I first met Jonathan Maicelo back when I was writing and photographing about boxing in Latin America, and then sparring the fighters that I met. I remember the Peruvian Boxing Federation being the first gym to deny my project proposal, and an aura of suspicion followed my every movement thereafter. That was until a quick, wiry fighter came into the gym looking for some work.
The trainers’ contrary attitude of openness (and eagerness) for me to spar this fighter should have tipped me off, but being that it was what I had been looking for the entire week beforehand, I stepped through the ropes nonetheless. I realized that might have been a mistake within the first few seconds.
The first punches landed with such successive speed and force that the headgear flew off my head, and the next eleven minutes soon became what are still probably the most painful eleven minutes that I can remember in the ring. Usually, I’m able to recall my sparring sessions quite well, describe the experience with an array of punches, angles and thoughts that run through my mind, but this was just pure confusion. The only thing I could really remember was seeing black patches and white stars in all corners of the inside of my head.
Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure the trainers just wanted a body for him to beat up on, since I later learned that Maicelo hadn’t had any sparring in the weeks prior and was actively preparing for a match later that week. It was also later revealed to me that he was the most decorated fighter in the nation.
Maicelo and I have not seen each other for a little over five years. I know this because Javier Gallegos was the last opponent I helped him prepare for in our training together. I didn’t really know why I spent four months sparring with Maicelo. I wasn’t getting paid (as most sparring partners should), and it didn’t seem that the trainers were too concerned about me becoming a better fighter. I more or less stood in as a human sandbag, but five years later, Maicelo still remembered our sparring sessions and greeted me with the most gracious and attentive courtesy upon my return, despite becoming one of Peru’s biggest superstars in recent times.
I met him at a tattoo parlor near where I was staying and he looked exactly the same as when I last saw him, in shape and stylish as ever. He later told me he wants to be the “Kanye West of boxing”, meaning at least to him, that he wants to pursue multiple ventures outside of the sport and go down in history as someone who was more than a fighter. For the most part, he’s been well on that way in the past five years: starting (and later closing) his own clothing line “Nocaut”, being the main spokesperson for major supplement companies, and appearing on a number of popular Peruvian television shows, one of them being the highly-rated “El Gran Show” as a contestant in their version of “Dancing with the Stars”.
In the taxi en route to his home, he started pointing to a couple of skyscrapers and waved his finger back and forth between the two of them. “I’m riding a bicycle from one to another,” he said, holding his hands apart with a space equal to the size of a textbook to indicate the width of the pathway. At first I was confused at what he was talking about, but I later found out that he was performing a stunt for “El Gran Show” that weekend. When I asked how much he was to be paid, he shook his head and told me that some underprivileged kids will get some money if he managed to get across without falling.
Maicelo is the type of person that hates poverty: he gets visibly angry whenever he sees any evidence of it. He used to rant and rile his hands in the air when we’d walk around town and see the homeless sleeping on the streets in the late afternoon, but he always managed to be kind when he interacted with the people. I remember walking with him one time in downtown Lima and in mid-conversation he casually placed a handful of coins into the palms of a woman crouched over on the sidewalk cradling a small child. He didn’t pause for me to take notice, or seemed to care if I did; he just sort of did it like he was paying the toll to a bridge, like it was something you were obligated to do when you saw those types of things. Much of that attitude came from where and how he had grown up.
His story was typical for most fighters in boxing: a hard-luck kid who grew up in a poor neighborhood and found fighting as a way out. “Los Barracones del Callao” is a neighborhood in a coastal district about forty-five minutes from Lima and it is where Maicelo calls home. It was and still is known as one of the most disregarded and dangerous places in the region, and the physical evidence is apparent the moment you go in there.
We once walked along a shoreline near his home, though the scene resembled more of a landfill than a beach. Chipped building blocks sprouted across the ground between crushed plastic soda bottles, and an array of grocery bags alternating between black, red, green, and any other imaginable color for a plastic bag cluttered the landscape. Maicelo told me a lot of the bags were filled with human excrement and pointed to a ratty couch on the other side of the shore where many of the drug addicts congregated.
“El Callao is a neighborhood that’s been ‘fucked’. Here people kill one another,” Maicelo said to me. “But at the same time, I have a lot of respect for the people that try to make it. The people who achieve their goals without killing anyone, these people I have a lot of respect for.”
That is essentially how Maicelo has gone about living his life. He firmly believes that a person is responsible for their fate, and has created a code from chaos. He has keen awareness to the larger social forces that create places like Callao, but has also never let it settle for an excuse on how someone chose to be.
“In [my] neighborhood or in any place where it is very dangerous, everyone has the option to choose their destiny. I live in a difficult neighborhood filled with delinquency and drug addiction, but I chose to become a professional boxer. The neighborhood isn’t the one that does it to you. The enemy, the first enemy for a person, is that person themselves,” Maicelo said.
Many of the residents of the Barracones live in what people called “box homes”, basically a structure consisting of any material that could be procured in the area (discarded wood, aluminum sheeting, leftover bricks, etc.) and thrown together into rectangular living spaces. Homes made of solid concrete with a stable foundation were few and far between, and was probably the highest standard of construction that I saw during my visits.
The last time I visited, Maicelo was living in a place he put together himself, funded primarily by his efforts in the ring. It was a small one-story room constructed of untreated wood and flimsy room-dividers to separate the living spaces. He managed to buy a couple leather couches, an entertainment set, and a large Hector Lavoe-style mural painted in his likeness plastered a wall to make it home. While the place was tastefully decorated, you could still tell it was done from a place of little means.
Since then, he’s won a WBC Latino Lightweight Title, a WBA Fedecentro Lightweight Title, and most recently, a WBC International Silver Lightweight Title. That might not mean much in the plethora of belts swimming in the sea of sanctioning bodies, but it has brought him more money, and with that, the ability to build a new home.
“Everything here is new,” Maicelo said while knocking his fist against the walls of his new home to show its sturdiness. “Everything. New. For my mother, you know?”
His mother is the bane of his life. Being the only adult figure in his childhood, she played both parental roles and has fully supported his pursuits in the ring, despite some discomfort in the beginning. Now it seems that support has paid off as he’s built a new home for the two of them, one made of sturdy concrete and filled with designer tile from wall to ceiling.
Maicelo said that he never felt a loss without his father; that his mother was all he ever needed. If anything, that lack of a prominent male figure in the home only reaffirmed his commitment to his own parent, and instilled a firm dedication in being there for his son.
“It’s just me against the world,” Maicelo said to me while showing me around his house. “When I fight in the ring, I fight for my life. I fight so my son isn’t missing anything in life. I work everyday for mine, for my mother, for my son, so that they live well.”
But not everything in the past five years has been pleasant. He suffered his first professional loss at the hands of Rustam Nugaev last year on ESPN2, and in his last outing against the formidable Art Hovhannisyan, Maicelo was a 7-1 underdog, the first time I’ve ever known him to be the one predicted to lose going into a fight.
“They took me off the map after I lost [to Nugaev]. The fight [against Hovhannisyan] was the new beginning of my career or the end of it. If I lost, I would not be able to have another possibility to fight on ESPN or any other station that mattered,” Maicelo told me. “I was set up to lose, the ‘package’ as they call it. But that gave me more courage to win, like I kept thinking, ‘I’m not going to let this happen. He’s not going to win because I’m going to change my destiny.’”
The phone began to ring and he excused himself to take the call. In the middle of it, I realized that it’s a journalist on the other end and he was giving an interview over the phone. This was one example of how my entire day with Maicelo went—constant visits from fans, the media, and at one point a politician came by and drove us around in circles while they chatted for about an hour. It’s then that I started to see what he meant by ‘working everyday’. For a fighter to get the big fights they have to sell their name, a brand if you will, and that was essentially what Maicelo was doing around the clock. I wondered if it took a toll on his personal life.
“The fame is good and bad,” said Maicelo. “The bad thing is that I don’t have any privacy, but the part that’s good is that it can open a lot of doors that I need to open. It’s like a window of opportunity, like for the NGO for example.”
He told me earlier about his aspirations to one day open a gym for underprivileged kids, pretty much targeting youth that grew up the same way he did. The inspiration came from the challenges he faced in the boxing world being a kid from Callao.
“I want to have a NGO that helps kids with little resources or kids with disabilities because a physical disability adds to the suffering of those living in extreme poverty,” said Maicelo, citing the project as one of his biggest motivators to becoming a world champion. “I came up with the idea myself because when I started boxing, nobody would help me, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t help anyone else. I learned that not receiving anything doesn’t mean that you should deny what you feel for others.”
When I first met Jonathan Maicelo, he was known as “The Predator”, a moniker he earned for a dreaded hairstyle and his tenacity in the ring. He later moved to the United States and changed to “The Cobra”, but promoters later convinced him for another change to help market himself and his country.
“When I went to the US, they said that I represent Peru and what is most known in Peru is Manchu Picchu and the Incas. I’m representing my ancestors—a race of warriors, culture, science—a race very advanced for their time,” Maicelo said. “When I go to other countries, people think I’m from Puerto Rico, Colombia or Brazil because of how I look. I guess don’t really look like an Inca, but for me, I have their blood in my veins, one-hundred percent.”
While much of the promotional nicknaming may all be a marketing gimmick, there is some truth to what Maicelo now calls himself inside the ring. Inca Warriors were like many other warrior figures throughout the world, those who fought and cared for their people in times of need. I don’t know if Jonathan Maicelo is the “Last Inca” left in the world, but he certainly represents a reincarnation of that spirit.
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