JUNIN, Argentina – The deceptive stillness in this corner of the sprawling Argentine lowlands holds the story of one of boxing’s most ferocious characters. This small town in the middle of one of the most fertile lands in the world was the birthplace, almost 120 years ago, of the original Wild Bull of the Pampas, the first Argentine ever to fight for a world title.
And today, that fertility continues to foster the growth of crop after crop of superb boxing specimens.
Luis Angel Firpo is remembered for his legendary fight against Jack Dempsey on Sept. 14, 1923, in which he sent the Manassa Mauler flying through the ropes onto a typewriter in press row before being KO’d himself in the second round. But on Sept. 14, 2013, 90 years to the day after that tremendous slugfest, it will be Junin’s adopted son, Lucas Matthysse (34-2, 32 knockouts), who will get a chance to etch his name in the local boxing lore when he faces 25-year-old RING champ Danny Garcia (26-0, 16 KOs) in one of the most anticipated fights in recent memory – and one that could very well end up being remembered for the next 90 years. At least in this remote, wild corner of the planet.
And wildness is exactly the part of Firpo’s legacy that Team Matthysse has embraced.
“With the sparring partners, he works on technique. He leaves the heavy hitting for the heavybags and for the fight,” says Luis Dionisio “Cuty” Barrera, Matthysse’s longtime trainer. “When he starts throwing heavier hands, Lucas is like an animal.”
That wild style – which has earned him a moniker perhaps less dramatic than Firpo’s but equally appropriate: The Machine – has brought Matthysse the undivided attention of the boxing world, including an appearance on the cover of THE RING magazine.
And he nurtures that style with an equally wild training regimen.
“I’ve sparred with guys from flyweight to cruiserweight,” says Matthysse after sparring at Arano Box Gym, his local training facility. “The little guys give me speed, they throw a lot of punches to push me more on defense. I get a little bit of help from all of them, they are all very helpful.”
A few rounds of shadow boxing to warm up. A little bit of pad work to follow. In some rounds, he works with only one hand, in others he is required to throw combinations with no less than 8 punches each. Boxing training requires repetition, and Matthysse embraces that concept. But variety is a crucial aspect as well, because Team Matthysse does not believe in getting ready for one single style of boxing or a training regimen specifically designed for one fighter in particular. That’s the reasoning behind the ample variety of sparring styles crammed into a 12-round session.
The most difficult sparring comes against guys like rugged welterweights Sebastian Lujan and Juan Manuel Bonanni, two tough characters who put every aspect of Matthysse’s technique to the test.
Lujan, a longtime friend and sparring partner, is the first to admit that Matthysse’s progress is more than evident when one compares him to the still-dangerous but noticeably more restrained Matthysse of a few years ago.
“I see him confident. I see him looking forward to continue being champion,” says Lujan, a veteran of high-profile bouts against the likes of Antonio Margarito, Jose Luis Castillo and Sergei Dzinziruk, among many others. “In the last two years he improved 100 percent. Three years ago, I told everyone that a fight between Maidana and Matthysse would have ended in a victory for Maidana. Today is the opposite. I see Matthysse a very technical, more intelligent, superior fighter. He’s very complete.”
The thudding sound of the gloves is interrupted by a loud moan, and a brief moment of silence. After two rounds, one of Matthysse’s sparring partners has succumbed to one of his trademark hooks to the body, and is immediately replaced. There’s no rest for the champion.
“Lucas has exquisite boxing technique,” says Barrera, a former South American welterweight champ himself during his 48-fight pro career. “He is more of a boxer than a puncher. In the gym he always brings something new. We explain new things to him and he doesn’t get them, but on the next day he does it even better than what we would have wished. That’s why I always say he has no limit, because he learns every day, and the more he learns the more he wants to learn. He trains very consciously, does everything better and better, and that’s why he doesn’t get hit. Whatever you land on him today, you won’t be able to land on him tomorrow. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s a virtue.”
