By Jose Corpas
The chants started ninety-nine years ago, in the front rows where you’re close enough to the ring that you can hear the boards underneath the canvas rattle like an old boardwalk. That night, two heavyweights slugged it out in the most savage and controversial fight ever. The challenger, a self-managed boxer from Argentina with a case of vertigo, an injured left arm, and little chance of winning, landed first. A short right thrown with a grunt, simultaneously sent the champion to his knees and the crowd to their feet.
Firpo! Firpo! Firpo!
The champ rose immediately, and a few seconds later, landed a right that sent the challenger down. The tone for the wildest boxing match ever was set. The chants, roars, and cheering all merged into a distorted sound, one that blanketed New York’s Polo Grounds and the streets around it in white noise for the following four minutes. As fast as a telegraph could be read, the cheers spread south, following the cable lines to Florida or Texas, then down to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Along the way, hunched over transistor radios, or gathered in front of the local newspaper office, millions waited for news of the fight. In Puerto Rico, El Imparcial, gave updates from their second-floor balcony to men in dress suits below. In Mexico. Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Chile, and Brazil, and many other cities, the local papers did the same. In Buenos Aires, the theaters interrupted their shows with updates, and the stomps of thousands of cheering fans who gathered in front of the recently constructed Palacio Barolo, where a light in the tower at the top would announce the winner – blue for Firpo, red for Dempsey – nearly caused a seismic event along the Avenida de Mayo. Luis Firpo had just sent the champion of the world, Jack Dempsey, tumbling head-first out of the ring. The light at the top of the Barolo turned blue.
For a few seconds that night of September 14, 1923, millions in Latin America cheered for who they thought was their first heavyweight champion of the world. Fireworks went off, balloons were released, and hats were thrown into the air.
Then the light turned red.
100 years after his epic fight with Jack Dempsey, they’re still cheering Luis Firpo’s name
Today, ninety-nine years after a controversial loss to Dempsey, they’re still chanting Firpo’s name.
The month of September is the end of the rain season in Usulután, El Salvador, a city bordered on one side by the Pacific, and a volcano on the other. It’s also the start of the Apertura season, the opening half of a two-part, split-season format followed by El Salvador’s major league soccer teams. This past May, the future of Usulután’s local team was in doubt.
There were financial troubles, and the team was in danger of being downgraded to a minor league status. Summer passed without much news but, as September rolled around, the players began arriving at the stadium to practice. In late September, the team, named Club Deportivo Luis Angel Firpo, returned to the field, and with them, so did the chants of 1923.
Usulután wakes up with the sun. The residential areas are quiet with squat homes and clean streets that have few traffic lights. Along the commercial strips, fast food places and Japanese cars maneuvering around potholes dominate the scenery. In the northern part of the city, where the prison sits and the view of the mountains is the best in town, the 5,000-seat Sergio Torres Rivera Stadium is where Firpo the team plays.
Hours before the opening kick, the streets leading to the stadium were packed with fans dressed in the team’s red, white, and blue jerseys. A marching band made its way towards Second Avenue, with dozens of fans joining and cheering to the rhythms of the drums. Several helped carry long banners that read “Firpo” or “Furia Pampera”. The crowd is in the hundreds by the time they passed the Pollo Campero and settled in front of the church, Iglesia Parroquia de Santa Catarina, whose crucifix on top is illuminated in blue whenever the team plays at home.
When they reached the stadium, almost every spot on the red, white, and blue cement bleachers was occupied, bleachers that many of them had volunteered to paint. A large, stuffed red bull – the team’s mascot – was passed along the cheerful crowd. When the game started, it rained confetti in the stands, fireworks went off, and a blanket of smoke covered the crowd. Then came the chants.
They started in the front row, where you are close enough to see the grass stains on the soccer balls. It spread left and right, and then back, until nearly everyone was chanting.
Firpo! Firpo! Firpo!
The crowd then stood and began to sing:
Here comes Firpo.
Viva el Firpo!
Just before the Dempsey-Firpo fight, a group of local businessmen in Usulután got together and formed the team. They named the team after Tecun Uman, a Mayan chief who fought in battles with higher stakes than any boxing championship.
