In pre-fight interviews leading up to his bout against Angel Fierro in Culiacan, Mexico, Eduardo Estela was exuding gratitude. He repeated that he was living his dream, and more specifically, that he was “still on his feet.”
Life has knocked Estela down over and over, each knockdown feeling more and more like it would be the end, or at least the end of his time as a free man. Estela was born in Uraguay, but he and his family settled in Argentina during his childhood. There were very few restful moments, surrounded by crime and poverty. His mother would go hungry many nights in order to ensure he and his siblings would be fed, while his father attempted to supplement his income as a taxi driver by collecting bottles, a story he shared with Jorge Señorans of ESPN last year. Housing in his region was in such disarray that he frequently had to help neighbours escape flooding in the middle of the night.
As perilous as the action was outside his home, he was also drawn to it. Robberies and theft were rampant, drugs were abundant, and all of it seemed to give him a rush. The only thing that could match the adrenaline those vices gave him was the way he felt inside the boxing ring. When his family relocated back to Uruguay, he began training in earnest, a kindly boxing coach allowing him to train despite Estela having no access to funds at all. But his addiction to the ring was working in unison with his very real addictions outside of the ring, and threatened by his proclivities for crimes of desperation. Estela was gripped by the vices of drug addiction, “I tried them all,” he said.
Estela had his fork in the road moment, one that decided whether he would one day be on TV, having articles written about him, or whether he would become another person lost in the prison system. He and his friends had planned a robbery, but the day prior, he decided he wasn’t going to miss his training. His brother wound up in prison for eight years for the act he’d opted out of.
"I fell in love with boxing, and it got me out of many things that could have ended worse," Estela told journalist Michael Paulo in 2021, adding that if his siblings and friends had discovered boxing, it might have saved them too. "Most of my friends are either in prison or they are dead."
It was hard not to think of Estela’s upbringing, of his immense struggles and triumphs in adversity as he was being clubbed around the ring by Fierro on Saturday night. It was difficult to not view it as a perfect metaphor for his life, an interpretive dance set to his story.
Fierro blitzed Estela from the opening bell, clearly feeling that not just an early knockout, but a first round knockout was a possibility. Estela was seemingly taken aback by the reckless abandon with which his opponent was pursuing him, retreating to the ropes as there is little else to do in the face of that kind of unchained intensity but go there and trust that it will stop.
It did not.
Fierro relentlessly threw power shots, sinking left hooks to the body of Estela and drilling him with uppercuts to the head as Estela slipped to his right in an attempt to roll out of the way of the onslaught.
In the second round, Fierro hurt Estela badly, sending him wobbling around the perimeter of the ring in a desperate attempt to stay on his feet. Estela was in such disarray that a corner would not have been improper in stopping the fight. Perhaps sensing that might be the case, but also needing to find a way to clear his head in sixty seconds, Estela didn’t even go back to his corner for the first thirty seconds of the break. Instead, he walked up and down the ropes, shaking his head, at times using the ropes for balance, spitting blood onto the ringside floor.
In the fourth round, Fierro finally floored him. But just as soon as he got back up, he was firing power shots in retaliation. At the end of the round, Fierro sent him prone on the canvas, his head extended just barely beyond the ring mat. He beat the count of ten once more, and again eschewed his corner as he paced back and forth, breathing and trying to cover.
People often say that there are no moral victories in boxing, but for Estela there clearly is. The sport is about more than just victories and losses on his record. The victory is showing up every day. In the fifth and sixth round, Estela achieved something tangible. Although he was clearly the more wounded fighter, he was somehow the more energetic one. With his head ringing, his abdomen aching, he danced around the ring and fired counter left hooks. Fierro had exhausted himself in landing everything imaginable, and now the man who looked ready to be stretchered out of the ring six minutes ago was ripping him with punches.
But the punishment Estela had endured was too much, and in the seventh round, Fierro trapped him along the ropes and landed a left hook that put Estela out on his feet. Even in the unconscious, he remained on his feet to absorb three more hooks as he slowly fell to the mat, his limp body settling on the canvas as if his heart could finally rest.
How simultaneously proud and concerned the children must have been, the ones he coaches at the KO a las Drogas program Maroñas neighborhood of Montevideo, as they watched their mentor and hero continue to get up, to fight back, all the way until his frightening demise.
It likely would have been medically advisable for Estela to remain on his back to be tended to while concussed, but even after the fight was as conclusively over as one could be, Estela was still fighting to get to his feet. He didn't quite have the strength to sit on the stool, not to mention, what would reportedly be ruled a broken rib at the local hospital no doubt made lying down or sitting and compressing his midsection agonizing. He couldn't quite stand, so he knelt, an oxygen mask strapped to his face. Fierro walked over towards him holding the plush Minnie Mouse he carries with him to the ring as a message to his daughter. There was a look of sympathy on his face, and he held the doll outstretched in his hand almost reflexively, as if he were offering a gift of condolence, unsure of what to do for the man he'd just pummeled.
When Estela woke up in the morning, he reportedly could barely move, needing assistance to make it down to the airport shuttle. Rather than spend an extra night or two in Mexico to recover, he wanted to get back to Montevideo.
He’d made a commitment to the sport, and to the kids for whom the ring was the alternative to the life he narrowly escaped. He was still on his feet. He needed to be.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman