And The Fighter Still Remains

How does a boxer keep fighting after nearly killing an opponent in the ring? For part-timer Jose Haro, the answer lies between his love and hate for the sport.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 21 Fighting Issue. Subscribe today!

This story is also available in Spanish.

This is what is at stake when Jose Haro goes into the ring against Daniel Franco: nothing and everything.

There is nothing at stake because nobody really cares about boxing anymore, except boxers and the people who stand to make money from them. True, Haro is fighting Franco for a belt -- the USBA featherweight title. And the fight is being broadcast nationally on CBS Sports Network. But we live in a world where perhaps one human being out of 100 can name a heavyweight contender, much less one of the three claimants to featherweight supremacy. The June 10 fight, like most fights, is being held in a casino, but as many of those in attendance can't help but observe, "It's not exactly the MGM Grand." In fact, the WinnaVegas Casino Resort is in a cornfield in Iowa. Franco, at 25, is a 3-2 betting favorite, a formerly undefeated prospect trying to steady himself after his last two fights, a knockout loss and a knockout win. Haro is 30 and has written "Hard Luck" on his protective cup, for good reason. He has had just 15 pro fights and is getting paid in the four figures. On both his trunks and on the back of the "Team Haro" hat that he designed, he has embroidered a proclamation so modest it resonates as a kind of plea: "We Are All Humans."

But this is not a story about two men fighting for nothing. It is a story about everything else.

Jose Haro wants to beat Daniel Franco. He wants to win convincingly so that he has a chance of getting more fights against better opponents. If he does, he might be able to pay off the mortgage on his house and quit boxing altogether before he gets hurt. But those are his dreams, his ambitions -- goals he's visualized for himself and his family. There is only one thing he must do when he fights Franco and it's the same thing he must do for all his other fights: He must come home. He must be able to come home. And so as he trains for Daniel Franco, he does what he always does and makes sure his trainer understands something absolutely fundamental about him. He has a wife. He has five children, ranging in age from 1 month to 9 years. He is a husband and father first and a fighter second.

Jose's trainer understands, because Jose's trainer is Jose's brother Eric. They are the same size, both featherweights, "little guys," as Jose says, each about 5-foot-5, and many people who first meet them assume they are twins. But Eric is three years younger than Jose, and when they were growing up, learning to box under their father's tutelage, Jose had to fight Eric with one hand tied behind his back. Eric eventually left boxing because although he was a more aggressive fighter than his brother, he was also more excitable and couldn't stand losing. Jose kept on, with coiled reserves of purpose and patience, training himself for most of his amateur and all of his professional career, until one day he asked Eric to work his corner -- or to be more specific, he said, "Get up off your ass and train me." Eric had what Jose calls "an eye for boxing," an ability to discern, in any melee, the cold logic of strength and weakness. Jose also trusted Eric with his life, no matter what else seemed to be on the line. And so Jose doesn't have to say it before he fights Franco, and Eric doesn't need to hear it. But Jose says it anyway:

If I'm taking a beating, stop it.

If I'm taking punishment without being able to fight back, stop it.

If you have to ask between rounds if I want to go on, stop it.

I might be mad at you then. But I'll be thankful later. I have to leave the ring the same man who entered it.

And Eric answers, as he always does:

Let me do my job, hermano, and let the ref do his. You do yours.

Jose Haro and his younger brother Eric learned to box under their father's tutelage. Now Eric serves as Jose's trainer and cornerman, entrusted with the fighter's life.  Michael Friberg for ESPN

It's late when Jose goes to work on a mid-July morning. He's usually up at 3:45 and out the door by 4. But on this morning, there's a guest sleeping on a couch in the room where he displays the belts he's won over the years: me. The night before, I was up watching TV with his family -- wife Yesenia, one of his sisters and the mighty maelstrom of their combined broods -- and so Jose has decided to let me sleep until 5:15. Now, having shaken my shoulder, he's not only already dressed for work but already waiting for me, his car running in the silvery dark.

