By: Albert Baker
Once upon a time, all great stories began with a struggle. Not the kind of struggle found in a silly #thestruggleisreal meme, but a struggle. A battle royal of good versus evil and life and death. Humble beginnings coupled with heartache and character building decisions ultimately culminate into the greatest stories ever told. Well…..
1993 was an odd year, I was fifteen and just released from Erwin Owens Juvenile Forestry Camp in Kernville, CA. I spent an entire year in a six month program for generally being a bad kid. I grew up on the south side of Bakersfield and let’s just say, my friends weren’t exactly good positive role models. We had tattoos, bald heads and, we wore size 44 waist dickies baby-cuffed with a steam-ironed crease and pleated. White t-shirts or Ben Davis were the standard for the back with a blue and brown rag nicely folded in the back pocket.
I was introduced to boxing much earlier than 1993 but this was the year I remember falling in love with boxing, and also remembering that I wasn’t actually very good at it. The animosity I felt toward anybody who dared to say Julio Cesar Chavez didn’t beat the great “Sweet Pea” Pernell Whitaker was vicious, but I was young and Mexican.
I always had to be extra Mexican because you can’t be a Mexican with the last name Baker without having to explain exactly how you’re Mexican. My dad was a military man, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, then retired from the Army just after Desert Storm. My mom, a traditional stay at home mom who always thought “outside of the box” because she was in her own words “eclectic”.
Watching Evander Holyfield do battle with Riddick Bowe at my friend’s house while his dad and uncles got drunk and beat the shit out of each other was the way boxing went down on Saturday. Somebody hosted, there’d be Los Tucanes blaring in the background, drinking, lots of drinking, followed by arguing, which prompted the fighting, that lead to the crying and then came the hugging. Oh how I love the emotions that boxing draws from the raw instincts of man.
That fifteen year old boy would turn eighteen in Kern County Juvenile Hall on November 2nd 1996. I’ll never forget when Mr. Duran came to my cell, opened the door and said “Baker, roll up”. First thought on my mind was “Hell yeah, Tyson vs Holyfield!” A part of me grew up that night when Evander Holyfield defeated the man I only knew as the “Baddest Man on the Planet”. It was like the moment when you found out Santa Claus wasn’t real, or that you were stronger than your dad.
The next year I was unexpectedly a dad myself to a son, and the year after that his mother had abandoned him and I was raising him by myself. Not a clue in the world as to what I was doing or how to do it, just getting it done. I joined the Army after my son was born because hell, I guess it worked for my dad and we have a funny way of learning. We were barely getting by, and after leaving the active duty for the National Guard I was at home watching Lennox Lewis destroy Michael Grant by myself with a toddler running around wearing no pants with scissors in his hand; when I thought to myself maybe I should have gone to work it’s going to kill me on pay-day. Nah, boxing was on.
I heard the news that Shane Mosely had defeated the same Oscar De La Hoya that had my mom in tears during the 1992 Olympics, while lying in a foxhole during training.
During the lead up to the Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad fight, I wanted Hopkins to win as an exacted toll for Trinidad defeating Oscar De La Hoya. I couldn’t wait for the fight, until I drove to work on September 11th 2001. I thought it was a joke at first, because it was on the morning comedy radio show. I walked into the Korean Donut shop next door to the check cashing place I worked at to get my morning donut and soda in a styrofoam cup when Mr. Kim says from behind the counter “hey aren’t you in the Army?”
I said “Yes”
“You’re going to go to war, look” as he frantically dragged out his TV and put it on the counter, plugged it in, and there before my eyes was the scene that nobody will ever forget of the twin towers burning.
Mr. Kim was right, my unit Bravo company third of the one sixtieth Infantry did deploy on October 1st. Just like that I had forgot about boxing, I watched Hopkins destroy Trinidad impressively but it brought little solace to the immediate situation.
After my deployment was over I remained active duty and no longer needed three jobs, ending much of my early struggle; along with an unfortunate marriage that never should have occurred. There’s something about a deployment that makes young men and women get married, I suppose it’s the finality of thinking, this may be the last time I actually see you again. Ever.
I started watching boxing again and the slew of great fights in the 2000’s like Acelino Freitas vs Jorge Barrios, Corrales vs Castillo, and of course the great Gatti vs Ward trilogy.
Oscar De La Hoya was gearing up for Floyd Mayweather when I got the same call to deploy I received in September of 2001. My wife Lina was pregnant with our first daughter although we didn’t find out until the week after I left. On the day of the fight I couldn’t hide my anger or anxiety from not having a place to watch it. Sitting in the call center on post I listened to it through her cell phone next to the TV. Lina is a terrible boxing commentator but she tried her best “I don’t know babe, its close” to make me feel better about Oscar’s impending loss. It still to this day is the best fight I ever heard.
After getting hit by an IED and recovered safely, my squad was at Camp Stryker in Baghdad Iraq. Priorities of work after a mission were always weapons maintenance, fuel, food, then sleep. After inspecting my guys weapon systems we refueled then made our way to the chow hall, where there would be TV’s, and it was Sunday.
That meant it was Saturday in the states, and lo and behold on the TV is none other than Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez 2. I would go on to meet Israel Vasquez and interview him later, I’ve never told him that story but he is one of only four fighters I have ever taken a selfie with.
During my time in combat I picked up writing, at first it was more of a form of therapy than anything, a way to poke fun at the things I was doing. It wasn’t every day that all hell was breaking loose, but when it did. My laptop became the place that I was me. Not me physically but the same me that I always was before war, or gangs, or marriages, or anything for that matter. I was free to say anything and I usually did.
