Xavier Masson-Leach visits an arena that awakens the most basic instinct.
The crowd is not interested. People mumble to each other and throw up hand signals to the figures that stalk swiftly between the plastic chairs: the ones selling paper cups of beer and peanuts and trays of pickled pork fat. It’s the kind of snack that’s popular with all Mexican sports fans, both malleable and indestructible – one strip of fat stays in your mouth for half an hour despite chewing, bathing in warm lime juice and chilli that tangs of bacteria. The foamy, tasteless beer is necessary to wash it down, and to ease into the heat.
The air in the enclosed arena is thick and suffocating but no one shows it on their face, they just move slower than usual. An old couple with smooth hair smoke surreptitiously. Fat women sweat silently and leathery men sit with their arms folded, as if asleep. Round-eyed children kneel up in their chairs, staring respectfully at the faces of the adults behind them.
The fighters themselves are mute and unacknowledged, as if they were boxing in the corner of the room not under the lights in the ring. They circle each other, quietly battling exhaustion; their useless arms barely able to push their fists through the swimming air.
A rolling voice distorts through the speakers and the boxers gratefully make their exit under the ropes to a dribble of applause. The row of judges look down at the schedule, counting the number of amateurs till the main event. They are all old and balding, with grave moustaches, except for one of them who is dressed as Elvis.
Dramatic music blares rudely as the announcer calls the next fighters. He rolls the consonants and howls the vowels in a deep, guttural rhythm, gesturing wildly to an imagined screaming crowd. The actual crowd pay his performance very little attention; although not in a cynical or insulting manner, just as if they’re waiting.
Two women lift themselves quickly into the ring. They touch gloves and circle, testing the air with neat, biting strokes. Zenny Sotomayor keeps her head down, straining as if she’s been weighted down. Kareli Lopez skips cleanly from one foot to the other. She is short, with a dark, sweet face that is as polite and detached as those in the audience.
Then suddenly there’s a connection you can hear.
Kareli’s head is snapped right and there’s a split second silence before a spray of sweat hits the judges and the crowd boils over. People stand in a surge and yell with burning outrage or maybe excitement, twisting their bodies, whooping and howling comically. They quickly die down and as they sink back to their seats they are laughing and tense and slapping each other on the shoulder.
Zenny keeps coming forward: her face is drawing anger from inside and the lights behind give her a shining edge. The crowd is a murmur again but something’s changed: they swig their drinks and grin with their teeth and clearly call out the insults and encouragement that go together so naturally in Spanish. They’re really watching now and the fighters are really fighting and the air is still thick and hot.
Every second is unspeakably long and brutal and jolting but when the last bell finally strikes, Lopez and Sotomayor collapse in each other’s arms, almost smiling.
From then on the crowd is part of every fight, breathing with the boxers. They stand in starts and punch the air, swearing stupidly, the blood rising in their faces.
Then, in a lull before the main event, there is a small flurry of cameras ringside. It’s the number one contender for Mayor of the city, here to remind us all how painfully soon the elections are. A few impassive faces turn to watch as he stands, expertly throwing out handshakes and waves to people as if he knows them, ignoring his wife. His enthusiastic gestures and campaign-poster smile are so un-Mexican it’s as if he’s not really here at all.
Not that being here is important. He angles his face towards the black eye of the camera, while the crowd remains respectfully disinterested – aware they are just a backdrop for a larger audience.
An excited group of aides lift his bulk up into the ring, and the mayoral candidate strides from corner to corner, rumbling into the hollow microphone about investment opportunities in the great state of Sonora and the need for open and honest leadership. Still the crowd, so ferocious a few minutes before, remain drained of energy. A few clap politely but most turn to order more drinks or look down at their hands.
The headline fighter is a handsome local boy, nicknamed ‘El Gallo’, who enters to a fanfare of lights and mariachi trumpets with his fist in the air. He has the prospective Mayor’s name embroidered on his shorts and as he climbs into the ring he is smiling the same smooth unbroken smile. The two men put an arm round each others’ shoulder and turn to the cameras in unison.
El Gallo’s fight is over in less then a minute. His Filipino opponent goes down in anticipation of the first punch, hitting the mat as the crowd watches quietly. It’s hard to blame him for avoiding an unnecessary beating, but if he’s getting paid to take a fall there was very little effort put into the performance.
It doesn’t seem to bother El Gallo and the candidate, who take their time to celebrate their mutual victory for the cameras. The crowd is unreadable, elaborately casual. No one hurls insults. No one is outraged. No one even laughs at the embarrassing optics of a politician celebrating a fixed match. They wait, long enough to be polite, then begin to drift inconspicuously toward the exit.