If Jose were the kind of fighter sponsored by a big-time promotional organization -- by Roc Nation or Golden Boy or Thompson Boxing -- he might be waking before dawn to get in some roadwork as prelude to a purifying day in the gym. But he is not that kind of fighter. He is the kind of fighter who called himself Hard Luck Haro before his brother started calling him Roller Coaster Haro and who has finally settled on calling himself what most members of his family call him: Pepito. He's not starting his day to an inspirational soundtrack, dressed in sweats and heavy boots, shadowboxing as he runs to meet the sunrise. He's wearing a blue cap, blue slacks and a blue shirt with the Pepsi logo stitched onto the pocket. He's driving to a big glowing Smith's supermarket not far from his home in West Jordan, Utah, just outside of Salt Lake City, and when he walks inside, into the sudden bleaching light of American plenty, he says, "This is the life of a part-time fighter."

It's early enough for there to be no customers in the store. But Jose is not alone. A cashier is already at work, and when Jose asks how she's doing, she answers, "You know -- livin' the dream." And then, as he walks the aisles for a cursory inventory of how much Pepsi has been sold since his last visit to Smith's, he encounters vendors just like himself, his counterparts and competitors. He is the Pepsi guy, responsible for putting product on the shelves and for making sure the store has enough on order. But there is also the 7-Up guy. There is the Red Bull guy. There is the Budweiser guy and the Twisted Tea guy and the Frito-Lay guy. And, of course, in a red shirt and a black visor, there's the Coca-Cola guy, pale, with a patchy reddish beard. Smith's is the biggest store on Jose's route, and so five days a week he makes it his first stop of the morning, and five days a week he runs into these same uniformed corporate foot soldiers in the soda aisle, the juice aisle, the tea aisle, the water aisle and the refrigerator aisle, not to mention in front of the enormous freestanding ziggurats of 12-packs and 2-liter bottles they've erected in unoccupied territory near the produce and meat sections, or in the back room where trucks continually disgorge cornucopian deliveries in shrink-wrapped pallets. Everywhere they meet, they jostle one another, for they are contending for limited space; everywhere they meet, they also josh and needle one another, knowing, after all, that they'll be working in close quarters for the next few hours at the same exhausting trade.

It has been just over a month since Jose fought Daniel Franco, but if an aura of danger has accumulated around him since then, it goes unacknowledged. With his cropped hair and his dented nose, he does not look like the other vendors; with his rolling shoulders, his unhurried but sauntering stride and his absence of wasted motion, he does not move like them either. He moves like a fighter. But when he has to share an aisle with the Coke guy, they start talking about the Coke guy's recent hospitalization, the Coke guy declaring flatly: "I'm lucky to be alive." And when they start talking trash, and Jose says, "I love you, man, but you better get your s--- out of the way," the Coke guy answers: "Look at you, acting all tough for your friend."

Haro has never been able to say he loves boxing without saying "I hate it" in the next breath. Michael Friberg for ESPN

He dresses for the fight in the room where the ring girls dress and undress, its countertops still strewn with glittering bikini tops and bottoms. It is about the size of a bathroom, and it has to accommodate the Haro brothers, the cutman working their corner and Jose's agent, Whitfield Haydon. It is fearfully intimate, and Haydon is certain that Franco, a Roc Nation fighter in a much larger room next door, can hear them. But none of that matters. Haydon has managed a lot of fighters and, well aware of the routine and unforeseen cruelties of the game, is averse to giving speeches. But he knows the degree to which Jose has had to struggle, and he begins to speak: "It's now or never, Jose. If you lose this fight, you're done. Even if you get a draw, you'll never get a rematch. You'll spend the rest of your career a journeyman opponent. Everything depends on what happens in the next hour. Your life depends on what happens in the next hour." Jose nods and begins warming up, working the big red mitts with Eric, and as Haydon listens to the explosive reports his hands make as he puts together his punches -- whap-whap-whap-whap-whap, hook, hook, uppercut, right hand, hook -- he imagines Daniel Franco in the next room, hearing that inexorable sound.

Then Jose laces on the gloves and begins his own speech, his own agonized soliloquy questioning the fate that made him a fighter. When he was 12, he was caught stealing a Twix bar and a bag of Reese's Pieces, and his father, with the words "I didn't raise a thief," took him to a gym. Now, 18 years later, he is unranked and calamity-prone, operating out of a boxing backwater and often obliged to fight on short notice if he is to fight at all, with a professional record of 13-1-1. He stands in his gloves and his trunks and his robe, and as he shadowboxes, he says, over and over, Why am I doing this? Why am I a boxer? Dad, why didn't you make me a golfer? Why didn't you take me to play tennis? Why do I have to go through with this? Why can't I get paid now? Why can't the fight be over? It is not the first time Haydon has heard him speak like this; Jose speaks like this before all of his fights -- it's his ritual, his ranting exorcism of the profound ambivalence underlying his commitment to fisticuffs. The first time Haydon witnessed it, he thought, "Oh, no -- this guy doesn't even want to be here." Now Haydon knows that when it's over, it's over, and Jose is not just ready for a fight. He's ready for violence.

Haro's day job at Pepsi allows him to walk away from boxing if he chooses.  Michael Friberg for ESPN

He has a headache under the lights of the supermarket. He woke up with it, and it reminds him to schedule an MRI. In the fifth round against Franco, he took some punches to the back of the head, and they dizzied him to the extent that he had to tell himself to keep moving his hands -- "I didn't want to give the ref an excuse to ask me any questions." Now, given what happened to Franco, what he did to Franco, he's become painfully aware that one punch can change everything, even with Eric in his corner.

Of course, he might have a headache because he's been too busy to crack open his first Mountain Dew Kickstart, a heavily caffeinated product he drinks from morning 'til night. He is proud of his work for Pepsi. Once he arrives at the store, he has to chip away at mountains of Pepsi products freshly delivered to the back room, shelving bottle after bottle and 12-pack after 12-pack until his triceps burn. He is a man of organized movements, stopping only to talk, and when I ask if his job constitutes a kind of training for the ring, he thinks for a few seconds and then says, "It's a pain sometimes, but it's great when I'm cutting weight. I can count on losing 2 or 3 pounds in a day." But that's not why he plans to keep working for Pepsi, even if he signs for a big fight or receives a promotional contract from an organization like Golden Boy -- even if boxing starts paying his bills. He plans to keep his job because his job protects him. As long as he works for Pepsi, he doesn't have to depend on boxing, and if an MRI ever reveals that his brain is damaged, he can still get out before sustaining a catastrophic blow.

He goes to a refrigerator near the cash register and pulls out a Kickstart. He opens it and drinks some of it down. He pulls his phone from his pocket and checks his Facebook page. "Hey, look at this," he says, and he shows me a photograph of a bespectacled young man in a medical helmet, raising both thumbs. It is Daniel Franco. "He's going in for another surgery today," Jose says, brightening, even though the photo's caption explains the surgery's purpose in dire terms: "Putting my skull back together." But Jose has been keeping up with Franco's condition ever since the fight, and after the trial of the first few days and the first few surgeries, a surgery in which doctors replace the portion of the skull they'd previously removed seems a positive development. "He must be getting better," Jose says, before adding: "I just hope he doesn't go back to boxing. I hope he does something else."

He puts his phone in his pocket and returns to work, lifting 12-packs off a pallet truck and stacking them on the shelves. Then, as he pulls the truck forward, a strip of shrink-wrap gets caught in the wheels and sweeps three 12-packs crashing to the floor. The impact breaks open a can of Diet Pepsi, which spews its contents with carbonated force. A brown spill starts down the aisle, and for a few seconds Jose stares at it, seemingly at a loss, until the Coke guy kneels down and wipes it up with a towel, smiling at Jose and saying, "Hey -- I'm always ready to help the Pepsi guy."

