The matchmaker

The old-timers call boxing the sweet science. For promoters like Don Chargin, putting together an exciting bout in Sacramento with determined fighters takes savvy and courage, and is a discipline of its own

Israel Vazquez and Oscar Larios circle each other, taking a rare break from beating each other senseless.

Israel Vazquez and Oscar Larios circle each other, taking a rare break from beating each other senseless.

Photo by Jill Wagner

The boxing in round nine was to be as swift and merciless as in the previous eight. The tall boxer in shiny blue trunks first shook out his shoulders. He got ready to throw. Across from him, his compact opponent dived in, punching wildly, his trunks glittering with gold sequins. Each fresh punch threw sweat to the mat, which on close inspection was still spotted with old drops of rust-red blood. The taller man then backed the shorter into the ropes and the struggle intensified.

The crowd, which was already screaming—“You guys are studs! That’s what you are!”—outright lost itself at this point, jumping to its feet in packs and howling like dogs. Nine solid rounds of constant punching had more than met the people’s expectations.

Presiding over it all, Don Chargin sat ringside and brooded. He crossed his arms over his bulging stomach, puffed out his upper lip and gently prodded it with an index finger. He was a boxing promoter extraordinaire, the West Coast’s version of Don King … without the hair and the bombast. Sacramento was his territory, this was his fight, but he was obviously worried.

Chargin scowled slightly at the ESPN cameraperson who knelt beside him and angled the lens into the aging promoter’s face. He was tired. He wasn’t going to smile for the camera.

In the ring, both super-bantamweight fighters thrashed their way through the round, but near the end punches started going loopy. They were wearing each other down, dangerously.

Chargin bent sideways to whisper to his old friend and co-promoter, Sid Tenner.

Tenner looked down the row of seats at someone near the end.

“Hey,” he yelled. A journalist looked back at him. Tenner questioned him with his eyes, and almost imperceptibly the guy cocked his finger at the taller man’s corner. Tenner leaned into Chargin and whispered.

Seems the smart money thought the fight would go to the taller man.

As promoters, Chargin and his wife, Lorraine—together known as “Don Chargin Productions”—were responsible for everything the audience cared about. They had settled on the renovated Memorial Auditorium and secured it with cash. They had negotiated with ESPN for TV coverage. They had alerted the media, paid for the fighters’ transportation into town and worked with the boxing commission to get doctors and judges and referees on site. They had hired a ring announcer. They had hired card girls. They had hired fighters, and they would pay the winners’ purses.

Twelve matches over two nights meant a total of 24 boxers to hire and manage. And by the time the Chargins got into Sacramento, every boxer had become a potential nightmare. Bad news phone calls had started coming in one after another a week before the fights, some as early as 4:30 in the morning. It seemed that each time Chargin firmed up a good fight, another boxer slipped out of a match. One had broken his nose; another had a sinus infection. He couldn’t believe it. Until the very last days, he was plugging holes like the little Dutch boy.

People thought this game was easy. He was such a big-deal promoter. Chargin could just pick up the phone and snatch up a quality opponent. But a good boxer didn’t want to get ready in a week. If he lost it would affect his ranking, take him one step further away from a title fight. A contender always needed to be at his best.

Chargin understood. As a matchmaker, putting good fights together was his art. If he had a good counter-puncher, he wanted an aggressive fighter who would give him lots to counter. The better- matched the two fighters, the happier the audience, but the tenser the matchmaker. Two well-matched boxers could force each other past their physical limits with continual, punishing blows.

In 50 years of promoting, Chargin had seen a handful of guys die: a frighteningly skinny boy who died in the hospital after trying to capture the World Bantamweight title; a seemingly healthy fighter who went down hard after a relatively light tap on the chin. The crowd yelled, “fixed fight!” and then went eerily quiet. The boxer never got back up. And yet the audience always wanted to see a bout lead to a knockout—it was their payoff.

