Edgar “Chamaco” Santana, a/k/a The Pride of Spanish Harlem, walks into the Mendez Boxing gym in Manhattan’s Flatiron District and approachs a duct-taped punch bag. He’s compact and wiry, like a tourniquet wound tight. Dipping his left shoulder while he jabs with his right, he clamps his jaw in concentration.
The gym walls are lined with images of famous Latino fighters – Salvador Sanchez, Julio Cesar Chavez – intermingled with the giants who, like Ali and Tyson, require no first name. Its clientele is mainly comprised of white-collar boxers who come to work out. These days, Santana is one of a few remaining pros.*
In 2008, Santana was one of the country’s most promising light welterweights with 24 wins and 17 knockouts to his name. ESPN televised his fights and talk of world titles was not unrealistic. But by late 2009, he was behind bars, a convicted drug trafficker.
Since his release from Riker’s Island two years ago, Santana has fought twice, both bouts ending in knockouts. In the second, against Omri Lowther, Santana was crowned North American Boxing Association champion. With the next step a bout against Wilfredo Negron, his comeback is on.
Edgar Santana,born in Manatí, Puerto Rico, moved with his family to El Barrio in 1986, when he was seven.
“It was definitely rough, a lot of drugs on the street,” Santana recalls, his soft voice barely registering over the thud of fists hitting bags. “There were people lined up to get drugs. That was a shock.”
He found his calling at 15, when José “Chegüi” Torres, a Puerto Rican light heavyweight, came to speak to students at his high school. Santana, already practicing martial arts, decided to switch to boxing.
By 20, he’d turned pro, but struggled without a manager or promoter, bouncing back and forth between Puerto Rico and East Harlem. He changed trainers frequently, until by 2005 he’d begun to attract enthusiastic headlines. He also opened a barbershop, Santana Cuts, on East 106th Street, populating it with a coterie of childhood friends.
“He was on the cusp of his career,” said Hector Sarria, a trainer at Mendez Boxing. “He was close to fighting a world championship fight.”
Everything changed on July 18, 2008, when Santana was arrested at his East 102nd Street home. He was just weeks from an ESPN-televised fight, but officers of the New York Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Strike Force, listening in for over a year on his conversations with two suspected drug traffickers, had little concern about that.
That morning, Santana emerged from his apartment in handcuffs wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with one of the many enigmatic slogans of local artist and friend James De La Vega, which now line his barbershop walls: “The pressure of survival in the big city will make you lose sight of your dream. Hang in there.”
Accused of brokering a deal to mail a kilo of cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York, Santana posted $150,000 bail. He eventually served four months on Riker’s Island, convicted of conspiracy to sell narcotics. He emerged a free man in January, 2010.
His arrest and imprisonment affected fans at Mendez Boxing. “It was kind of deflating for everyone,” says patron Mitch McMahon while Santana lays into an Everlast bag. “You live in the jungle and there’s a lot of alligators. The longer you live there, the more likely you are to get bitten.”
“Believe none of what you hear and half of what you know,” adds trainer Joey Gamache. “Boxing’s an unforgiving sport.”
Santana himself remains cagey about the episode – “Sometimes you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says – but is more willing to talk about prison’s impact on his physical state. He was well known on Riker’s, even respected, but struggled to keep in shape. It was, he says, more a waste of time than anything.
Once out, Santana decided to take a break from boxing and focus his attention on the barbershop. But soon he longed for the ring, and sought out Leon Taylor, a trainer he’d long admired, to orchestrate his comeback. He hopes to be challenging for a world title within a year.
“I have the ability to go many places,” Santana says.
At Santana’s barbershop on East 106th Street, sandwiched between an aromatic botanica and a Hispanic church, the unprepossessing red awning seems to herald a down-at-heel interior. But De La Vega’s Basquiat-meets-Haring scrawls give it a gritty sophistication. Santana points to his favorite inscription, daubed on the shop’s white wall: “Your mind has the amazing ability to organize chaos.”
As he sits by the window, slugging water from a gallon Poland Spring bottle, Santana moans about being unable to eat much over the holidays. But he’s about to travel with his manager, Brian Cohen, and his trainer, Taylor, to Dover Downs Casino in Delaware. When he weighs in, Santana needs to hit 143 pounds. He’s currently at 147, but doesn’t seem fazed by losing four pounds in two days. “What I have now is water weight,” he says. “Not fat.”