They face each other in the center of the ring. Of all that Jose dislikes about boxing, he dislikes this the most: the faceoff. He doesn't mind the attempts at intimidation, because he's not easily intimidated. He doesn't even mind the posturing, because in the end it matters so little. What he hates is being judged -- strangers thinking they know him because of what they see, when nobody knows anything until the fight starts. It just seems like a charade: Why should I have to look at somebody when in a minute I'm going to be punching him in the face?

And because the fight is being nationally televised, his faceoff with Daniel Franco is the longest he's ever had to endure. It goes on and on, and Jose does with Franco what he does with everyone else he fights: He looks at him and then looks away. It's not that he doesn't like his opponent -- how can he not like Daniel Franco after the opportunity Franco has given him? Nicknamed Twitch, Franco doesn't have to fight; he's an accomplished student, recently accepted to Arizona State. His father never wanted him to fight. And yet here Franco is, not just fighting but fighting Jose Haro, with his father in his corner. He has a long, angular face under a stylish haircut, and at 5-9 he's so tall for a featherweight that when the faceoff finally ends, Jose can't help but ask: "You're so tall -- how did you make the weight?" "It's my skinny legs," Franco answers. Then they touch gloves and go.

Jose has to be careful loading and unloading the pallet truck. He has to be careful about his hands, and he has to be particularly careful about his feet. They hurt him when he pushes, so he pulls the big truck through the store, his small body at such an acute angle that he resembles a sailor hanging from the rigging of a ship.

His feet always hurt him because of what happened at a Wal-Mart in October 2015. It was not the Wal-Mart on his sales route. It was a Wal-Mart in West Valley City, where he stopped on his way home from his day's work, still in uniform. He was pushing a shopping cart, buying things for his family. A man with a history of domestic violence named Cole Shields stopped him in one of the aisles and asked, "'Sup?" Jose had never seen the man before, but when Jose acknowledged him, Shields said, "What the f--- are you looking at?" and began following him through the store. He accused Jose of checking out his girlfriend, and after Jose paid the cashier, Shields was waiting at the store's entrance. "You better keep your hands off me, because you need to know I'm not going to let you beat the s--- out of me," Jose said, and then took off his Pepsi shirt and put it in the shopping cart along with the two mirrors he was buying for his house, the DVDs he was buying for his kids and the Slim Jims and Peanut M&M's he was buying for dinner. He did not want Pepsi to fire him if he got into a fight.

“I have to leave the ring the same man who entered it.”

- Jose Haro

From the start, Shields had kept his right hand in his pocket. Now, pursuing Jose through the parking lot, calling him a spic and a bitch, he pulled out a gun. Jose thought of running but then told himself: You're going to get shot in the back. You can't go out that way. You're going to have to knock him out.

He hit Shields with a left hook and a right, and Shields went down. He wanted to keep on hitting Shields, but his right hand was in a cast from a recent bout, so he kicked him, and when Shields didn't move, he walked away, pushing his shopping cart toward his car. He is not a religious man, but at that moment, Jose was filled with faith -- faith in himself, faith that he had done enough to get back home. He was close to his car when he saw Shields stand up and raise his gun high over his head with outstretched arms. He pulled the trigger, firing five or six shots, and although Jose knew immediately that he'd been hit, he was still able to duck between parked cars, checking to see where he was bleeding. He checked his head, his neck, his chest and his stomach, and his relief at finding no blood flowing from any vital part of his body gave way to his panic at finding blood flowing from the part of his body vital to his livelihood. Cole Shields, holding his gun aloft, had shot Jose through both feet, and when Jose went to the hospital for surgery, he beheld the stigmata and called himself Little Jesus. After a while, so did the nurses.