For each fight he put together, Chargin said, he lay awake in bed worrying. Maybe he’d made too tough a match, and yet his goal was to make tough matches. The line between tough and too tough was so fine.

The two fighters in the ring were approaching that line. On the sidelines, Chargin had turned to Tenner. “It’s much too much,” he’d mouthed. His opponent, in gold trunks, was Israel Vazquez from Mexico City, the WBC’s number one ranked contender—the favorite. He had met Larios in the ring once before, and knocked him out in less than two minutes of the first round. A good-looking man with a shy smile and a proud hawk-like nose, Vazquez was compact and aggressive. His crew in the corner wore white shirts with pockets covered in gold sequins.

On the other side of the ring from Chargin, ESPN commentator and former boxing trainer Teddy Atlas was getting excited. “He’s doing it wrong. He’s too close,” he cried, chastising Larios, “but he’s doing something right. He’s moving his hands!”

Don Chargin, solving promoter problems on the phone.

Photo by Larry Dalton

All night, the legendary trainer-turned-commentator had used his Brooklyn growl—one part aggression and two parts boyhood delight—to complain that Larios was getting into the shorter man’s “wheelhouse.”

Vazquez landed a couple of good punches, but then the 10-second warning pushed Larios to deliver a final furious series of blows.

The crowd, less than 800 strong, shook the 4,000-seat auditorium, cheering loud enough for a crowd three times its size.

At the bell, both fighters collapsed into their corners. Their managers dabbed away the blood and massaged their faces with Vaseline to help stop the flowing. They let the fighters wash out their mouths and then poured cooling water over their heads.

Even with a cut above each eye and his lips hanging slack around his mouthpiece, Larios looked the fresher fighter. Vazquez was taking great heaving breaths.

Chargin knew what it felt like to give your all to a fight. It had taken him 14 straight hours of haggling on the phone to salvage this match, but promoting hadn’t always been like that.

When he promoted fights for the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, the West Coast version of Madison Square Garden, the managers, he remembered, would line up outside his door. He just had to receive them and either accept or reject their offers.

This fight wasn’t even supposed to feature Larios; it was supposed to have been Vazquez against the reigning champion, Willie Jorrin, the WBC’s super-bantamweight title-holder, and one of the big boxing stars Chargin promoted. If Jorrin had defended his title against Vazquez as planned, the whole auditorium might have sold out.

Unfortunately, a few days before the fight, Chargin got one of those calls from Jorrin’s doctor. The champ had hurt his ankle while sparring. He had to pull out.

That fit a disturbing pattern. Jorrin had pulled out of so many fights that the boxing commission was threatening to take away his title. Whenever Chargin thought about this problem, he closed his eyes as if defending himself against a splitting headache.

Lorraine Chargin, herself a respected promoter who’d helped her husband bring Jorrin up through the ranks over nine long years, was reluctant to criticize the fighter, though he obviously tried her patience. “He’s a bad boy,” she’d whisper in a mocking tone.

Unlike Chargin, Lorraine spent fight nights at a card table in the concrete breezeway backstage. She managed everybody associated with the fighters, including the fight trainers, cut men, translators and various friends, and this aspect had its tussles. She managed ushers whom she would have liked better if they’d acted like armed guards. When someone slipped into the backroom without authorization, Lorraine pounced on the guards as if they should have patted the intruder down.

By pulling out at the last minute, Jorrin had left Lorraine and her husband in a stranglehold. ESPN was waiting, the commission was waiting, and the ticket-holders were waiting.

To make it worth everyone’s while, the replacement fight had turned into a WBC interim championship bout. The winner would get a belt like Jorrin’s, encrusted with the same huge gold centerpiece emblazoned with flags from other countries. If Jorrin couldn’t defend his title this summer, that belt would become the belt.

A crowd of men in ball caps and T-shirts stood up again and hollered for the card girl, a bodybuilder who strode the ring with the round 10 card and then dipped through the ropes in front of Chargin and Tenner. They might have been the only two men in the room not looking at her.

