The Little Old Man

By Ted Spoon on July 19, 2012
The Little Old Man
1977 was the year in which Luis Estaba was anointed “Venezuelan Athlete of the Year.”

Owing to an amusing resemblance with Congolese figurehead Patrice Lumumba, Estaba’s alias became his surname…

The pygmies of the ring are not built for the long haul. Their frantic movements tend to blow fuses, ending careers barely twenty fights deep. Boxing is a “young man’s game” says one mantra, but when speaking of men below eight-stone this general truth could pass for religious scripture.

For the fighter with the body of your average twelve-year-old a 16-foot ring is not unlike a playground. There’s plenty of space to move and little time to rest. One’s punch power is scarce, and so opponents are odds on to stay put until the final clang. Luck doesn’t come into it.

Things are different at heavyweight.

Coordination and agility is relatively poor, allowing aged competitors to utilize their natural bulk. And not only can the big boys afford to make errors, but one swipe is often all it takes, rendering the action especially volatile.

Of course, age has its boundaries, and starting late scores nicely on the hazardous meter. Even for a heavyweight, Jess Willard’s decision to turn professional at 29 never fails to scrunch brows. To ponder the fate of one who attempted the same 130 lbs. fewer would be boxing’s version of a cordless bungee jump, surely…

As it was a foolish mite from Venezuela did just that.

History watched the hapless with knowing eyes, plotting disaster at every moment. Eight years passed. A couple of scratches were visible but nothing major. The opportunity for world honors miraculously appeared at 34; a reward for dedication perhaps. When the charity case became champion history stuttered.

Eleven defenses followed, the genetic marvel turned national hero, and just when logic couldn’t get any more twisted Venezuelan law forced him into retirement. He was 40. 
Being the first notable at light-flyweight, Luis Estaba is still battling a prejudice. New divisions are required time to accumulate quality, or so a theory goes. That Luis defeated the first champion plus two future ones suggests that he must have been a notch higher than competent.

Born in the small, featureless town of Guiria, opportunity did not exactly come knocking on Estaba’s door. It would be more instructive to say he lived near Trinidad & Tobago. Once boxing became top priority it was necessary for him to get used to packing and unpacking at an annoying rate.   

Halfway between Guiria and Caracas is Cumana, partly renowned for raking in tuna. Luis enjoyed an amateur career, and it was in Cumana during ‘64 when he put the first smudge on the record of local hero Francisco Rodriguez. It would go onto be just one of four losses against 266 wins.

Francisco would go onto win what remains Venezuela’s only gold medal in the 1968 Olympics. 

Three years later and the professional ranks stood before Luis. From Caracas to Maracay to Maracaibo; lots of ground was covered in keeping busy. Boxing wasn’t sport’s dark horse over there, but with soccer and baseball owning higher participation levels it boded well to jump borders.

This didn’t play out so well for Luis, not initially anyway. Losses were suffered in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama and Ecuador, bluntly intimating that he was a Mako exploring waters patrolled by Great Whites. He wasn’t going to be spooked at the first sign of trouble however.

Estaba’s third decade of life forged a kind of discipline the younger man struggles to maintain. Having hovered near bantamweight for several years he made a concentrated effort, losing the best part of 10 lbs. Equipped with the savvy of a veteran, Luis didn’t work like one, fighting over every inch of the canvas. 
Established in 1975, the light-flyweight class got going when Italy’s Franco Udella won the vacant WBC title against Valentin Martinez. A defense against Raphael Lovera was ordered but illness released the title. You can probably sense that the division wasn’t foaming with outstanding talent, and with everybody thoroughly confused Luis was picked to tango for the gold. 
28-7-2 was not healthiest looking of records. Still, Estaba knew better than most than numbers can deceive. The last point was to speak a corrupt truth when, after knocking Lovera out in the fourth, it was discovered that he had not had a single professional fight! His aforesaid resume of 18-0-2 was leaked and boxing was given absolutely no incentive to stop fussing over Muhammad Ali.     

Though he had beaten a phoney challenger Estaba was determined to be anything but a phony champion. He would prove to be ILICeverything but a phony champion.

Owing to an amusing resemblance with Congolese figurehead Patrice Lumumba, Estaba’s alias became his surname. A handsomely round face had an element of mischief to it and his opponents came to understand its dark intent. “Lumumba” retaliated with all the machismo of a smug Latino when pressed, but he didn’t need a reason to twist the rules. Stepping on toes, holding n’ hitting, using elbows; shady tactics were dear to him. 

Ugly viewing this wasn’t however. 

