ORILLIA, Ontario -- The best Celestino "Pelenchin" Caballero could do was call his opponent a "pretty boy," which, in the grand continuum of sporting hate-ons, was fairly mild stuff. But when mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting has out-frightwigged and out-deathmasked your charges, boxing -- especially Canadian boxing -- is forced to take what it can get.
At least Caballero, in his first news conference on Canadian soil after arriving from Panama, left the door open for more. "I'll go out there and hit him hard he's a great champion, but I want him to fight like a real man," he teased.
Organizers could only hope he was just getting warmed up.
Pelenchin is Caballero's reggaeton name. It means "street fighter," or "electro-dancehall street fighter," if musical tendencies are considered. Although we should all be so lucky to have dual names as florid and excellent as his -- to say nothing of a budding Panamanian musical career that rides atop one's junior featherweight title -- we've also never been asked to share the ring with Steve Molitor, who, although regrettably unreggaetonic and only singularly named, was the undefeated opponent against whom Caballero would fight in their historic unification battle in Orillia, Ontario.
Alas, the heat would take some time to find the fight. In a province -- nay, a country -- where snow came early this November, the frost-pocked trees and white padded ground surrounding the small northern enclave symbolized the general cold that, in the beginning, surrounded the event's hype, or lack thereof. Combine that with the fact that hockey season is in full swing, and it's easy to understand why Caballero's "Pelenchin" character and his perfunctory taunts were a welcome sign of life. And although his remarks weren't on par with Peter McNeeley's "cocoon of horror" or Mike Tyson's baby-eating gibes, if local supporters needed a reason to despise the home boy's Panamanian rival, all they had to do was listen to reggaeton's echo-stained singing and robotic electro-rhythms to know Pelenchin was an annoying type who needed to be stopped.
What the fight lacked in prematch intensity, however, it more than made up for in intrigue. Molitor-Caballero would be one of the few instances in recent memory in which two champions would put their respective titles on the line for the opportunity to be the undisputed champion of their division. The match was also a strategist's delight: Caballero liked to slug and attack and use his height and his reach to his advantage -- he is, at 5-foot-11, one of the tallest 122-pound fighters in recent memory -- and Molitor, a natural left-hander, relied on patience, cunning and a clever inside game to dominate more impulsive opponents.
Over the years, Molitor has quietly reiterated his pride in his citizenship and Caballero typically has shouted his. For most of their prefight appearances, the Panamanian fighter strode around in red and navy -- Panama's national colors -- and Molitor arrived dressed in black, with nary a maple leaf to be seen. It didn't take long to realize that Caballero knew exactly who he was and what he wanted: He was a Panamanian street fighter whose single goal would be to break his opponent's face.
Molitor's identity, however, wasn't as clear. One wondered whether his muted sense of nationalism was somehow connected to the events of his recent past.
On the day of the bout, the Toronto Sun reported that 70 percent of Molitor's hometown's residents wanted him to lose because the Molitor family hadn't shown appropriate remorse after Steve's older brother, Jeremy, was convicted in 2004 of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, whom he had stabbed 58 times in a parking lot.
Jeremy had been a successful amateur boxer, too, but had suffered addiction and substance abuse issues after failing to qualify for the 2000 Olympics. The brothers have been close and were known around boxing circles, at least before things got bad, as "The Bruise Brothers." And as Molitor spent the waning moments before the fight measuring his fate and listening to trainer Stephane Larouche's prematch dressing room mantra, one wondered what impact the weight of his family's history would have on his performance, and whether making Canadian sporting history would be enough to win back the hearts of his former friends and neighbors.
Or whether any of that mattered in the first place.
The stage is set
With so many indoor sporting events now victimized by glaring mall lighting, wandering sushi vendors and clanging in-game music, boxing still gets it right: stands darkly shaded by parlor lights that ramp toward the bright and elegant ring, where, as fans amassed in advance of the first of five bouts, fight technicians tested the bell; workers stretched the red, white and blue ropes; and bikini-clad card girls sat cross-legged on ringside seats snapping bubble gum.