In the first and second rows, separated from the rest of the crowd by an aisle, sat a collection of journalists, judges and guests seated in accordance with Lorraine’s pecking order. The photographers were seated ringside balancing their high-end lenses on the edges of the mat. Jorrin, with a cast on his right ankle, had taken the best seat in the house, next to Tenner.

A character full of contradictions, Jorrin’s front-row presence was a great titillation for boxing professionals and fans alike. Dressed casually in a Hawaiian T-shirt, Jorrin smiled comfortably, amicably and often. He had tremendous star power, but it told only half the story. Flip the coin, and you found an arrest in Sacramento for domestic violence, and a reputation for fighting well, but not well enough or often enough. In a previous fight against Larios, Jorrin had thrown far fewer punches than his opponent, and yet the judges named him the winner.

With all the fights he’d pulled out of since then, long-time boxing writers were suggesting that the 32-year-old Jorrin might just retire undefeated rather than take on fighters like Vazquez or Larios again.

Boxing champion Willie Jorrin takes a swing during training—right before pulling out of the fight due to an ankle injury.

Photo by Larry Dalton

After round nine, Atlas scored the fight 88 to 83, Larios ahead on points, but as round 10 began, Vazquez started to come back, which only seemed to anger the taller man. Larios found new strength and attacked even harder. Vazquez began to stagger in the direction Larios’ punches pushed him.

“It’s going to come down to the chin,” yelled Atlas with excitement, referring to each boxer’s ability to take a punch on the sensitive edge of the jaw. The nerves of the chin could be so quickly and irreparably shocked by a solid punch that a man’s legs would buckle from the intensity.

“What a fight!” yelled Atlas with awe.

Chargin, Tenner and Jorrin watched quietly, as if the fight were a training video.

Chargin seemed to take no pleasure in the match. At this point, all he cared about was getting through the night and then relaxing in the hotel room the next day, maybe watching the Lakers.

Lorraine looked forward to the simple stuff—she wanted clean laundry.

A deep-voiced woman with short gray hair streaked with soft highlights, Lorraine had started the week in Sacramento calling people “sweetie” and making kissy noises to her long-distance family over the phone. But she ended the week snapping at everybody who got in her way.

“We do with three people,” she said, “what most promoters do with 10.”

Lorraine and Don seemed frugal in their dress and in their habits, which didn’t fit the stereotype. Promoters were supposed to be rich and greedy, making huge percentages and paying fighters very little.

The Chargins might have made heady profits in the old days when Sacramento hosted weekly Friday night fights, or when the couple occasionally packed Arco Arena, but Sacramento was no longer the same enthusiastic fight town. Jorrin was a big pull when he fought, but that wasn’t often enough.

The Chargins, for instance, had reduced ticket prices when he pulled out.

But Chargin seemed more concerned about putting on a good show than he did about money. That’s what the couple was known for. In fact, they’d just been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame the previous year. And they had since won the Boxing Writers Association’s James J. Walker award for “long and meritorious service to boxing.”

But even with the recognition, promoting used to be easier. Just look at the pre-fight press conferences, which were sparsely attended and sometimes mean-spirited.

In one of the Radisson’s conference rooms, a few unpretentious television cameramen slumped into uncomfortable chairs. Striding between them and the occasional sports writer were a couple of leggy female newscasters wearing the same suit in different colors. They stood out like a pair of china dolls.

As Lorraine came into the room, rolling her file box behind her, the television reporter in teal demanded to know when this conference was getting started. She’d been told noon and it was going on 12:20. Where was Chargin?

He came up behind Lorraine and the journalist’s eyes swept past him without recognition.

“I’m not familiar with boxing at all,” she said sheepishly to one of her crew.

Lorraine took a seat out of the way. She spread out her disintegrating notebooks full of phone numbers and other details. Except for tickets, which were handled by Tenner, Lorraine handled all money transactions too, including paying the fighters for their meals and listening to their complaints.

Duck; punch; counterpunch!

