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Sparring Partners

Last October, in a hilltop town 120 miles north of Manila, two former lightweight champions sparred. One, Manny Pacquiao (49-3-2), was preparing for the biggest fight of his life. The other, Jose Luis Castillo (60-9-1), was enduring the punishment of such preparation. In comparing his current sparring partner against a former opponent who is vying with the Filipino for the pound-for-pound kingship, Castillo, 35, said coolly, "Pacquiao punches much faster and harder than Mayweather."

Pacquiao's training gym had not quite reached maximum capacity, which in the Philippines means the building had yet to tip over. Everyone stood about the elevated ring, eye-level with the apron, motionless, much as Castillo appeared in direct comparison to Pacquiao's speed. From time to time, the Filipino would wrap a double-punch around the Mexican's ears, an antic which never ceases to displease trainer Freddie Roach, who sighed, "If I were the former lightweight champ and someone did that to me, I'd kick him right in the balls."

A decade ago, Castillo was still serving dutifully as the sparring partner of Julio Cesar Chavez. He now seemed less than eager to return to the shadow of another man fighting for a title that he himself likely never will. As the most decorated and experienced of the sparring partners in Pacquiao's camp, Castillo stood to learn the least and did his best to fulfill that promise by skipping training as often as possible. Two sparring partners picked up the slack: Shawn Porter (10-0), a young light middleweight from Ohio helping Pacquiao adjust to Cotto's size, and Urbano Antillon (27-1), reunited with Team Pacquiao after a major sparring stint leading up to the Ricky Hatton fight.

For a star of Pacquiao's largesse, sparring partners make about $1,000 dollars a week plus room and board, traditionally paid for by the trainer out of pocket. As a bonus, Freddie Roach has a well-publicized claim that any sparring partner who knocks Pacquiao down will receive $1,000. Despite the relative stability afforded, this job is not particularly conducive to marriage and has other perils, not least of which is the infliction of a paralyzing docility known as "sparring partner syndrome," a nearly incurable disease of a fighter's heart. For some, however, it can be more instructive, as it served Amir Khan, who sparred with Pacquiao prior to becoming the WBA junior welterweight champion. Antillon is among the current crop hoping to uphold such tradition.

Earlier this year, Antillon was professionally undefeated until he lost a fight for an interim title. He since has migrated to the tutelage of Freddie Roach, who is "getting me to work on stuff that should have been done a long time ago."

One of four children, Antillon grew up in Maywood, CA, witness to the drive-bys and stabbings of the 18th Street gang, Kings With Style (KWS), and Maywood Locos. "My parents tried to keep us away from all of that with sports," he recalls. Initially, the children took up karate, which was $45 per month, but a career in the Japanese art was cut short upon discovering that "there was a boxing gym next door…and that was free." At the time, Antillon was a a bit of a runt, and "because I was smaller people tried to push me around…I got in streetfights all the time…I was so bad in fourth grade they wouldn't let me into school without my mom being present."

Antillon's father never beat the children for misbehaving, instead applying similar tactics to fatherhood as perhaps found in a fraternity initiation: "my dad used to make [me and my brother] go in the front yard and sit on our knees for God knows how long. He'd then say, 'Get together.' We'd have to get together and hug each other. That was f---ing embarrassing. I'd rather get my ass kicked." It was his father, too, who encouraged him and his brother to box, "My dad bought us boxing gloves, and he'd invite all the neighbors over and have me and my brother fight in the back yard."

Over time, Antillon grew into his prodding, brawling style, which Roach has sicced on Pacquiao for his fights against Hatton and now Miguel Cotto. These were not Antillon's first experiences with the Pacquiao clan: in 2008, he fought Manny's brother Bobby, knocking him out with a body shot in the first round.

Luis Castillo

Once Team Pacquiao arrived in Los Angeles, two more sparring partners were added to the rotation: Raymundo Beltran (22-4) and Rashad Halloway (11-1-1). Halloway is a familiar face, having sparred extensively with Pacquiao leading up to his fight against Oscar De La Hoya. In the interim, Halloway sparred with Cotto's sole conqueror, Antonio Margarito, who at the time was at work for his bout against Shane Mosley. Margarito's punches are notorious for their power, and during sparring he cracked Halloway's left orbital socket, postponing the 27-year-old's professional aspirations—a sparring partner's worst nightmare. The night of the Mosley fight, Margarito was caught with plaster in his handwraps, casting doubt on both his victory over Cotto and why he seemed to punch so ferociously in sparring without any speed coming behind it.

Over 9,000 miles away in Tampa, Florida, Miguel Cotto's sparring partner Fred Tukes, 36, had entered a Barnes and Noble with a question: "Do you have Alan Greenspan's 'The Age of Turbulence'?" Sparring partners have a lot of downtime, and Tukes amasses his reading list accordingly. The clerk's response elicited a wide grin from Tukes as he relates, "His eyes bugged out of his head at the idea that a black man with a capped tooth and baggy jeans was asking about a book by a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve."

An Atlanta-native, Tukes is a family man who became surrogate father to his three siblings around the age of eight years old when his father became addicted to drugs. Tukes was not without his own misbehavior, recalling, "I got this tattoo at 13. It was supposed to say 'Fred,' but it hurt so bad I made them stop after just the 'F.' That was only half the pain, though, because I sure got a beating when I got home." Today, Tukes is a devoted husband and father of a 12-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. The constant travel demanded of him has taken its toll on fatherhood, "I really miss my kids sometimes," Tukes admits, "I missed my son's first words and his first little steps walking. It's a sacrifice, but it's my job."

Tukes is one of just two sparring partners in Cotto's camp. (The other is New York-raised Puerto Rican fighter Kenny Abril.) As a pro, Tukes fights with the nickname "Black Onyx," a moniker derived from his birthstone and bald head, but whose origin remains shrouded in mystery: "I remember who gave me the nickname," Tukes smiles, "but my wife will kill me if I say it." He was next scheduled to spar with Joshua Clottey, whose fight was on the undercard of Pavlik-Williams, but the dissolving of the main event has now put Tukes' immediate plans in limbo.

As a pro, Tukes (7-1-1) defies any semblance of inexperience: he is one of boxing's fixtures, having sparred with a host of current and former champions that include Floyd Mayweather, Shane Mosley, Zab Judah, Leonard Doroftei, Arthur Abraham and Oscar De La Hoya. Each has given Tukes a measure for comparison with himself. Tukes believes Cotto will prevail in this fight. The sparring partners in the opposing camps all share such a belief that the guy paying their bills is going to win, presumably in part because the sparring had never been so good.

Sparring can test a man's patience. In boxing's history, no one better epitomizes this than James J. Jeffries. Hired to help Jim Corbett prepare for his title fight against Bob Fitzsimmons, Jeffries instead knocked out Corbett his first day on the job and later defeated Fitzsimmons for the heavyweight crown. In Pacquiao and Cotto's camps, I've yet to see that kind of anger or immaturity. Tukes, in particular, is a patient man. He has dreams one day of being a world champion. Most sparring partners do.

Despite the relative stability afforded, this job has its perils, not least of which is the infliction of a paralyzing docility known as "sparring partner syndrome," a nearly incurable disease of a fighter's heart.

Posted 12:00 AM | Nov 2, 2009

Manny Pacquiao vs Miguel Cotto

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