A well-written story about an unusally focussed and disciplined young man who has courage, principles and dignity.
By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Photo by Kelly Nicolaisen. Photo Assistant Storm Vincent. Location provided by K-One Fitness.
Within the neighborhood the professional boxer orients his behavior and routine around the role of boxer.... He is admired, often has a small coterie of followers, and begins to dress smartly ... and to conceive of himself as a neighborhood celebrity, whether or not he has money at the time.
The brakes squeal and a car jolts to a halt. A disbelieving voice blares from within. "Shit! That's Karim!" A middle-aged man abandons his vehicle — leaving the door wide open and the engine running — and lopes across McAllister Street with the glee of a kid chasing down the ice cream man.
Karim Mayfield, undefeated boxer and the pride of the Fillmore, is in his element. Wandering the streets where he "came up and came back," he is interrupted by well-wishers like a groom on his wedding day. Shouts of "Karim!" or "Hard Hitter!" — Mayfield's nickname — come from restaurant patrons, passing drivers, and the apartment windows above. Mayfield is doted upon like a returning war hero — or the pope.
He is intensely loved, revered, and respected.
He is just barely scraping by.
Neighbors assume that an unblemished record, sponsorships, gigs sparring with champs like Shane Mosley and Manny Pacquiao, and a June appearance on ESPN's Friday Night Fights pummeling former champion Stevie Forbes translate into vast wealth — or at least financial security. "They don't know me," says Mayfield with a wan smile. "And they don't know boxing."
They don't know that while Mosley and Pacquiao command millions for each fight — Floyd Mayweather, Jr. was recently filmed literally setting money ablaze — the majority of boxers are outearned by crossing guards. Mayfield has pocketed more than $3,500 for a fight just twice, and has never fought more than three times in a year. The boxer's San Francisco roots provide him with a refuge, security, and support — but haven't furthered his career.
Professional boxing in this city has gone the way of afternoon newspapers. Jack Johnson, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, and countless other pugilists whose names evoke nostalgia fought here. Fifty years ago, San Francisco hosted 30 pro boxing shows. Last year there was one.
A local boxer chasing dreams of wealth and prestige is facing lottery-like odds. Yet scratching this ticket requires years of struggle and prolonged periods without income — and it scratches you back. Mayfield, however, has beaten the odds to come this far. He's fought his way out of boxing's periphery and landed what every fighter covets — a title shot. But a single loss could undo dozens of victories and years of toil. "Boxing is not like football. You can't come back in the playoffs. You lose one fight and you set yourself back a year, maybe two," says the fighter. At 30 years of age and with a wife and three kids, Mayfield does not have years to burn. "It's a crossroad. And this is my time."
The odor of urine and desperation lingers over the intersection of Seventh and Market streets. After two alarmingly steep stairways, that scent is overpowered by the pungent aroma of sweat-soaked clothing and hard-working bodies that's as much a part of boxing gyms as the dumbbells, heavy bags, and memorabilia to furnish 10 Irish pubs.
While acclimating to the smell, one is mesmerized by the surreal scene of 27 frenetic boxers crammed into a space a shade larger than a studio apartment. Even more incongruously, all the goings-on at Straight Forward Club (SFC) are on display through windows for workers at the federal building across the alley.
Boxing coach Paris Alexander, a former lightweight champ, takes in the scene and breaks into a gap-toothed grin. "It's a room full of dreams," he bellows over the din. At 5-foot-7 and a shade under 155 pounds, Karim Mayfield is far from the biggest man in the gym. But he may have the biggest dreams. At the end of the month he'll be fighting in front of the crowds and the cameras. If all goes well, he'll be hoisting a champion's belt, too. After that — a man can only dream.
Pick up any boxing manual — there are many — and you won't learn to fight like Mayfield. He describes himself as an "awkward" and "unorthodox" fighter; opponents don't know what's coming because neither does he. "A boxer may be used to catching certain punches in a certain way; a right, and then you're anticipating a left," he says. "But I may throw four rights in a row. You'll be expecting that left next, but I'll be throwing three more rights after that."