Photo by Jill Wagner

She was referred to as both the “boxing mom,” for the way she took care of fighters and journalists, and the “dragon lady”—for the way she took care of fighters and journalists.

The newscaster in teal wanted to ask one question of both Vazquez and Larios (“What is the key to winning this fight?”) and get out of there.

The real boxing writers—there weren’t more than three—wanted to talk about Jorrin.

Vazquez sat down at the linen-covered dining table and his translator sat next to him, his arm draped protectively over the back of the fighter’s chair.

“If you win this fight, you might get Willie Jorrin. Can you talk about him a little bit?” asked a reporter.

“He feels that Jorrin is a good fighter,” said the translator, after conferring with Vazquez. “He’s a slick fighter, a smart fighter, yet he does make mistakes.”

Larios’ team wasn’t so sportsmanlike. Accompanied by Rafael Mendoza, considered one of the smartest men in boxing, Larios answered a couple of translated questions in Spanish and then looked on while Mendoza personally answered everything else without consulting him.

“He beat Jorrin here one year ago, and he got robbed,” said Mendoza.

“That’s not what the record says,” taunted the journalist.

Mendoza said the public knew it, the commentators knew it, and Jorrin knew it.

“We know that fighting a guy with an exciting style, like Israel Vazquez, is much better for us.”

Mendoza reminded the people in the room that Jorrin had just taken a whole year off when he should have been defending his title. He pointed to Chargin, who stood rigidly to his left.

“Right here is his promoter,” said Mendoza. “Did he have any injuries last year? No. He just plain didn’t want to fight nobody!”

Even with the insults bouncing around his champion fighter, all Chargin could do was listen. He didn’t think Jorrin realized just how big a star he could have been.

With the bell, the two fighters faced off again. They avoided the regular clinches that allowed less driven fighters to rest against each other momentarily. They went after each other’s chins.

Vazquez played catch-up from the beginning, but when combinations came faster than he could block them, he got back his composure and returned the favor.

Atlas tried to stay on top of the action but quickly got left behind. Larios threw Vazquez against the ropes and Vazquez fought his way out in no time. Larios tried to wear Vazquez out by throwing punch after punch without pause, and Vazquez stood his ground and then twisted Larios’ neck with a right to the chin.

“How do you give anybody this round?” the other commentator asked Atlas.

Lorraine Chargin, Don’s wife and partner, prepares for back-to-back fight nights.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“I just give them an ovation,” Atlas said as the round came to a close.

The journalists and judges and guests, their chairs set so tightly together they literally rubbed shoulders, had fused into a group of peers who joked and gossiped. The reporters from the Internet boxing sites, sitting in the second row, thanks to Lorraine, studied Jorrin’s cast and peaked every once in a while into one another’s notebooks.

Even in the ornate Memorial Auditorium, where the gaudy gold columns sat amongst rows of half-empty seats, there was something slightly tired about the surroundings, the dirty, blood-spattered mat and the single plastic sign hung over a top bank of empty seats. It read simply, “Don Chargin Productions.”

But from the front rows, the excitement, the proximity of the violence, was intensely invigorating—for almost everyone but Chargin.

He longed for the days when he used to get up first thing in the morning, put on his swim trunks and work all day at promoting from beside his Southern California swimming pool.

“I used to get black,” he’d said of his skin tone, though now it looked ruddy.

The Chargins were buying a house in a seaside community, and the only thing that made Chargin smile in a jovial way reminiscent of indulgent grandfathers was daydreaming with Lorraine about their new home—the quiet, the high deck, the ocean right outside.

The only other time he’d seemed happy and relaxed was when Teddy Atlas dropped by one afternoon to tell war stories.

On ESPN, Atlas made the most of his wide innocent eyes, his slightly boyish haircut and his New York accent, but in the Chargins’ hotel room he became serious and introspective. He was obviously a man whose reputation did not rest solely on his days as Mike Tyson’s first trainer.