Tradition had been upheld in other ways, too: In a modern sporting universe that is sorely lacking in nicknames, Phil "The Sudbury Sensation" Boudreault, Orlando "Cannibal" Escobar, Greg "The Steel Pole" Keilsa, Raymond "Mount Kilimanjaro" Olubowale and Paul "The Wild Man" Watson were on the bill.
For the title fight, the crowd grew large but remained strangely quiet, which is the Canadian sports fans' millstone. After the emcee invited Roberto Duran into the ring -- he looked resplendent in sunglasses and a black suit, time having shaped him square and soft like an aging SpongeBob -- a Panamanian band gathered near the ropes, sawing accordions, slapping drums and waving shakers. Their joyful racket absorbed most of the atmosphere inside the room.
There's something about fans who travel a great distance to watch their hero perform -- to say nothing of fans who leave the relative tropics for a subzero winterscape -- and even before Molitor and Caballero entered from the wings through a blinking light frame, both the Panamanian music and the presence of the great Duran bettered whatever excitement the 5,000 pro-Molitor crowd could muster, which never really approached the required fever pitch.
Moving to reggaetonic sounds (his own, naturally), Pelenchin climbed into the ring riding a sea of red and navy, a merry-faced flag-waving throng.
Molitor's group was, predictably, more sober-looking, shroud in black and red and lacking any Canadian emblems; in fact, only the words U.S. Traffic -- the name of his manager's export company -- were stitched in white across his trunks. In Pelenchin's case, a single word was written across his waist: Survivor.
If the fight had been a battle of national pride or identity, Caballero would have won in a walk. But fighters don't fight with flags, they fight with fists, and, in this regard, Caballero also proved to be his opponent's superior.
Word around the media row was that if Molitor could get past Round 5, he had a chance to outlast his opposite. But Caballero -- who later proclaimed, "It doesn't matter where I fight; I am a rooster who can crow in any language" -- proved to be as much a fighter as a boxer, attacking Molitor with busy, active hands and relentless body punches while moving to the sound of the band, which never stopped playing.
His trunks were adorned with blue and red tassels that bobbed and swung with his hips, and he smiled through his mouth guard at Molitor's advances, which were limited to the early parts of the first and second rounds.
The Canadian Kid mostly cowered against the ropes under Caballero's assault, and, in the waning seconds of the third round, he was caught with a Pelenchin uppercut that staggered him as he returned to his corner. The crowd grumbled harder than it had cheered for most of the fight, and you didn't have to be Bert Sugar to see that, even if the Canadian fans could somehow find the capacity to roar as they sometimes do for the country's great skating lions and the occasional Olympian, no measure of karma would be seized from the fated blue and red.
At the beginning of the fourth round, Pelenchin blasted Molitor with a combination against the ropes, then another, before the WBA champ lost his legs while guarding his face in mercy.
A black towel sailed defeatedly into the ring. Molitor slumped to the floor, his hands frozen to his face as Caballero himself collapsed, falling to the mat and kissing it in ecstasy.
Where to now?
Pelenchin had done everything he'd said he'd do, and now there was Duran climbing back into the ring to confirm that the junior featherweight titleholder's fourth-round TKO was more than just a dream.
Molitor, on the other hand, spun into the arms of his trainer and was left searching for his identity.
All that was confused and muddied about The Canadian Kid remained: the legacy of his brother and whether that had affected him; the pressures of trying to deliver salvation to his starving constituency; the right-headedness of an in-fight game plan that had no answer for Caballero's relentless punches; and the virtue in remaining quiet and neutral in a machismo war that Caballero had dominated the moment either fighter had opened his mouth.
As Molitor walked out of the ring and through the unblinking light frame toward a dark hallway, fans weren't sure whether to cheer, and those who did weren't sure for whom or what they were cheering.
Dave Bidini is the author of "Baseballissimo: My Summer in the Italian Minor Leagues" and "Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places."