What he lacks in grace and fundamentals he has — so far — made up for in raw power and an utterly devastating right hand. "Oh, Karim has a hellacious overhand right," says veteran Bay Area cut man Phil Mondello. "He will just kill you with that overhand right." Stevie Forbes found that one out the hard way. In the 10th round of their June bout, Mayfield battered the 34-year-old into journeyman status. He staggered Forbes with a crushing right, then followed with at least 21 unanswered blows. As Forbes shrank into the ropes, Mayfield battered away at his receding head; it resembled a man beating the melting witch in The Wizard of Oz. Referee Gregorio Alvarez curtailed the fight and Mayfield immediately dropped into a Cossack-like dance — the "Get Low," a Fillmore-originated move nobody in the old 'hood failed to note.
SFC boxers part to make way for the gym's founding trainer Ben Bautista — they also give space to Bautista's hulking pit bull, Victory. The only female in the gym, Victory is stowed in a kennel atop a derelict treadmill and yawns at the cacophonous scene in front of her.
Bautista is a short, powerfully built man with enough tattoos to inspire a Ray Bradbury short story. He founded SFC in 1999 and has moved it between basements, garages, warehouses, and, now, a proper gym. Mayfield has long been his star pupil. The boxer has periodically left to fight under trainers with championship resumes, but he has always returned to Bautista. And it will be Bautista guiding Mayfield into the most important bout of his life — a shot at the vacant North American Boxing Organization junior welterweight belt.
The trainer eyeballs a hand-scrawled message above the ring, the canvas of which is held together by a 5-yard strip of duct tape: They all gots to go! Bautista explains: "Anyone in the way of my fighters, they gonna get rolled."
The opponent in Mayfield's way is Patrick "El Elegante" Lopez. A two-time Venezuelan Olympian, he comes into the bout on the heels of consecutive losses. A third straight setback would likely usher the 33-year-old left-hander into a phase of his career boxers refer to as "the professional opponent."
But that's his problem. El Elegante gots to go.
Fighters continually seek nostrums and exercises for improving their bodies.
— WEINBERG AND AROND
My job," Mayfield says softly, "is, literally, to break men's dreams. Boxing is something these guys have been doing since they're 12. Patrick Lopez! It's so irritating to think about one man for a whole month and a half. It's like if you know you're going to have a fight after school, even if you can beat the guy, there's a weird feeling you get before a fight. But it's not just for an hour until after school. It's for the whole month and a half."
Mayfield is in an introspective mood, aided by an hour of inactivity in a frenetic lifestyle that sees him up at dawn to run along Ocean Beach, and training until after sunset. But he's still working out, even while prone. Mayfield is swathed in heated pads attached to the FormoStar Encore Infrared Body Wrap machine. The device resembles a 1950s radio and glows a theatrical neon purple. A glossy brochure claims it will stimulate blood flow and burn up to 1,400 calories an hour via the wonders of infrared heat. It will also combat cellulite and aid menstrual cramps. Mayfield heard about it on E! News.
Several days later, the boxer is huffing and puffing with a faraway look in his eyes. It's understandable — he's at an altitude of 22,000 feet. A mask akin to one Tom Cruise wore in Top Gun is affixed to a cooler-sized "hypoxygen" machine, which simulates the thin air of mountainous elevations and, ostensibly, spurs the body to more efficiently process oxygen. Mayfield's head is spinning, but his feet are firmly planted on the ground at Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC), in a squat San Carlos office park. The establishment is the latest iteration in the strange career of Victor Conte, the man who boosted Barry Bonds and other athletes to dizzying heights of another sort via copious amounts of performance-enhancing drugs.
"I believe in second chances," explains Mayfield. The photos of hundreds of athletes gaze down upon him from the walls; Conte has made no effort to remove those who were blackballed from their sports or even incarcerated following drug scandals. "Victor says he's turned his life around." Mayfield insists the supplements he takes are "100 percent legit" — and he's far from the only boxer knocking them back. More famous fighters like Mosley, Andre Ward, Nonito Donaire, and Andre Berto are also clients. In fact, says Conte's notably muscular daughter, Victoria, SNAC diagnosed Berto with an iron deficiency, which had fatigued him. "We predict a big bounce-back in his next fight," she says. Last month, Berto scored a knockout win — in a bout Victor Conte attended personally.
It's a role-reversal for a boxer to be on the up-and-up and his nutritionist to be an ex-con. But Mayfield is an unorthodox fighter.