After laying siege to Daniel Franco for seven rounds, Haro knocked him down in the eighth, then sent him to the canvas for good with a short but very nearly lethal right hand. Stacey Verbeek

When does Jose know he has Daniel Franco? The first round, when he hits Franco with a hook and feels him sag a little bit. From then on, the fight is a culmination and a consummation, a story he tells himself, blow by blow, all the way to its inevitable end. He tells himself to be patient; he tells himself to be careful; he tells himself to pick his shots, because he hates to miss. And when he goes to the corner at the end of the round, he tells himself a secret: Pepito, he's hungry -- but not in the same way you are. He doesn't have the same responsibilities you do. He doesn't have five kids. You are a man next to him.

Franco fights back in flurries. He hits hard, with a long reach and a stiff jab. But Jose is faster, and without apparent haste, he gets inside and goes to work. He seems in his natural element and keeps straightening Franco with uppercuts and then hitting him in the body. The sound that he made putting punches together in the little dressing room for ring girls is the sound that he continues to make in the ring, and in the third round Eric hears Franco saying "Yes sir! Yes sir!" as he fights, and it takes him a moment to understand what is happening. And when he does -- when he realizes Franco's father is shouting instructions from the corner and his son is answering them, even as Jose advances upon him on his small, swift, scarred feet -- well, that's when Eric knows that Jose has him too.

Jose Haro is in a hospital bed with holes in both feet. Now, this is when the inspirational soundtrack should start. His doctor is telling him he'll be able to walk again but might limp for the rest of his life. As for boxing -- "he's back to zero" is how Whit Haydon, his agent, puts it. At the time of the shooting, which sent Cole Shields to prison for nine to 15 years, Jose was negotiating a contract with Thompson Boxing in Los Angeles, but he never hears from the company again. It's not simply that he's wounded, it's that he's tainted -- or as his brother says, "Only bad guys get shot, right?" He's never been anything but ambivalent about boxing; he's never been able to say "I love it" without saying "I hate it" in the next breath, and he has always measured success in terms of being successful enough to get out. Well, now he not only has a chance to get out, he has a chance to get out without anyone remembering that he was in.

He doesn't get out. Indeed, in the hospital, he begins to realize it doesn't matter if he loves boxing or hates it -- he needs it, in order to show the world he's not just a victim and to give his children someone to admire. And so when he goes home, he begins shadowboxing in his wheelchair. Then he begins working mitts with Eric in his wheelchair. Then, about four months after the shooting, he limps into the gym, and six months after the shooting he has his first fight, a six-rounder in front of a packed house outside Salt Lake, during which Eric thinks his brother is not only as good as he was before he was shot, he might be better, because of his concentration -- how he thinks.

And that's just the beginning. He wins another fight, scoring a knockout on a body shot, and Whit Haydon receives a call from Daniel Franco's promoter. Jose signs for a fight scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 11, 2016, and begins to train. But one afternoon he's running with Eric, and when he pivots into a turn, he hears a snap from his left foot. Eric knows it's bad right away because Jose wants to throw up. He also wants to cry -- and he does cry, even more profusely than he cried after the shooting, because he's broken his foot, and he has to cancel the fight with Franco. He goes back to the hospital for the installation of a surgical screw, and he eventually begins training again. But he can't get any fights, he might as well be back to zero, until Haydon calls with the news that Franco wants to fight him for the USBA featherweight title in June.

The inspirational soundtrack should be at full blare now, with trumpets. But it's not. There is only respectful silence, because the story of a prizefight is never the story of one man but two. There is the story of a man who proves himself healed from his wounds and there is the story of another who is about to get very badly hurt -- and because this is boxing, it's the same story.

