It took a special dispensation from the Pope of Hollywood to get me through the doors of the Wild Card Boxing Gym where Urbano Antillon was sparring with the Pound for Pound king Manny Pacquiao.
As scores of Manny Maniacs crowded the front entrance of the now famous boxing club, I walked through the back gate that not many people know about. (Editor's Note: Oooops! They do now…Sorry Freddie!) A few of the musclemen from the upstairs workout building recognized me and walked over to talk.
“You did get an OK from Freddy?” asked Rob Peters, a nice guy who serves as the first line of defense when Pacquiao works out.
“Yes,” I replied, adding that Pope Freddie Roach gave me one admittance pass into the cloistered sparring sessions provided I serve as assistant to trainer Rudy Hernandez, who trains Antillon.
The Maywood lightweight contender Antillon (25-0, 18 KOs) is preparing for a May 1 showdown at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino against left-handed speedster Tyrone Harris (23-4, 15 KOs) in Las Vegas.
My whole intention was to see Antillon spar with Pacquiao who just recently left the lightweight division after one fight. For years I’ve told many that Antillon was absolutely ready for a shot at the junior lightweight or lightweight title.
Few believed me.
Inside the upstairs boxing gym, only a handful of people milled around as Antillon walked in with Hernandez and myself. A few minutes later Pacquiao himself would walk through the doors with a simple nod to everyone inside.
Also in the gym were Dean Byrne, the Irish junior welterweight, David Rodela the Oxnard junior lightweight, and a two other fighters whose names I can’t quite remember.
Antillon and Pacquiao quickly got their hands wrapped and warmed up a bit before entering the ring. They would be sparring five rounds. No more.
Let me preface this with some notes about Antillon. Several years ago he fought a close battle with a tough Mexican boxer named Ivan Valles. He was wobbled but survived to win by decision. Many fans and writers wrote off Antillon as a protected fighter who wasn’t going anywhere. That was in 2003.
Then came a sparring session with Venezuela’s Edwin Valero that was video-taped around 2004. In that action Antillon was clobbered.
Couple those setbacks along with injuries and you have a fighter on the verge of invisibility.
Around 2006, following a tough victory over Mexico’s Fernando Trejo, Antillon suddenly discovered he was healthy and able to train 100 percent. Plus, at 23, a surge of physical strength suddenly appeared.
“He got his man strength,” says Hernandez, a former fighter who also trained his brother Genaro “Chicanito” Hernandez, a stalwart world champion at 130 pounds. “People are just beginning to believe in him.”
It was early 2007 when the two Mexico City warriors Juan Manuel Marquez and Marco Antonio Barrera had signed to fight each other. Immediately following the press conference, Marquez and his team drove to the Maywood Boxing Gym about 10 miles away to get in some training and sparring. Sitting inside waiting silently was Antillon.
While a few photographers and one other boxing writer surrounded Marquez as he prepared for sparring, Antillon quietly wrapped his own hands, warmed up slightly and waited for Marquez to step in the ring.
The steely-eyed Marquez brushed gloves with Antillon and when the buzzer went off the two boxers clashed immediately with concussive force.
Was this a mere sparring session?
For three rounds Antillon and Marquez fired left hooks, right counters and numbing jabs. Quickly Antillon showed an ability to mix it up with an elite boxer like Marquez, who made subtle adjustments defensively like moving a half step toward his left during exchanges to provide a better blocking and firing angle. It was great stuff.
The intense sparring session ended after a mere three rounds with Marquez giving that intense warrior look of his. Antillon had that blank, dark, deadeye look of a Great White shark having just spotted his prey.
“It was my first week back,” said Antillon, 26, about that sparring session. “I didn’t have my wind.”
Those mere three rounds showed this journalist that he was ready for better fights.
Since that Marquez greeting, Antillon reeled off seven consecutive knockouts, including a first round blow out of Bobby Pacquiao. That was a shocker. The younger brother of Manny is a tough customer and went seven rounds with Humberto Soto and knocked out Fernando Trejo.
It seemed to wake up his promoter Top Rank.
“He’s been ready for two years,” said his trainer Hernandez. “Urbano can fight with anybody.”
Last week, Antillon and Pacquiao sparred five intense rounds with both landing horrific shots and never moving backward. Despite the headgear and bigger gloves those blows exchanged were mind-boggling.
“Urbano is definitely the toughest sparring partner right now for Manny,” said Freddie Roach. “He gets hit a little too much but he always comes back with his own.”
Top Rank’s Bob Arum says he has plans to match Antillon with Humberto Soto in July, perhaps in Mexico. First, the Maywood boxer needs to beat Michigan’s Harris, who has a knack for causing problems for unprepared lightweights.
If successful, then Antillon moves on to better things, including Soto or former sparring nemesis Edwin Valero.
“I’d love to fight Valero,” said Antillon who is aware of the old video of their sparring session of six years ago being shown on web sites. “I’m not afraid of Valero. I’m eager to get in the ring with him.”
In Maywood Boxing Gym, a place known for tough ring wars even during sparring, other fighters know that Antillon is right outside the door to elite status. The quiet boxer is just waiting for the door to open.
“He’s very strong,” said Alfredo “Perro” Angulo, who is set to meet Kermit Cintron later in May. “He’s a professional.”
Pacquiao himself said that Antillon was his best sparring partner in preparation for the clash with Hatton this week.
“He’s a good fighter, a strong fighter,” says Pacquiao who’s rained some bombs on Antillon and taken some in return.
Outside the ring, Antillon doesn’t talk much about the lack of press or his anonymity among boxing fans. He does know that he’s ready for anyone.
“For a long time I was injured and couldn’t do what I wanted,” said Antillon. “I’m healthy now. I’ll fight anybody even Valero.”