"Everything about you matters. Everything about you is important. Everything about you is key to everything about you." These are not the words of Bautista, who employs the term "motherfucker" with Miles Davis regularity. Yoga instructor Mary Jarvis has known Mayfield since he was a teenager slipping her free wheat grass at a local juice bar. Now he and two dozen others perspire in a darkened room heated to a balmy 105 degrees. Mayfield stands out — and not just because he's the only black man in the building or, perhaps, large swaths of the Marina. While bikinis and Speedos are the de facto uniform, he is outfitted in heavy sweats and a Unabomber-like hoodie concealing a rubber bodysuit. Mayfield has several weeks to drop 15 pounds and make weight at 140.
Thrice-weekly yoga keeps Mayfield limber, but Jarvis says it can do more. She claims it stimulates his endocrine system and allows him to "slow down time" like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. He will also throw "a wiser punch," whatever that means.
After yoga, the man whose job it is to break others' dreams talks of his own. "I dream I'm kickin' it with Floyd Mayweather," he says with a laugh. Despite literally having money to burn, Mayweather is famed for his grueling, three-a-day workouts. So, at 1 a.m., Mayfield tiptoes out of his Daly City home while his family sleeps. He starts the car, hangs a right on Hickey Boulevard, and swims laps at 24 Hour Fitness. If Mayweather does three workouts a day, Mayfield must do four.
The juvenile and adolescent culture of the lower socioeconomic levels provides a base for boxing culture.
— WEINBERG AND AROND
The archway on McAllister between Fillmore and Webster was called "the Bundle," in reference to the sums of money local drug-dealers amassed daily. That wasn't all that was going on, however. Time spent "under the Bundle" was on-the-job training for Mayfield. He and his older brother, LaRon, were the keepers of a quartet of tattered boxing gloves oozing cotton and patched with electrical tape. "When the gloves came out, you had to fight," recalls Mayfield's cousin, Rico Hamilton. Hamilton's and Mayfield's mothers are sisters; they lived in a small apartment with their combined eight children. In such a household, a young boy learns to box — they wrapped their hands with socks and threw down. Mayfield quickly earned the nickname "Little Tyson."
They're not boxing anymore under the Bundle. Youths now resolve their disputes via quicker, more permanent methods — six of Mayfield's eight closest friends have been murdered. "We had a friend who was killed right here," says LaRon while motoring past the Bundle. "I was sitting in my car across the street and he was shot. He took off running down the street — but he was already dead. He was like a chicken with its head cut off."
Karim Mayfield's surviving contemporaries savor his success. But what really moves them is his tenacity. "There were people out here who were even better than Karim. But they never put that first foot forward," says LaRon. "They could have been champions. But the streets done got 'em."
When San Francisco boxing historian Stan Smith was a child in the 1930s, he could take in three fight nights a week for free when he sold programs. That era is long gone and so are the edifices that house Smith's memories, including Winterland Arena, Seals Stadium, and National Hall, a.k.a. the "Bucket of Blood."
At both the state and national levels, the number of yearly sanctioned boxing events is about one-fifth what it was when "Dewey Beat Truman." But the vast majority of that decline took place prior to the mid-1960s; since then the totals have been in stasis. In San Francisco, however, the number of fight cards has dropped, inexorably, toward zero.
A major reason for this is that San Francisco is no longer a place where people of modest means can easily live and play. Nowadays, San Francisco costs. When Jimmy Sosa — the last regular San Francisco promoter — put on some 50 fight nights between 1981 and 1990, he could negotiate rates at venues like the Galleria Design Center for as little as $1,100 nightly. After his first event at the Kabuki Theater, he actually talked Bill Graham into letting him use the place for free (booze sales more than made up the difference). That's a far cry from the $12,000 promoter Phil Di Mauro says was eaten up last year in site-related expenses for one night at Kezar Pavilion — which is, objectively, a dump. A pair of cards promoted earlier this year by Don Chargin at Longshoremen's Hall cost around $70,000 apiece to put on, but only generated him about $10,000 total profit, according to event coordinator John Chavez. With such a daunting break-even point, promoters must charge a bundle for tickets — $50 minimum for the Longshoremen's shows. These are hardly blue-collar prices. But, then, there are hardly any blue-collar fans left to support regular boxing here. Sosa used to stock his shows by leaving rolls of tickets with bartenders at working-class watering holes. Those people are now dead or relocated, and the establishments have gone the way of the Bucket of Blood.