"I just hope he doesn't go back to boxing. I hope he does something else," Haro says about Daniel Franco. Stacey Verbeek

He feels it in his fingertips. Jose comes back to his corner and listens to Eric tell him, again and again: "Give him a reason to quit! Give him a reason to quit!" But part of him keeps his own counsel, telling himself, Pepito, this is what you've been working for. Don't let it slip away. You might never have this opportunity again. What he cautions himself against is getting careless, and getting caught. But what he fears most is leaving the fight to the judges. Daniel Franco is a Roc Nation fighter. The fight is a Roc Nation fight. Jose has to knock him out, and his awareness of that necessity expresses itself as an almost physical yearning.

He has spent the first seven rounds laying siege to Daniel Franco, and when the eighth round begins, he sees a Franco who has changed since the beginning of the fight. He moves differently. He responds to punches differently. He turns his body differently when he's hit. Now it is a matter of execution, of doing what he and Eric worked on in the gym. Franco keeps moving, keeps jabbing, keeps trying to hurt him with hooks, but every time he does, Jose is able to duck and throw a right hand from a crouch. He is not a one-punch knockout artist, but then he's not throwing single punches; he's throwing punches amplified by accumulation, and such is their impact that Franco might as well be walking into them. At about a minute into the round, Jose hits him with a chopping right. Franco takes a few steps back, and then his long, skinny legs collapse upon each other. He gets up, bleeding from the nose, and then continues to fight, with Jose now applying pressure but also taking his time, throwing every punch he has: jabs, hooks, uppercuts and right hands, always the right hand. And when Franco misses high with a jab, Jose wheels up from under it with a right that travels a tight arc and lands with a centrifugal fury. Jose feels the end of the fight in his knuckles and watches Franco's knees cave in and his ankles splay out and his shoulders fall forward, until he rolls over with his back flat on the canvas. Amazingly, he tries to get up, but the ref presses him back down, waving, and Franco slams his right fist and says "F---!" with blood streaming from his nose.

Jose walks into Eric's arms, he raises his championship belt over his head and he is hoisted aloft even as Franco is lifted to his stool by his father and two other seconds. He slumps, and then as Jose gives an interview, Franco lies down on the canvas as though he needs a rest.

Jose calls Eric to help him at the last store on his route, a Wal-Mart. Eric works for him, and because after a long day Jose still has to unload a fresh delivery piled high in the Wal-Mart back room, he makes sure Eric joins him. Eric has a few snaggly teeth in his smile and a long ponytail that he tucks under his cap when he's working for Pepsi and braids when he's working in Jose's corner. He does what Jose won't do -- he studies video footage of Jose's opponents for flaws and vulnerabilities -- and sometimes he says what Jose won't say. Ever since Jose saw the photo early this morning of Daniel Franco about to undergo surgery for the restoration of his skull, he's been talking to me about his role in putting Franco in the hospital. He knew that he'd hurt Franco badly in the sixth and that Franco had returned to his corner saying that his head hurt. "Maybe I should have been a man and said, 'Stop the fight! Stop the fight!' But you know, he was fighting back to the very end. He was flurrying, and I think they thought that if it went to a decision, he could still have won."

He is as ambivalent about his fight with Daniel Franco as he is about boxing itself -- proud of what he put into it, dismayed by what he got out of it. It is not so with Eric, because Eric brings an almost aesthetic appreciation to his brother's fights, even the fight with Franco. When I ask him about the right hand that ended the fight, he smiles his jagged smile and says, "I knew that punch was going to come. I spotted Daniel's flaws, and I knew that it would come if Jose threw it from here" -- and now, in the soda aisle, he assumes a boxing stance, drops into a crouch and throws the same short right Jose did. "You know, both Jose and I put posts on social media celebrating the victory. And the next morning, there were people calling us animals -- 'How can you be celebrating when Daniel is fighting for his life?' We didn't know he was fighting for his life. We just knew he'd been knocked out and had gone to the hospital to get checked out. But that's boxing. We didn't cheat. We won that fight clean. We weren't supposed to win it. He was Daniel Franco. Jose was just a guy from Utah who got shot in both feet. But as the fight went on, I knew that we were chopping Daniel Franco down. I just wanted Jose to add the exclamation point."