With his tight cheekbones and long lashes, Santana doesn’t look like your average cauliflower-nosed prizefighter. He dresses differently, too: his jeans tucked into ankle-high boots, the ensemble accessorized with an elegant fedora, complete with feather. He admires Picasso who, Santana says, made people think differently about art.
“I was always a little bit more open-minded about things,” he says, displaying his arm as an example. “You’ve never seen someone with a red sleeve.” A red-inked tattoo circles his bicep, a work in progress.
It’s a busy afternoon. Carlos Flores walks in with his mother and son. He’s wants his beard trimmed before he jets off to Jamaica the next morning. “I’m the subway hero,” he says, getting out his phone to display a video of his appearance on the Rachel Ray show.
Last year, Flores jumped onto the 6 train tracks at the 103rd Street station to save a man who’d fainted, a celebrated act that brought, among other rewards, this free family trip.
Antony Marquez, one of the shop’s barbers, arrives, and greets Edgar knuckle to knuckle. “Jefe,” he says in acknowledgement and respect. “No matter how famous he gets,” Marquez says of his boss, “he stays in the Barrio and that’s why he’s loved round here.”
Armando Alequin, waiting for a cut, bemoans the decline of boxing in Spanish Harlem. When he was growing up, the sport produced role models. Boxers, Alequin says, demand respect; they eat well, look after themselves and don’t use drugs. “You’re a badass but clean cut,” he says.
Santana looks nervous at that. “I hope I inspire people, most especially kids,” he says. “But I don’t know. Being a role model is tricky. There’s so many things that come with it, so much expected from you. I can do without that.”
The bright façade of Dover Downs Hotel & Casino emerges from an endless ribbon of strip malls and chain motels.
A function room serves as the boxing arena; a giant chandelier hangs above the ring. A few rows away, with a look of furious disappointment, Santana sits watching the action: Anthony “The Bull” Smith knocking out Douglas “Al Capone” Otieno in the sixth round; Epifanio “Diamante” Mendoza’s corner staff throwing in the towel against Amir “Hardcore” Mansour, also in the sixth.
Santana’s own fight was abruptly cancelled. The explanations vary: Santana’s manager, Brian Cohen, says opponent Wilfredo Negron had a car crash on the way to the airport. In the press box, veteran boxing journalist Rick Scharmberg has heard rumors that Negron wasn’t allowed time off from work. One of Santana’s corner staff, Emmanuel Brujan, provides a different narrative: “He was scared.”
Cohen, an affable bull of a man wearing a thick silver chain, takes the disappointment in stride. His client gets paid anyway – Santana’s promoter Dave Escalet suggests anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000. In the boxing world, Cohen says, such disruptions aren’t unusual. “I’ve seen fighters fake an anxiety attack before a fight,” he says. “I’ve seen it all.”
Santana seems strangely distracted. As his entourage makes its way to an after-party in the casino’s oyster bar, he drops behind, walking alone, carrying a bottle of iced tea. “I only came to get paid,” he says.
Cohen, however, leads Santana off to a table where three white-haired men are sitting. Santana shakes their hands; they talk a bit. Pleasantries exchanged, he and Cohen return to the table.
Ordering a second vodka, Cohen struggles to contain his excitement. He doesn’t want to “jinx” anything, but the discussions bode well for his client’s future. Santana, declining another drink, doesn’t seem to share Cohen’s enthusiasm. “People offer me a lot of things,” he says.
Santana hopes to defend his NABA title in February, again in Dover. But at 32, he knows he’s only got four or five more years left to fight, so Negron’s no-show represents a setback. The comeback is still on, he insists, but it’s been delayed.
A few weeks before he’s due back in Dover to defend his title, Santana walks into the Mendez gym wearing a black t-shirt featuring De La Vega’s latest aphorism: “Be Mindful, Even if Your Mind is Full.”
Taylor, his coach, greets him with a clasped hand and a shoulder barge that knocks his charge sideways. In mock retaliation, Santana clips him lightly with a weightless fist.
After a half hour’s shadow-boxing, Santana leaves the ring, sweating through his pants at the knee. He looks in good shape.
“Whatever I did before; now I’m doing twice as much,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity. This fight is very important to me.”
Santana and his team then head to another Mendez gym a few blocks away to work on conditioning.
“I definitely started 2012 with a whole different head on my shoulders,” Santana declares. “I want to show everybody I’m the real deal.”
*The Uptowner originally reported that Santana was the only professional boxer training at Mendez gym; in fact, there are several others.