who is 10-1 with seven knockouts and looking to become the greatest fighter in the region's history.
He fights another hungry fighter from Juárez, Jose Andres Hernandez, Friday in Cicero, Ill. It's a big step for Escalante, as he will be making his 10-round debut.
But he is expected to beat the veteran Hernandez, 19-2 (13 knockouts). And he is expected to go on to bigger, better things.
“That kid's real good,” said Eric Gomez, the matchmaker for Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, which signed Escalante in August. “We are really high on him. He has the potential to be the next big thing in Texas. He's a very nice person. And he can fight.”
That, he can do.
He first began to gain attention back in November 2003, on the undercard of an Angel Manfredy main event at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso.
The opponent, Jose Luis Burgos, was 0-1, so he certainly wasn't expected to put up much resistance.
But it was the way Escalante blitzed Burgos that made people stand up and take notice.
He had speed. He had power. He had a killer instinct.
The Escalante-Burgos fight was the walkout bout of the evening, but people still were abuzz afterwards about this unknown, young kid, who produced a memorable first-round knockout.
He had that special look.
He hit a bump in the road on June 2004, a decision loss to Jario Sanchez in Fort Worth.
But he is 6-0 since then, with four KOs. He has impressed in his past three fights, a first-rounder against Rigoberto Hernandez, a second-rounder over Terrence Roy, and a third-rounder over Trinidad Mendoza in his last fight in October.
Hernandez respresents a definite jump in class.
But Golden Boy thinks he can handle it.
“This is his first real test,” Gomez said. “We gave him a few tune-up fights, and he took them well. He's been moving along. Every fight he showed something better and better.
He's sparring with some pretty good fighters, and he's been able to handle it. So this is a good fight for him. He's going against a legitimate fighter who has a good record. It's the next step in the development of his career.”
Gomez was high on Escalante from the get-go.
“Ever since I first saw him, I've been really impressed with him,” he said. “It took a little longer for Oscar to be sold on him. But he was sold after the last few performances that he has had. We're excited.”
Escalante started boxing as a hobby. But he was a natural.
“I was bored,” he said. “I was about nine years old, and there was nothing to do but get in fights in the streets. So I decided to get into boxing. Everybody used to tell me, 'Hey, get into boxing, you're a good fighter.' I used to knock everybody out in the streets.”
Four years ago, at age 16, Escalante met current trainer and manager Louis Aguilar, who is a former fighter.
“I needed somebody to promote me, to get out and get some fights, and that's when me and Louis started training,” Escalante said. “Since we met, (I've) been fighting more often.
“He cares for me. And I really see that he's honest with me. He was honest with me, and he still is, and I saw that in him. That's why i trust him so much.”
Escalante worked with Aguilar for five amateur fights before turning pro on Sept. 21, 2003.
Aguilar never had a doubt.
“When I first saw him in the gym, there was something special about him,” he said. “I knew his work ethic and discipline were tremendous. He had a lot of potential.”
Aguilar said he had a good style, but it was too rough around the edges.
And he said Escalante brawled too much.
“A smart boxer would just outbox him,” Aguilar said.
“I thought, 'If this kid can sit down on his punches, and jab a little more, and mix it up, he would be dangerous.'”
So Aguilar put Escalante on a new program, inspired by the supreme conditioning of former heavyweight king Evander Holyfield.
He began to lift weights. He changed his running and eating habits.
It didn't take long for the new regimen to produce results.
“We started noticing his conditioning was tremendous; it seemed like he never got tired,” Aguilar said.
Another inspiration for Escalante: A new daughter.
April Escalante is a year-and-a-half old, though her dad doesn't get to see her much. He has a full-time day job at UPS, which he juggles with his training.
“When I get up at 3 a.m., she's asleep,” he said.
“When she's at day care, I have to sleep. So I don't see her much. That's the hard part.
“(But) she makes me work harder. I just want her to have everything. I want her to have everything I didn't have when I was a kid.”
Some would argue that Escalante is still a kid himself. He's only 20.
But he has lived a man's life. All those days dreaming about making it, so that he could have some kind of life — any kind of life.
He'll be punching Friday so that his life can become even better.
“I know I'm fighting a good guy, but I have confidence in myself,” he said. “I've been training hard. This is a test for me, and I can't wait to get in there and fight.”
Antonio Escalante still has hunger pains. But those pains now have more to do with boxing than food.