For the most part Estaba was an astute boxer. At a touch under 5-foot-4 he would be the shortarse in most groups, but for the 108 lb. class 5’4” is on the tall side. With his long build he fired a jab which could go semi-automatic or casually sniper. Making back-peddling appear aggressive was a neat trick, and in the dangerous game of pulling back he could make blood boil. As did Bob Foster 60 lbs. north, Estaba would suddenly apply the brakes to crack you with a right.             
Before ’75 was up Luis registered his sole foreign defense. A date with Takenobu Shimabukuro brought him to Okinawa where he dominated and finished up in the tenth. Two quick defenses the following year showed the champion had no problem lasting fifteen, though the opposition struggled to inspire.

Free from ailment, Franco Udella was poised to reclaim his strap. The Italian had been admirably defending European honors and ventured into Estaba’s backyard. 
The bout took place in El Poliedro, a dome-shaped sports arena forever linked with George Foreman’s demolition of Ken Norton. It wasn’t the smart bet but a similar demolition was at hand. Udella, not an easy man to be rid of, was decked near the end of the second and belted out in the third. Franco’s claim of a thumbed eye quickly died amidst a roaring crowd.

This latest champ wasn’t going anywhere soon.
For his next three fights Estaba fought in the Nuevo Circo, a beautifully crafted red and jasmine bullring. It housed two thirds of his reign and perfectly echoed his wild brilliance.   

At this point Rodolfo Rodriguez fancied his chances. The Argentinean’s undefeated tally was genuine, and he didn’t cave in under the first barrage, but after ten rounds his corner pulled the plug. Scrapping beyond the bell, Luis taunted and bullied his opponent, stirring the audience. Such behavior in a British ring would of had Luis disqualified; things are different in South American and bravado is cherished like post-fight handshaking is in England.   

While decent for a man of his measurements, purses of $30,000 weren’t huge, but Luis was convinced money was the reason for being constantly swarmed by women.

“They all think I’m a millionaire, and they come after me” complained el campeon. An ideal scenario for most males, Estaba’s predicament got him detained when a family accused him of seducing their 16-year-old daughter. It’d be an insult to suggest his wasn’t capable of such but he was acquitted nonetheless.

On another note, ’77 was also the year in which he was anointed “Venezuelan Athlete of the Year.”

Rafael Pedroza isn’t a name that will trigger much commotion but he was the stubborn competitor of his day. He would extend Japanese aces Yoko Gushiken and Jiro Watanabe and even managed to depose Gustavo Ballas. Estaba had the pleasure of spoiling another clean slate after whipping him over the distance. Three more defenses were completed in just two months and then Netrnoi Sor Vorasingh got his.

Briefly contemplating his eleventh defense, a reporter closed in for the champ’s opinion. 
“He’s a good fighter, but lacks experience.”

Now 39, experience was something Estaba needed like a broken hip. It was impossible for new spectators to tell, but shifting under those lights was a rickety warrior. Luis had distorted reality for long enough; time was one opponent he wasn’t going to foul into obscurity.       

Next in line was Freddy Castillo, a boxer who soothed his limitations with bravery and youth. The early goings showed Luis able to resist his stalking, but as the rounds passed a secondary battle began with his lungs. Not since the days of nervous sparring had this occurred. That basic plod of the Mexican kept its rhythm and the champion started to unravel.

Decked in the twelfth, nine more minutes was a big ask.

As nature had been trying to ordain it, Estaba was clobbered in the fourteenth. Referee Jay Edson came to his aid with particular empathy, leading him back into the ring, carefully holding his arms as you would a toddler attempting to climbs stairs. Swollen, bloody and clasping onto the top rope, the not-so-splendid geriatric was thumped off his throne.

His body had already waved the white flag, but Luis must not have seen it. 

Shortly after, there he was again facing Voransigh. The Thai had snatched the belt from Castillo and liked the idea of getting even; there wasn’t long for him to wait. The fifth round put an end to a deprived affair.

“It’s just Lumumba” headed most gloomy columns.
On August 13th the ex-champion was ordered by law to retire. Forty years had been reached, though certain newspapers put his age as high as 43. It’s almost expected of every fighter to compete until there’s no testosterone left, but to be actually kicked out of your profession is a superb achievement.

The deeds of Estaba were glued into the photo album while boxers from the Orient went onto to shape the division. There had been little to no international recognition, but then none was desired. 

Known as “The Gateway to the Caribbean,” Puerto La Cruz is a city bustling with agenda. Football, baseball and basketball still lead in its sporting interests but located down one of its streets is a gym named after the great man. 

The vast majority pass it without ever raising their head. Even members are unlikely to break routine with a probing question.   
Occasionally some bloke with silver in his hair will dawdle to scan the entrance sign. ‘Lumumba’ jumps out at him and curiosity is replaced with glorious nostalgia… 

That championship was as much his as it was his idols.

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