Last July 27 at the famed Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan, Manny Alejandro Siaca challenged Silvio Branco for the interim WBA light heavyweight belt. As everybody knows, Branco put on a boxing clinic and won largely on points. On that occasion, Siaca was accompanied by his own father Manuel Sr. The first time I spoke to him, I didn’t know that he is one of the most successful trainers in the business. Salvatore Cherchi informed me about that, when I met Siaca: “He trained more world champions than I can remember, he is the one who should be interviewed.”
While the other journalists were busy with Manny Alejandro, I started talking to Manuel Sr. and found out that he worked with Edwin Rosario, Leo Gamez, Esteban De Jesus, Manuel Serrano, Wilfredo Vasquez, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Jesus Kiki Rojas and Noel Arambulet. If Manny Alejandro did the masterpiece of winning by split decision against Anthony Mundine in Sydney (Australia) on May 5, 2004, it is largely due to the experience of his father, and the son is the first one to give his dad the credit he deserves: “My father worked with many world champions, developing most of them. He knows everything about boxing. If he tells me to follow a certain strategy, I do it without discussing.”
Like all the top guys I met during my 16 years in journalism, Manuel Sr. is a very simple man. He doesn’t speak continuously about his success because he doesn’t need to; he knows that a journalist will find out easily. He also knows that being nice is never a mistake and that’s why he is treated with respect by everybody. I got further proof of this when I met him again at the two press conferences and at the post-fight dinner. Even if his son lost, Manuel Sr. was polite and shook my hand the moment he saw me. He also gave me his numbers telling me to call him if I ever visit Puerto Rico.
I heard many theories about Branco’s win, which wasn’t supposed to be that easy. Most journalists wrote that Manny Alejandro was overrated or that he just had a bad night. Nobody wrote that Silvio was in great shape and had faced a long list of dangerous opponents; in short, Branco had the skills and the experience to become WBA light heavyweight champion again. In some fights, Branco relaxed and was KOed. He didn’t repeat that mistake on July 27 and won. He did what he had to do. On the other hand, Manny Alejandro underrated him. When I asked the young Siaca about Branco, this was the answer: “I never saw him fight, my father did and told me that Branco is a European boxer: you know what I mean, the kind of fighter who moves a lot and doesn’t brawl. He won’t be a problem for me.”
It’s very common for American and Latin boxers to underrate Europeans, but that’s also the fastest way to lose. If a fighter doesn’t watch the tapes of his opponent, how can he study the right way to beat him? Everybody has his own strengths and weaknesses. About the Europeans’ lack of willingness to brawl, the point is if brawling is useful to win. There are many brawlers who get headlines because they always put on a great show, but are they really great? Most of them are not even average boxers. Just look at their records and you will find a long list of losses.
The all-time greats are the ones who always did the right move at the right time. Do you remember Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Meldrick Taylor? The Mexican legend knew that he needed a KO to win. Instead of brawling, he just kept at distance from Taylor preparing the big one: when the last round was almost over, Chavez launched THE PERFECT PUNCH sending down Taylor who was stopped two seconds from the final bell. Referee Richard Steele did the right thing, because he understood that Taylor was on another planet when asked him if he wanted to keep on fighting. Julio Cesar Chavez beat WBA lightweight champion Edwin Rosario by TKO 11on November 21, 1987 when Manuel Siaca Sr. was in Rosario’s corner. That’s why the famed trainer can express a judgement on both guys.
Manuel, do you think that Edwin Rosario was as good as Julio Cesar Chavez?
Chapo was as good as anybody. I met him when he was 8 years old, because he lived in my town: Toa Baja, just 10 minutes from San Juan. I understood that Edwin was talented the very first time I saw him punching the heavy bag. From 1979 to 1997, Rosario built a record of 47 wins (41 KOs) and 6 losses. He became world champion four times. In 1983/1984, he won the WBC lightweight title. In 1986/1987, in the same division, he conquered the WBA belt. In 1989/1990, he became WBA lightweight champion again. In 1991/1992, he won the WBA light welterweight crown. I consider Edwin Rosario an all-time great.
Who are the all-time greats who made you fall in love with boxing?
Even if I was born and grew up in Puerto Rico, my idols were Joe Louis and Ray Robinson. When I hear journalists making comparisons between today’s boxers and those guys, I laugh. There are so many world champions who couldn’t have shined Robinson’s shoes.
Did you ever tell your fighters to copy Robinson’s style?
No, because everybody has his own characteristics. A trainer must improve the natural skills of his fighters, not try to make them copy somebody else’s style. My son, for example, started as a volleyball player and became very good at it. One day, he told me that he wanted to become a professional boxer and win the world title. He had already built his physique in a certain way and I couldn’t wait until he made his debut. He had about 16 amateur fights and lost only a couple against a Jamaican and a Cuban whose names I don’t remember. He debuted as a professional in 1997, when he was almost 22 years old. In Latin America, usually, fighters start at 18 (many of them even at 16) because there’s no money in amateur activity. It’s not like in Europe where the boxing commission gives everything (including a daily paycheck and prizes for medals) to the fighters who make the national team. Today, in Puerto Rico they are starting to give incentives to the most talented kids to convince them to have a long amateur career. Going back to my son, he had only 15 professional bouts (14 won and 1 lost) when he traveled to France to meet WBA super middleweight champion Bruno Girard (whose record was 37-3-1). The Frenchman got a split decision, but shortly after that the WBA stripped him of the belt for refusing to give us a rematch. When my son finally won the WBA crown, he became the first-ever Puerto Rican to win the world super middleweight title.
Talking about Latinos, many of them have 50 bouts before they turn 25 while in the United States and Europe nobody fights that much. How do you explain that?
[It’s because of] the low-quality of opponents available in Latin America. Look at the records of those guys who fought 80-100 times, you won’t recognize any name among the first 50 opponents they faced. I don’t believe that a boxer should get in the ring more than five or six times a year. Also, it’s more useful fighting against the very best abroad than KOing bums at home. That’s why I told my boxers to never turn down a challenge. My son fought in Puerto Rico, Japan, Venezuela, USA, France, Australia, Denmark and Italy.
Obviously, you don’t worry about partisan verdicts.
No, because they are part of the game. I worry about other things, like the food. A fighter must be careful about what they bring him. During my three decades in boxing, I’ve seen many dirty tricks…
don’t make me add anything else!
Since the United States is the capitol of boxing, did you ever consider moving there?
When I was young, I went to the USA, entered the Navy and fought in Vietnam. After the war, I went back to Puerto Rico. Today, I live between Toa Baja and Orlando (Florida) where I bought a house.