The inherent costs and inefficiencies of San Francisco keep big-time boxing away, too. In 2001, local promoter Peter Howes put on a Floyd Mayweather championship bout at Civic Auditorium — plans fell through in Vegas "and I was Johnny-on-the-spot." But nothing like that has happened since, and there's no reason to expect it to. Casinos overbid to host major bouts, knowing they'll make the money back at the gambling tables. Most cities can't compete, especially costly, red-tape-happy San Francisco. Little surprise that Olympic gold medalist and undefeated champion Andre Ward, after fighting before a scant 4,100 fans at his hometown Oracle Arena last year, will next box in Atlantic City.
Without local events, the Karim Mayfields of the world — late bloomers who missed the Olympics and weren't taken on by a major promoter — cannot build up fan bases. Mayfield, whose fame outside the Fillmore is limited, cannot draw enough fans for an out-of-town promoter to pay an opponent what it would be worth to step in the ring with an undefeated knockout artist. "Making fights for Karim is hard," says Andy Nance, a contender out of Marin turned matchmaker. "Nobody wants to fight the guy. I've tried many times to make fights for him."
DePaul economist Rafael Tenorio wrote a 2006 paper codifying what boxing fans already knew: This is the only sport that rewards its top competitors for avoiding competition. It makes economic sense for elite fighters to keep battling beatable opponents, rake in heavy paydays, and leave their drawing power untarnished. This trickles down to impede boxers of Mayfield's caliber as well. There is, Tenorio says, little incentive for established boxers to take on dangerous, "dark-horse-type fighters."
Between other fighters' trepidation at facing Mayfield and his own reticence to put his undefeated record on the line in short-notice fights for small potatoes, he fought just 10 times between 2007 and 2009. Frustrated, he dropped manager Jackie Kallen in late '09 — and fought twice in the next 18 months. The situation is perhaps best summed up by former promoter Stewart Katz, who abandoned the fight game for the saner world of criminal defense law. "Boxing," he says, "is just a fucked-up sport. Honestly."
It's 9 a.m. on a Saturday, several weeks prior to the Lopez fight. Karim Mayfield is fast asleep in his car following an unanticipated journey to Redwood City to drop off his son at 6:30 a.m. for a pee-wee football game. As a result, everyone clambers up the gym's stairs before Mayfield — Bautista, three amateur sparring partners, and Ken Watson. A former San Francisco prizefighter, Watson blames "the temptations of the street" for the six losses that closed out his career after five opening wins. He introduces himself as Mayfield's "guru" and predicts his pupil will be champion of the world. "He loves God. He's got a good spirit. And I'll tell you something else he has that I didn't have — me!" The future world champ groggily ascends the staircase. Watson smiles and calls out a mantra: "Bruce Lee. Ali." Mayfield finishes it: "And me."
Bautista imparts much of his coaching without even uttering a word; a raised eyebrow or scowl speaks volumes. But exhausted fighters holding one another up is too much for him. "Quit hugging and start mugging!" he commands his boxers. Until the fighters are ordered to break, time spent in a clinch not working over the opponents' kidneys, shoulders, and ears is time wasted.
With one minute left in the final round of the day — "One minute and there's victory in it!" chants Bautista — Mayfield and sparring partner Troy King get their second winds. They lay into one another for 60 electrifying seconds, jolting Bautista up to his feet. He swings his fists at an imaginary opponent and hops onto the ropes. "Way to thug! We got thugs up in this motherfucker! Thug it out! Thug it out! Thug it out!"
Boxing culture tends to work to the eventual detriment of the boxer.
— WEINBERG AND AROND
In 2010, the nearly 400 pro boxers in Nevada earned $38,655,936, an average of more than $98,000 a bout. Not bad — but declaring an "average" boxing payout is a bit like stating the average height of LeBron James and a jockey is 6-foot-2.
In fact, most of that money — $22,224,850 — went to one man: Floyd Mayweather. Perhaps this explains his incendiary tendencies. All told, the 20 highest-paid boxers earned 93 percent of the money — leaving the remaining 370-odd fighters to tussle for $2.6 million. That's an average of $7,070 a bout. But even that payout is overstated: Median compensation turns out to be just $2,375. Last year, after beating Mario Ramos in Reno, Mayfield pocketed a $2,425 net contestant's share.
Boxing, it turns out, is a striking example of what economist Sherwin Rosen dubbed "the economics of superstars," where certain fields are dominated by a handful of elites. In such a scenario, even marginal differences in talent result in massive disparities in compensation. Hypothetically, it would mean a lawyer who wins 5 percent more of his cases than the average attorney would command far greater than 5 percent above the average compensation. And while Pacquiao isn't 2,000 times more talented than Mayfield, he did earn 2,000 times more from his last fight.