The two old friends slid from business talk to favorite stories. Atlas talked admiringly about how fighters used to have to make weight on the day of the fight, starving themselves silly to fit into their weight class. In the old days, after ringing the body out, the fighters would jump into the ring and fight countless rounds.

They were better then, Atlas said, trying to remember who had brought on the rule changes.

Chargin remembered old fighters too, but he remembered them differently. Chargin’s stories often centered on the heartbreak, like the successful kid who let Chargin set aside all his winnings in the bank. The kid, who’d never had a dollar to his name, took intense pleasure in looking at the bankbook with its balance in the thousands. When the fighter got married, Chargin turned the bankbook over to his new wife, who promptly withdrew all the money and threw elaborate parties, quickly draining the account to nothing.

Chargin decided long ago he couldn’t get that personally involved with his fighters anymore. He was now pretty hands-off, though he could still be found whispering with other professionals about fighters and their money woes, especially those related to back child support. One just recently had to beg a judge to let him out of jail long enough to make a scheduled fight. The judge had agreed, but ordered that the whole purse go to his kids.

But Chargin also carried around stories of fighters so good-hearted that he sent them free tickets for each fight he promoted in town, or agreed to elaborate last wishes while the fighters lay on their deathbeds. The one female fighter he promoted, Eliza Olson, was on contract because her grandfather, Bobo Olson, had extracted just such a promise.

And then there was the Buck Owens story.

Seems a friend of Chargin’s ended up next to the legendary country singer on a plane. When Owens heard that the guy was a fight promoter, Owens asked if he knew Chargin, to whom he owed a great big thank you.

He’d wanted to be a fighter as a kid, Owens told the guy, and after a particularly brutal beating, Chargin had come backstage to see him one night.

“Who the hell told you you could be a fighter,” Chargin reportedly demanded. “Go out and get a job!”

Chargin consults with Larios’ representative, Rafael Mendoza (left).

Photo by Jill Wagner

Owens had done just that.

“Willie Ritchie,” said Atlas, remembering the name of the fighter he’d been looking for. “He was the one.”

Ritchie had shrunk himself to nothing making weight one time, and when he got into the ring he felt so dizzy from dehydration that he prayed just to survive the fight. If he won, he promised, he’d change the rules.

Like Chargin, he’d kept his promise.

Now the fighters make weight a day before they go into the ring.

Chargin had just spent two afternoons with fighters as they got together, stripped to their tiny bikini underwear, or their Calvin Klein bicycle shorts, and then stood on the scale, arms in the air, surrounded by boxing commissioners and guys wearing their names on the backs of their jackets.

The consensus around the old-timers was that fighters were spoiled now, pampered by their families, entourages, managers and gentler rules. Fighters were so precious, so individual, so all alone in the ring, but there were so many people depending on them. Being a fighter might mean being beholden to an extended family who doted on you and relied on you in equal part.

Oscar Larios, still winning on points, sat in his corner before round 12 and spit blood into a bucket. The cuts around both his eyes had stopped bleeding. He’d been hurt early and one or two of those rounds belonged squarely to Vazquez, but Larios’ hooks were finding Vazquez’s head.

Not only had the crowd rewarded the fighters with a standing ovation at the end of round 11, they did it again at the beginning of round 12.

Larios came out hungry.

“Cho-lo-lo,” the crowd hollered, using the nickname that Larios had as a child. Mendoza had said it was the young boy’s mispronunciation of his father’s name, “Teodoro.”

After a sharp shot to the left side of Vazquez’s head, the shorter fighter staggered, and half the crowd held its breath while the other went doubly nuts.

Vazquez recovered, but Larios soon threw a right hook that sent him into the kind of fall you only see in cartoons. Vazquez fell backward, his head hit the mat under the ropes, and his two feet went up into the air and came down with a crash.

The proud fighter, still conscious, covered his face with his gloves and took the first part of the count on his back. Then he staggered up, stubbornly.

The ref looked into his eyes and kept counting until the fighter nodded. The ref rubbed the top of Vazquez’s gloves against his own shirt to clean off any dust from the mat.