Concentration is a big part of his training. His entourage is minimal and the gym is off-limits to the usual parade of hangers-on and bystanders. A three-city tour originally slated to visit New York, Puerto Rico and Los Angeles had to be canceled because Matthysse did not want to upset his training by taking such a long break. (Note: After almost eight weeks of training in Argentina, Matthysse moved his training camp to California and is currently sparring with WBO welterweight champ Timothy Bradley, among others, in order to acclimate himself to the Las Vegas weather. And rumor around the campfire says that his sessions with Bradley are pure dynamite.)
Watching him fight it’s clear, despite what Barrera says, that Matthysse is very much a puncher. There’s no “sweet spot” for him. The dynamite is there, in the entire trajectory of every punch. His jab is usually neglected in favor of a more explosive approach, and after he feels out his opponents he quietly moves inside for the kill, his vaunted left hook always at the ready.
Matthysse says that his style has accomodated very few changes on the technical side, but many in the mental aspect.
“I didn’t make too many adjustments (after his only two defeats, against Zab Judah and Devon Alexander),” says Matthysse. “But my mindset changed. I continued to train hard and move forward, but my mindset in the ring changed.”
It is difficult to argue with the results. After those two losses, which many observers thought should have gone his way by decision, Matthysse was matched with super-tough, avoided fighters such as Humberto Soto, Olusegun Ajose, and then Lamont Peterson for what is so far his greatest and most visible accomplishment in the ring.
But either in victory or in defeat, Matthysse sticks to his rule of never studying an opponent before a fight.
“For all the fights I’ve done, I never sat down to study my opponents. Never. I trust my team and the preparation that we have. We work for two or more months. I know that if I am strong and well prepared, I have nothing to worry about.”
The mastermind behind this training technique can only agree.
“He always trains for 12 rounds, because you need to form the athlete first and then the boxer,” says Barrera. “We work on the athlete first, and then on the boxer. We don’t think only about Garcia, we look ahead at the future.”
Being in top physical shape, then, is not part of the plan. It’s the only plan.
“Everyone thinks that we need to have an alternate plan, but the fight plan is the first thing that flies through the window when you’re fighting,” says Barrera. “If you get hit in the gut and you can’t walk, how can you have a Plan B for being unable to walk? What’s the alternative for that? That’s how simple it is. There’s no plan B for us. In my last fight (against Chris Eubank in Egypt, back in 1996) I got hit with a hook in the solar plexus and I got lifted from the floor.”
Barrera’s memory of his fighting days sounds frightening, but in that particular fight he was a natural welterweight coming all the way up to light heavyweight for one last big payday. Matthysse’s weight situation is completely different.
“I walk around in the 152- to 154-pound range all the time,” says Matthysse. “Usually, I even eat before the weigh-in. And that’s why I am so strong in the ring, because I don’t kill myself to make weight.”
Being in his absolute best shape ever is the logical thing for a man who’ll be facing the biggest challenge in his career. But as a man in his absolute peak, he knows that he’s been preparing for this moment his whole career. And far from feeling the pressure, he prefers to face this challenge in the casual, relaxed environment of his local community.
“This is the biggest fight I’ll have, but a while back I trained in (Shane) Mosley’s house for two months in Big Bear, and also I did two training camps with Maravilla (middleweight champ Sergio Martinez) and I felt comfortable there, but here I feel better surrounded by my family and contained by my team. I couldn’t talk to anybody up there, but here we have fun. We train seriously but we have a lot of fun. That’s how I like to do it.”
Firpo probably never imagined that his childhood town would become home to another world-famous boxer, but 90 years after the Wild Bull’s attempt to wrestle the heavyweight title from Dempsey in New York, another 30-year-old son of this land will try to shine in the States and return to the pampas wearing the crown. And perhaps even begin a new legend.
Photos by Diego Morilla (first three); Al Bello-Gettyimages (last 2)