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FEAR AND LOAFING: Million Dollar Crybaby (Sparring Partner)

Sparring partner turns into sprawling partner



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My mother would be proud of me. She always told me not to hit girls, and not one of my punches is landing against Melinda Cooper.

This is not fair. I'm remembering everything I was taught yesterday by Antonio Hernandez, Cooper's regular sparring partner. I'm keeping my head forward, my left glove up and my elbows in.

"Come on!" Cooper taunts me.

The important thing in boxing is defense. Evade your opponent's jabs and pick only the perfect moments for yours, since they open you up.

"Punch me!" Cooper continues as a hot North Las Vegas gym is cooled by the breeze from my swings and misses.

All I asked for in an opponent was womanhood. (Like Andy Kaufman in the wrestling ring, I wanted as much of a handicap as possible.) However, local boxing promoter Jim Hunter is a bit of a prankster. He pitted me against the real-life Million Dollar Baby.

Cooper, 24 years old and 130 pounds, is a six-time national champion with zero losses and 20 wins, 11 by knockout. (Her most recent victim was fellow bantamweight Miriam Avila in Mexico City last month.)

By the way, a wound hangs below Hernandez's left eye. It's from guess who.

"I was trying to protect against her left," said Hernandez, who spars with Cooper for at least an hour each day, "but it came right through my glove."

Sparring partners are boxers either finished with their careers or, like Hernandez and the young Larry Holmes, on the way up. (Before becoming the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion in 1978, Holmes sparred for both Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.)

The pay is from zero to $1,000 per week, with Hernandez trending toward the zero side. However, he does get paid about $1,000 each for the local cards he boxes on -- regardless of outcome (which is good because his record is 1-1-1).

"Boxing gets in your blood," he said.

Hernandez, 23, slipped on his first gloves at 10, after a penchant for street fighting led his parents to enroll him in the Las Vegas Inner-City Games program.

"The thing I like the most is the discipline it teaches you," he said. "If you mess around, it's gonna reflect in the outcome of your fight."

What he likes least is, well, getting punched upside the head 2,000 times a week. Speaking of which ...

"Poof!" comes that left Hernandez mentioned, producing an actual "Batman" sound balloon. It delivers such force, even through my headgear padding, that the entire month of September 1994 exits my memory. My knees rubberize, and my butt and the mat instantly acquaint themselves.

Cooper is not the first girl to beat me up, by the way. I don't remember what I could have done to get Debbie Lee so angry. All I remember is the sandbox outside fifth grade and the 4-inch upward stare into her grimace before she let loose.

Now, just like then, spectators are yelling at me to stand back up. Jeff Mayweather is among them. He's boxing great Floyd's uncle and former manager. (After watching me train yesterday, Mayweather said I had exactly one advantage over Cooper: "a good stance to get a running start.")

This sparring match was supposed to last three rounds, but only one minute has transpired since the opening bell.

"You've got to finish at least one round!" Hernandez yells.

Boxing, as Morgan Freeman's character observed in "Million Dollar Baby," is an unnatural act: "Instead of running from the pain, you run towards it."

As much as I'd like to pretend I valiantly heeded those words, springing back to my feet as the "Rocky" theme played in my padded head, the truth is that I caved in to peer pressure. And the rich tradition of bad decisions made for this reason has nothing new to worry about.

Cooper unleashes a flurry of body shots as she ignores my pleas to end the match.

There is only one girl in the ring, and it's me.

What Cooper doesn't seem to realize is that her full strength is hardly required. She could win against me if she were a stationary body bag. (The one yesterday did.)

I only think pain is caused when Cooper's shots connect. Two nights from now, when I try to sleep, I will learn pain's true meaning. (My doctor, Stephen Miller, offered but didn't recommend an X-ray, saying that the treatment for broken ribs no longer differs from those that are merely cracked or bruised: "avoiding further punches in the chest from professional female boxers.")

The match is mercifully halted by gym owner Richard Steele, who earlier made me sign a waiver indemnifying him in the case of my death.

"OK, he knows what it feels like now," Steele tells Cooper before scolding me.

"You can play basketball," he says. "You can play football. But you can't play boxing."

By the way, Debbie Lee looked me up on Facebook last year and apologized.

"Don't remember beating you up," she wrote. "But if I did I am sorry. ... LOL ... I am much nicer now."

Still, the closure I sought didn't come until now. Despite my second consecutive intergender loss, demons were definitively faced. Fighting a girl has made me a better man.

"You've got (expletive)," Cooper tells me. "Anyone who steps into a ring does."

Between fits of hysterical laughter, Cooper's trainer, Jim Pena, asks: "You really think she was using her full strength?"

Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at

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