I wrote a blog until circumstances and operational tempo prohibited me from doing it anymore. PBS made an episode of Frontline on our platoon while we were in Iraq. During the pre-deployment many of us thought this would be a cool idea and an awesome thing because it’s our narcissistic nature to want the world to see us. Until the first IED.
The sudden shock of reality cleared any thought of narcissism and filled it with concern for the loved ones of my soldiers. I didn’t want to be responsible for filming one of my guys blown up in a bloody mess for the world to see. So I banned my guys from filming much to the chagrin of my Platoon Sergeant who organized the whole thing. I’ll just say that episode of Frontline was well edited bullshit. But well edited. That’s how you make a shit sandwich in the Army, you put the bullshit in between two compliments.
I got home from Iraq just in time to watch Manny Paquiao destroy David Diaz, then the rage set in.
You never see PTSD coming or realize you’re even affected by it. I’m talking real PTSD not some sappy story that you see in the movies, or some silly yard sign that asks you to be courteous with your fireworks.
Real guys with PTSD act like they don’t have a problem and get pissed at you for telling them they should get help. They don’t want help, they don’t want sympathy, and we just want to be left alone. It’s a hard transition to go from being hyper vigilant and expecting every rock or piece of trash on the side of the road to blow up; to suddenly not.
One day its life and death and the guys around you are like brothers that you would die for, and the next well, you’re just in line at the grocery store like everyone else.
That July in 2008 Antonio Margarito beat Miguel Cotto, I got drunk like I did every day during the first few years after the war and tried to fight everyone at the party.
By the time Manny Paquiao destroyed Ricky Hatton, I had already planned my suicide. Dealing with the world after combat had become frightening with the realization that the camaraderie I shared with my Soldiers would never be felt again. The feeling of life or death importance and belonging was gone and I failed to see the loving family in front of me.
As I sat in my recruiting office with a gun in my hand ready to just do it, the phone rang. It was Command Sergeant Major Bobby Rollins, Bobby Rollins was a state champion wrestler in Iowa or one of those northern states and a very short person with a big temper. Many times before our conversations went like this.
Phone rings “Hello”
“SGT Baker what are you doing”
“About to eat lunch Sergeant Major”
“What are you eating?”
“A sandwich Sergeant Major”
“Well put the sandwich down because I’m about to fuck up your day”
“Roger Sergeant Major” Puts the sandwich down.
Today God, or buddah or whatever mythical force that makes the world go around looked down and smiled at me.
“SGT Baker how are you doing?”
“Not good Sergeant Major”
“I can tell”
Bobby Rollins will never know this because I highly doubt he reads boxing columns but he saved my life that day. He arranged for me to transfer to another duty station in my home town of Bakersfield and got me to seek counseling.
I wanted to see a counselor about as much as I wanted Mike Tyson to land a clean left hook on my chin.
After feeling judged by and accusing a few psychiatrists of being “uppity” while storming out of their office yelling “you’re the one who’s fuckin crazy, wearing a shirt like that” I ran into “The Great Edward Morton”.
The man did so much for me I will never write his name without the proper quotations it deserves.
Manny Paquiao had just dispatched Miguel Cotto and “The Great Edward Morton” was actually teaching me how to understand what made me tick inside. You see PTSD isn’t just one specific thing or feeling, it’s a way of being. Normal one second, then the sound of a door slamming and suddenly the smells, the pumping of the heart speeds up, the head on a swivel, the zero tolerance for any conversation outside of the task at hand. Focused like a laser.
By the time Victor Ortiz had his epic battle against Andre Berto my visits with “The Great Edward Morton” didn’t feel like counseling sessions anymore. Suddenly I was just going to shoot the shit with my friend “The Great Edward Morton”. He helped me understand that I wasn’t mad at people, I wasn’t upset at the way people talked terribly about the war in Iraq. I was mad because I yearned for some type of altruistic ending to it all that was never going to happen. He helped me let go of most of my anger, and to understand that being angry is ok because everyone gets angry.
After another move in the Army, this time to Santa Ana to take over a National Guard unit I was excited. A new beginning in southern California near Los Angeles. The Mecca of Boxing.
While sitting in my office, planning out how I was going to change the culture in my first tour with a non-combat arms line unit, I took a break to check up on the boxing chisme (gossip) on twitter; when lo and behold there in front of my eyes were the words “InstantBoxing.com is looking for experienced writers”.
I know how to write, well at least that’s what the University of Phoenix told me. What the hell, why not. I remember thinking “nah you just love boxing, that doesn’t make you a boxing writer”.
And it hit me, like a voice in my head said “You’ve been to combat and your scared to show people your thoughts on boxing? Everyone you know calls for your opinion on boxing, just fucking do it.”
So I did.
After a couple of stories on fights I watched on TV I was ready to cover my first live fight, but there was one problem. The wife.
My wife Lina is an amazing woman, she’s waited for me through deployments, dealt with me and my dark years, moved all over the country for me, and stayed by my side. I just wasn’t sure she would go along with me staying out late on Thursdays, Fridays, or Saturdays to cover boxing.
Earlier that year I bought Lina a camera for Christmas, a Nikon D3200. Not exactly ringside photographer equipment but it meant she could go, and if she was there that meant she wasn’t at home complaining about how I was out without her. She has now gone on to photograph every big name fighter in the game and significantly upgraded her equipment; it’s hard to not be jealous of her success but, she is the brains of the family.
By the time Floyd Mayweather and Manny Paquiao met in the biggest let down since the push up bra, I had already accomplished more than I ever set out to do.
Boxing isn’t a hobby, it is us. You, me, my wife Lina. It’s the classic form of pugilistic combat that pits man versus man. It’s the timeline by which we set our life’s clock to. The sport of boxing is the platform that lifts the poor, feeds the hungry, and gives courage to the fearful.
Boxing is love, and love is boxing.