Haro is a husband and father first and a fighter second. Michael Friberg for ESPN

Franco goes out of the ring on a stretcher, and when Jose and the rest of Team Haro gather back in their dressing room, they say a prayer for him. Then they open a bottle of water and pretend it's champagne, and that's Jose's celebration. He sleeps that night with his USBA championship belt, and in the morning he receives a text from Whit Haydon informing him that Daniel Franco's brain is bleeding in two places, that he's already been in surgery, that surgeons removed a portion of his skull in order to relieve the pressure caused by the hemorrhage, that he's in an induced coma and may die. Suddenly, Jose goes from an athlete who has completed a lonely, unlikely comeback to a man who has very nearly beaten another man to death, and once again he feels as though he's back to zero.

He goes home to West Jordan, to Yesenia and his children. When he was shot, he waited to tell the kids what happened; they thought he was in the hospital because a 12-pack broke his foot. He doesn't tell the kids what happened in Iowa either. They know that he knocked Daniel Franco out and that a knockout is in itself an injury. But they don't know the extent of it -- the terrible totality of his victory. They are so young, so how can they possibly understand the significance of the championship belt he brought home, much less what it cost him to get it? They can't, and one afternoon he can't even find the belt. It's disappeared, and when he goes looking for it, he finds it in the possession of his rambunctious 3-year-old boy, Riley, who is scribbling all over it with a black Sharpie.

When I have lunch with Jose and Eric after they finish their route, I have two questions, the first about taking a punch and the other about throwing one. Jose Haro has never been knocked out as a fighter. He has never even been knocked down. He has told me that nothing frightens him more than the idea of waking up in the middle of a boxing ring with no memory of what just happened to him. Will he be able to get up if he gets knocked down? Will he be able to prevail while taking punishment? Will he be able to win a war? And if he were in a war -- well, boxing history is not only full of fighters who took beatings and were never the same; it is full of fighters who delivered beatings and were never the same, who finished not only a fight but a man with a decisive blow and could never throw such a pitiless and ferocious punch again. Will Jose be able to get up the way Daniel Franco did after the first knockdown in the eighth round of their fight? And will Jose be able to find it within himself to throw the same kind of punch that put Franco down for good?

He does not know the answer to the first question because he doesn't know what it's like to have to get up after being knocked down, at least in the ring. He does know what it's like to face such a situation in life, however, and so he thinks he can do it, if he has to -- if he is fighting to secure a future for his family. He has earned so little money in boxing, fighting at times for only a few hundred dollars and never for more than a few thousand. And yet he still holds out the hope that a big payday will enable him to build a house instead of waking up in the middle of the night worrying about losing one, even though he knows full well that a payday will strip him of some of the protections he's been at pains to devise. "If I'm taking a beating, stop it," he's instructed his brother. But it's one thing to say that at the WinnaVegas in a cornfield in Iowa. It's another at the MGM Grand.

As for his being able to throw that punch: Yes, he thinks he can, because he already has. He worked tirelessly with Eric to set up that punch against Daniel Franco, and then there it was, the fulfillment of all his work and the answer to all his dreams. How could he not throw it?

I ask what else Eric said to him between rounds, other than "Give him a reason to quit." "He was like, 'You got this, Pepito. You got this!' I was like, 'You think this is so easy? You go out there and fight him.'"

And then I ask what's the most important thing Eric has ever said to him in the corner. Eric is about to answer, but Jose interrupts him and, relaxing into a sudden smile, he says: "'Knock this motherf---er out.'"

Tom JunodBefore joining ESPN as a senior writer, Junod wrote for Esquire and GQ. He has won two National Magazine Awards, a James Beard Award and the June Biedler Award for Cancer Writing. His work has been widely anthologized, and his 2003 9/11 story, "The Falling Man," was selected, on Esquire's 75th anniversary, as one of the seven best stories in the history of the magazine.

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