In sports and culture, the monopolization of earnings is an accepted reality — and it's growing. Princeton economist Alan Krueger calculated that the top 1 percent of musicians amassed 26 percent of concert revenue in 1982, and 56 percent in 2003. In the book The Winner-Take-All Society, professors Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that the harsh inequalities of superstar economics are now firmly entrenched in the American mainstream. Income disparities are skyrocketing — and are doing so within many professions. Per the World Top Incomes Database, the income share of the nation's wealthiest 5 percent has jumped from 21 percent in 1978 to 33 percent in 2008. Both Frank and Cook tell SF Weekly that the American economy is growing more like boxing.
And most of us will never win that belt.
The Fitzgerald Casino resembles Costco with fairy tale towers — a Disney castle as imagined by Le Corbusier. Mayfield's path here, to Tunica, Miss., began when he signed on with Memphis-based promoters Prize Fight Boxing in May. "Without a promoter coddling him and taking care of him, it was impressive for Karim to stay undefeated," says Nate Yoder, Prize Fight's vice president. "When you don't have a promoter willing to pay the bills, a lotta times you sit when you're a puncher like Karim."
Mayfield's dormancy quickly ceased. His June knockout of Forbes earned him $10,000. And, on Oct. 1, he stepped into the ring with Lopez for $11,000 and a belt.
This was a fight of the sort fans savor — and anyone with a vested interest in either boxer dreads. Mayfield and Lopez damaged one another in Tunica; such bouts add miles to a fighter's odometer. Lopez repeatedly charged forward, rarely even moving laterally in his aggressive style. Against an opponent with a heavy right hand, this ensured a long, brutal evening. "It was freakin' barbaric," recalls Mayfield. Between exchanges of brutally powerful combos and extended sessions of "thugging" — at one point the clinching boxers tumbled to the canvas — both fighters opened up bleeding welts above the other's eye. This would be a profitable evening for area dry-cleaners: Lopez and Mayfield sprayed the ringside crowd with blood, sweat, and saliva, dousing referee Randy Phillips in the process. "By the 10th round, you could see blood clots coming out of his mouth," LaRon Mayfield said of Lopez. "It looked like meat." Those souvenirs sailed into the stands and Lopez thundered to the canvas — his third trip to the supine position. Each time he would come up fighting, but it was Mayfield's night. The San Franciscan was declared the winner by unanimous decision via scores of 99-88, 97-90, and 98-90. Mayfield's dream is alive — bloodied and beaten, but ever so much alive.
Sweat billows off Ben Bautista's bald head. In one week's time, he'll be celebrating in Mississippi. But today the trainer and athlete are alone in a darkened gym — even the dog cage stands empty. With a pair of mitts strapped to his hands, Bautista leads Mayfield on an orbit around the room, like waltz partners, working out the strategy that will floor El Elegante in Tunica. First a couple of enticingly slow left jabs to lure the aggressive Lopez close — then a rapid barrage of short punches to catch him walking in. "Show 'em the candy. Show 'em the candy," hisses Bautista. "Lopez makes mistakes. He drops his hands. You make him come, he gonna come. Show 'em the candy!"
Mayfield's subsequent victory moved him into the world top-10 rankings at junior welterweight, qualifying him to land a championship shot. But he still walks a tightrope. Each step forward brings him only incrementally closer to success. But a fall — well, it's a long way down. Prosperity, meanwhile, could complicate the heartfelt, informal agreements between Mayfield and the many people pulling for him. Bautista has trained him largely without compensation. His managers — brother LaRon and childhood friend Marlon Sullivan — have never taken a cut of his winnings. Guru Ken Watson only started getting gas money over the summer. Karim is given "family rates" — that is, gratis — for yoga; "athlete rates" — again free — by Victor Conte; and "friend rates" at the infrared salon. His wife Shanda, brother LaRon, and others have kept the family solvent thus far. "More money, more problems," he says with a smile. But those problems are, he notes, the best-case scenario.
Long after Bautista has left, Mayfield is still at work in the gym. He eventually gathers his things and locks up the place — he has his own set of keys — and descends onto Seventh and Market. He hops into his car and heads off to parts unknown, a man alone with his dreams.
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