Tecun Uman was considered a hero, but much about him was unknown including his name, which is thought by some to be a title rather a name. He was born around 1500 in Guatemala, a place the Mayans named “Land of Trees.” Under the canopy of dark green leaves, where the soil is moist and the smell of chocolate is in the air twice per year, Tecun Uman was assassinated by Spanish invaders.
After the Aztec empire was conquered, the Mayans received ominous news. You’re next, they were told. Armed with cannons, and wearing heavy armor, Spanish invader Pedro de Alvarado headed south. With conquered Aztecs and Mayans forced into battle, his army grew and roared through Guatemala like an overflowing river. He found abandoned cities and soldiers ready to surrender, acknowledging that their spears and slingshots were no match for the armored suits, Toledo swords, and harquebuses of the conquistadors.
In 1524, as de Alvarado entered Quetzaltenango, he had no reason to suspect that he was about to encounter a leader who not only refused to bow at his feet to swear allegiance to the King of Castile, but one who would almost kill him.
Tecun Uman flexed his muscles, brown like coconut shells and just as hard, and prepared his troops for a match they had no chance of winning. He died while defending his people. How it happened depends on the version you believe.
In his letters to Hernan Cortes, the leader of the expedition, the ginger-haired de Alvarado wrote of a great struggle near Quetzaltenango. Lives on both sides were lost, he reported. They were forced to retreat, with the Mayans in hot pursuit and “at the ends of their horses’ tails” according to de Alvarado. Eventually, they took over the area and, without naming anyone, de Alvarado wrote that a leader was killed.
In the Mayan K’iche document, the Titulo C’oyoi, written after colonization, Tecun emerged from a cave wearing the emerald-colored feathers of a Quetzal bird. They faced off like gunslingers, a quetzal hovering above Tecun’s shoulder. The Mayans never saw horses before, we’re told, and Tecun, thinking de Alvarado was a centaur, thrust his sword into the horse’s chest.
Tecun, thinking the duel was over, did not notice the blade that ended his life. Blood gushed out like lava from the wound. The quetzal landed on his bloodied chest, its feathers turning red – the reason quetzals today have red chests, the document says. Tecun resurrected as a quetzal, and, according to the Titulo C’oyoi, everyone gratefully converted to Catholicism.
Decades later, the accounts of several Aztecs and Mayan slave-warriors who were forced into battle by the Spaniards were recorded by a Spanish priest. Discarded in jungles far from their homes, they said the Kaqchikel Mayans in Guatemala would hide in the brush and then ambush the horses as they ran past, grabbing them by the tail to slow them down and then knocking the riders off. It was a subordinate of de Alvarado, they recalled, who delivered the fatal blow to Tecun.
In southern Guatemala, near the border with El Salvador, where the land flattens and the beaches are covered in black sand, the oral histories of the Xinca Indians said Tecun was shot.
With de Alvarado in retreat, Tecun jumped out from the brush with spear aloft. A booming sound, as loud as thunder, interrupted the fighting. Tecun was sent reeling and landed on his back. He sprang up, his spear still pointing towards the heavens, and continued towards de Alvarado. A sword he did not see pierced his heart. Tecun stumbled back but did not fall. Several came to his aid and held him while the conquerors rode off. Despite being shot and stabbed through the heart, Tecun Uman – unlike de Alvarado, who was trampled to death by a horse’s hooves – died on his feet.
Until the Dempsey-Firpo fight, the team was named after Tecun Uman. On the night of Friday, September 14th, Juan Hinds, Gustavo Denys, and the other organizers of the team sat around a transistor radio and listened to updates of the fight, hoping that the muscular and brave, Latin American underdog, would somehow upset the unbeatable imperial force.
Films of Dempsey’s fights with Jess Willard and Georges Carpentier were shown throughout Latin America. The dark-haired, stubble-chinned brawler with the military fade was a massive favorite to defeat Firpo. The Argentine needed another year of experience, most agreed. He was considered primitive, in and out of the ring and, unlike Carpentier, where the Frenchman was the darling of the media, Firpo encountered a racist press. Billed as a fight between the United States and South America, Firpo was called a “civilized gorilla”.