She would curl his little hand inside of hers and make sure her son was breathing. Every time Daniel Ponce De Leon got sick or looked fatigued, his mother Celia was right there next to him, swaying back and forth with her eyes shut, mumbling prayers, hoping the ailment that afflicted all of her other children would skip over him.
He was too young to realize what had happened, why his mother clung to him so tightly. He was too young to know what those five names meant, lined up on that tombstone in the cemetery he and his mother always visited.
Through time, however, Ponce De Leon has come to understand. It's why he boxes the way he does, like a madman fighting for his life. It's why he lives his life, as he constantly says, day-to-day. He has the attitude of a survivor. It's an attitude Ponce De Leon has cultivated and embraced; now he is aware of just how fortunate he is to be the only living child of the six born to his parents.
It's one of the primary reasons why the 5-foot-6 southpaw junior featherweight champion has compiled a 29-1 (27 KOs) mark, tallying some impressive victories along the way -- including a knockout-of-the-year candidate against Sod Looknongyangtoy July 15 in a title defense on the Shane Mosley-Fernando Vargas undercard, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. What truly stirs the 2000 Mexican Olympian is the mere fact that he is breathing, while five siblings he never knew are not.
Ponce De Leon's four brothers and one sister lived between eight months and one year. Living in a sierra, dirt-road community in Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, his family was too poor to afford suitable medical attention. They lived in a wooden cabin, with a sheet metal roof, a wood stove, and kerosene lamps.
After Celia gave birth to her first child, she grew increasingly distraught as she helplessly watched her baby perish due to a mysterious blood ailment. All that the doctors could tell her was that it was a bad blood mixture between her and her husband, Daniel. So Ponce De Leon's parents tried again, only to have the same torment repeat itself four more times, until their youngest child was born.
Celia would keep a constant vigil by Daniel's side, whether he was sick or not, like a mother eagle over her hatchlings.
"I've always considered myself very lucky," Ponce De Leon said through interpreter Joe Hernandez, his adviser who supervises all of his training along with manager Joel De La Hoya, Oscar's father. "My mother was very protective of me growing up. She'd be next to me whenever I'd get sick. She was always scared that I would be like my other brothers and sister.
"I remember my mother used to cry a lot. I was 4 years old, and she would get these headaches and cry a lot. By the time I was a teenager, I developed a lifestyle. I was always out in the street and I wouldn't come home on time, and my mother was always concerned.
"I was in my own world. I never thought about the pain and hurt she was going through. I never realized it was causing her any hurt. I do now, because I'm older and I'm a parent. She tells me she understands why I was the way I was. It led to the accomplishments that I've had in boxing.
"She taught me how to live and survive. That's why I fight the way I do."
Ponce De Leon, who is part of the Tarahumara Tribe in Mexico, trained at a local gym in Cuauhtemoc, but street fighting interested him more than boxing did.
When he was around 13, Ponce De Leon was invited to an amateur tournament and won his first fight by decision. From there, he decided he liked boxing -- but that interest didn't come without a challenge.
"I lost my next four fights after that," Ponce De Leon recalled with a bellowing laugh. "There was no weight limit, and I'd fight guys much, much bigger than me. But I didn't get disappointed. People loved watching me fight. They'd see this little guy trying to beat these big guys, and they'd love it. I fought guys as big as 130 pounds, 140 pounds, and I was maybe around 110 pounds.
"They'd just put me in the ring with anyone. It was neighborhood stuff. I'd take the street into the gym. I used to take beatings, but I kept on coming back. I knew I couldn't lose to those guys. I had to fight them again, and I wasn't happy until I won. I never thought anyone could beat me. I don't think anyone can beat me now."
That persistence translated into a distinguished amateur career. Ponce De Leon won Mexican national championships in '95, '96 and '97, at 112, 115 and 118 pounds, respectively. As an amateur, he defeated 2000 U.S. Olympian (and current fellow Golden Boy Promotions stablemate) Jose Navarro three times. But in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Ponce De Leon, competing as a flyweight, lost a 16-8 decision to the Ukraine's Wladimir Sidorenko, currently the WBA bantamweight champion, in the first round.
As a pro, Ponce De Leon has displayed devastating early power, scoring seven first-round knockouts, including a one-round KO over Jesus Perez on Jan. 16 in Hidalgo, Texas. In Perez's previous fight, he had extended top-10 contender Pete Frissina 12 tough rounds.
While he continues proving himself, Ponce De Leon, his wife Mayra and their 3-year-old son Daniel are getting used to the big cities of the United States (his last 13 fights have all been in America). They live much better than Ponce De Leon ever imagined. And they hope it's going to get even better.
"I want the boxing world to know who I am," Ponce De Leon said. "I have no timetable to be a world champion. There is no time. I have all of the time in the world."
For a kid whose mother feared he'd have no time at all, that's really saying something.
Joseph Santoliquito is the managing editor of The Ring magazine.