Entering Margaritoville: Tijuana fighter the toast of El Siete Mares

BALDWIN PARK, Calif. -- Old fight posters do not adorn the walls of El Siete Mares, a Mexican restaurant and bar just outside Los Angeles. But make no mistake, the establishment is a haven for Mexican boxing fans.

Instead of posters, six televisions are strategically placed so that no matter where a customer sits, the fights are visible.

It's a tradition for Rafael Chavez, who owns eight El Siete Mares restaurants as well as five other Mexican restaurants in the Soutern California area. If there's a fight on the tube, Chavez will show it.

Chavez was born in Mexico, but has been a Southern California restaurant owner for the past 25 years.

"I like all sports, but my main love is boxing," Chavez said. "I did a little bit myself and I've followed guys like [brothers] Rafael and Gabriel Ruelas, locals that fought around here. I also have a lot of friends who come here who are boxing fans. It is something we can relate with because we love it.

"There are not a lot of places that do this [normally air fights], but I'm one of them. I'm always showing the fights, and it's in my heart."

John Molina Sr., a resident of nearby Covina, grows wide-eyed, not at the sight of the cheese enchiladas, but as talk of the Mexican-Puerto Rican rivalry is breached.

"I think what it boils down to is the pride, the pride that the Mexican people have as well as the Puerto Rican people," said Molina, who will be at El Siete Mares on Saturday when Puerto Rico's Miguel Cotto defends his welterweight championship in Las Vegas against Antonio Margarito of Mexico. "When you get two competitive cultures like that going at something, it's exciting.

"And when you take it to boxing, it's the best because it's one-on-one and to me, there's nothing better than that."

Talk to other patrons of the restaurant about the long-running rivalry that exists between Mexican and Puerto Rican fighters, and the emotional floodgates open.

Ben Lira, like many El Siete Mares regulars, is involved in boxing in an official capacity. He trains boxers out of the Teamsters Youth Boxing Club in South El Monte, about 12 miles east of Los Angeles. He spoke with passion about the feud and pulled no punches when discussing his feelings about his people's fighters compared to those of Puerto Rico.

"There's that little dislike for the flair the Puerto Ricans have, and the machoism that the Mexicans carry," Lira said. "The Mexicans don't like to parade and clown and everything as much as -- I don't want to put Puerto Rican people down -- but they tend to be very vocal, very outgoing as far as how they show who they are.

"They tend to go a little overboard. But that's their style. They tend to be like that. And Mexicans are completely different. Mexicans are kind of laid-back, they're not as outgoing. But yet they're very determined, they've got huge pride in front of them and 90 percent of them will die first before they will quit."

Ironically, Cotto is exactly the opposite of Lira's characterization. An all-business, no-nonsense operator who prefers to let his fists do the talking, the Puerto Rican admitted during a conference call last week that he was more concerned about his legacy than the rivalry.

When asked if he had discussed the rivalry with Puerto Rican living legend Felix Trinidad, Cotto was quick to direct attention to the matter at hand, and the page in history that he and his opponent will be writing Saturday. "I don't have to talk to anyone about this rivalry," he said. "I only need to know about Margarito and myself."

Still, there's no denying that many of boxing's highest-profile fights over the decades have been between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Mexico's Julio Cesar Chavez went 3-0 against Hector Camacho, Edwin Rosario and Juan La Porte.

The late Salvador Sanchez of Mexico knocked out Puerto Rican great Wilfredo Gomez; Sanchez also decisioned La Porte.

The Puerto Ricans have had their share of victories, including Gomez's knockouts of Lupe Pintor and Carlos Zarate. Trinidad beat Mexican-Americans Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas.

But in Lira's mind, the Mexicans win even if they are not as talented as their Puerto Rican counterparts for one reason.

"Their heart is probably the biggest thing they carry," Lira said.
"Puerto Ricans, to me, don't have that. They do have a lot of athletic ability. But as far as the bigger hearts, I think that belongs to the Mexican people, Mexican fighters.

"That's what sort of makes that rivalry is because [the Puerto Ricans] sort of tend to want to brag more than what they really are, and it gets the Mexican blood going."

Antonio DeSantiago was born and raised in Tijuana, Margarito's hometown. A 27-year resident of Baldwin Park, DeSantiago was celebrating his 53rd birthday on July 5 at El Siete Mares. He proudly recalled one of the biggest fights between a Mexican and Puerto Rican: the August 1981 featherweight world championship bout between Sanchez and Gomez.

Gomez started his career with a draw, then knocked out 32 consecutive opponents heading into his showdown with Sanchez at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. But Gomez was moving up from super bantamweight. Sanchez, who died a year later in a car accident at the age of 23, stopped Gomez in the eighth round.

"Salvador Sanchez was a great boxer," DeSantiago said. "He threw punches from all angles."

Even though DeSantiago and Margarito share the same hometown, DeSantiago said the rivalry doesn't cause him to feel any disdain toward Puerto Rican fighters. Instead, he's hoping for a fight representative of all the previous battles between the two proud peoples.

"I don't care what race or nationality they are," DeSantiago said.
"I just want to see the best."

On the other hand, Rafael Chavez, like Lira, seems to have a special passion for the rivalry.

"We're Latinos, but we're from different countries," Chavez said. "That's where the rivalry comes in. They say they have more good Puerto Ricans [fighters] than there are good Mexicans. But it's not true. They just think it's true. That's what starts that rivalry of saying, 'We're better.'"

At about this time the junior welterweight title fight between Kendall Holt and Ricardo Torres was about to begin. All eyes were glued to the televisions. There was a lot of screaming and yelling, but it didn't last long because Holt got off the canvas twice to knock out Torres in the first round of a short, yet vicious bout.

Sitting at the end of a long table is John Molina Jr., a lightweight with a 12-0 record. At 25, it would seem he is a bit young to appreciate this scenario.

Except for Trinidad-De La Hoya in 1999, Molina hasn't experienced much of the Mexican-Puerto Rican conflict. Then again, he did a good job of articulating its significance.

"This means a ton because it's for pride," Molina Jr. said. "Whether we're proud of our car, of our wife, of our kids, pride is a big deal."

When it comes time for predictions, though, the restaurant's regulars are a bit more objective. Even Lira, the most outspoken of the group, thinks Cotto will be a tough nut for Margarito (36-5, 26 KOs) to crack.

"Margarito has a chance because of his size and his durability and his ability to take punishment," Lira said of the 5-foot-11 Margarito (Cotto is about 5-7). "What he's going to have to deal with is Cotto's speed, his quickness, his movement. If he can dominate Cotto in the beginning, [a Margarito victory] just might happen. But the further it goes, the more I'm going to lean toward Cotto.

"I think he can adjust. I think he has more skills, as far as boxing, than Antonio."

Margarito and Lira have become friends over the years. Margarito frequents El Siete Mares, and Rafael Chavez's affinity for him also runs deep. Chavez spoke highly of Cotto's prowess in the ring but he feels that somehow his Mexican comrade will be the first to hand Cotto (32-0, 26 KOs) a defeat.

"The way I see it, the fight is an even fight," Chavez said. "But I have to stick with Antonio. I believe in Antonio. He doesn't talk a lot, but he demonstrates to the people that he comes to fight, that he's going to do the best he knows how.

"When he beats Cotto, then he's accomplished everything out there."

Robert Morales covers boxing for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.