He sent Vazquez back in, but Larios was ready. Chasing Vazquez to the other side of the ring, Larios threw another punch to Vazquez’s head.

Vazquez almost recovered and then went down heavily on his knees.

The fans crowded forward, their voices raised, their hands raised.

The first knockdown came in round 12 when Oscar Larios sent Israel Vasquez to the floor.

Photo by Jill Wagner

Vazquez slumped. The referee came over and looked into the fighter’s eyes intently. He counted with his fingers up where Vazquez could see them.

Two, he said, three, he said. Vazquez rose to one knee. His eyes were on the ref’s hands.

Four, said the ref, and then he spread both his hands out and shook his head. Fight over.

He wrapped his arms protectively around Vazquez’s shoulders and held him down. Vazquez spoke into his ear, but the ref knew the man had given almost as good as he’d got for 12 brutal rounds. Anything more would be inhumane.

Technical knockout.

Larios stood with his shoulders slumped and watched over Vazquez until the men from his team, wild with enthusiasm, an extension of the crowd, came bounding like puppies toward him. They swung him side to side with bear hugs and then hoisted the rag-doll fighter to their shoulders, prancing him around for the frenetic crowd, the crowd ready to crown him, ready to follow him, ready to give him anything.

The cameras squeezed in on Vazquez’s face. Surprisingly, the good-looking fighter appeared more contemplative than beaten.

Atlas’ voice was a lullaby.

“Rest,” he said quietly, while the television audience stared into Vazquez’s proud face, “Great job, champion. Great job, warrior.”

Jorrin climbed into the ring and hugged Larios, saying later that he couldn’t wait to prove to the world that he could beat him. The two champions, each wearing kelly green and gold belts far too big for them, stood with their arms around each other, fists raised. Promotion for the next fight had begun.

Vazquez squeezed in under Larios’ arm and the two fighters spoke to each other gently in Spanish. No one could compete so hard against such an opponent and not love the man afterward. They’d given each other what one fan called, “the best fight of the last 30 years.”

The reporters and the other ringside elite were beside themselves. They whirled and bumped against each other in their enthusiasm. Unable to sit down again, they cruised the aisles, their eyes shining. They reached out to the strangers close by, jovial and inclusive.

Chargin had disappeared, probably returning to another seat way behind the action. He left Tenner to deal with a man who repeatedly tried to purchase his services for what he saw as a budding champion.

“I don’t want your money,” Tenner said over and over again, his hands spread out in front of him in frustration.

The fight had been the kind of success that had gained Chargin the nickname, “War-a-week Chargin,” when he made matches for L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium.

If there was anything that genuinely made a promoter a star, it was sheer matchmaking. Two game fighters with nothing but a smidgen of difference between them, with matching styles, matching drive, too much to lose.

If he was only in it for the money, a brute just had to get in the ring and swing and dodge a little. Chargin preferred real boxers—fighters who wanted the fame, wanted the belts and harbored a fine-pointed competitiveness.

But like Vazquez, Chargin didn’t come out of such battles unscathed. The two event nights back to back, the time he spent away from home, the various fighters slipping in and out of his hands had all aged him and kept him from enjoying anything but daydreaming and reminiscing.

“Never get into boxing,” he’d said the day before the big fight.

And even though he’d made a match that was considered the best fight of the year so far, Chargin quickly retreated into the backroom with Lorraine.

The pair had another fight planned for July 19, a fight that might raise their next best hope, Juan Lazcano, to a championship title. The wheel they’d been on for 50 years was still turning.

Yeah, it was a good fight. ESPN was happy, the fans were ecstatic, but around Chargin’s face was the look of a fighter who was starting to feel the accumulation of blows.

Someone said that boxing is like a whole lifetime distilled into 12 brutal rounds. If so, at the end of the night, Chargin resembled Vazquez, full of heart and highly skilled, a great fighter growing tired in the later rounds.