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For Leguizamo, Boxing Film Was More Than Acting


September 14, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

John Leguizamo wore a beige suit, white shirt opened three buttons to show a gold-chain necklace, an outfit that one of his boxing idols, Roberto Duran, might have worn after a victory, heading for night out at Victor's Cafe Manhattan.

Inside the Loews 34th Street Theater, Mr. Leguizamo put his hands up and got into a boxer's crouch in front of a poster of his new HBO movie "Undefeated," the opening night film for The New York International Latino Film Festival. It's a movie about a Puerto Rican fighter who makes his way out of Queens in a rags-to-riches story. He flaunted his newfound fighting skills and jokingly threatened a reporter several inches taller than him.

Training at Gleason's Gym for five months - "against real pros who wanted to beat up some actor" - as Mr. Leguizamo said, gives you fighting confidence. It was not always that way growing up in Queens.

"I would get beat up all the time," said Mr. Leguizamo, 5 feet 8 inches tall. "I used to even get beat up by the girls in school. It was crazy. It was a tough neighborhood. Even the girls had to know how to fight. They would kick my butt. I would get kicked in the groin. My coccyx bone still hurts."

Now that he is pugilistically potent (with apologies to Howard Cosell), is he heading back to the old neighborhood to settle some scores?

"Look, Johnny ain't from the block no more," said Mr. Leguizamo. "I'm not going back to Jackson Heights. I grew up there and I moved out. Now everyone who was there when I was a kid is gone. It's a neighborhood where you don't want to stay. You want to move away from it."

He not only stars in the film but makes his directorial debut. And he had to hone his boxing skills at the same time. That led to many black and blue marks, a still sore back and longer filming time.

"It was kind of a masochistic endeavor, to box, direct and act myself," said Mr. Leguizamo, 39. "It was tough all the way around. The toughest thing was condensing 12 rounds, and capture the strategy of boxing, into three rounds.

"There were 50 punches per round, many combinations. The days were long, I would get tired and forget and slip. When I supposed to duck right, I would forget. I would get hit by some big right crosses and jabs and I would see lightning and hear birds. And I would have to take these crazy timeouts because I couldn't talk. I would get tears in my eyes.

"I would be so angry. I would have to walk away from the set for a while."

He flexed his back and grimaced.

"I pulled a muscle in my side and I still feel it. I recovered from the hits in the head. It took a couple of weeks. I had my head ringing for days after sparring."

He was still in his boxing mode as he gave a reporter some tips about the scribe's work-in-progress left hook. "You need to re-chamber and don't telegraph it with your body. That's the hardest punch to get."

His physical fitness - six hours a day in the gym - helped get him through the directing.

"I was in the best shape of my entire life. I outlasted everybody in the crew everyday. I was never tired, never hungry. I lived on protein drinks. The crew had to keep up with my pace. I admire them for that. I was the one training. I was in shape. And they weren't."

At the reception for the film at the Copacabana, in a crowd that included Jellybean Benitez, the actor Willie Garson, the boxing referee Arthur Mercante, Sylvia Miles and the boxer Michael Olajide, Mr. Leguizamo acted as if he was still in training. He sat in front of a plate of roast beef, vegetables and fried cheese. He worked around the cheese.

"If I was in training, I would eat the meat and vegetables but not the fried stuff," he said.

After coping with boxing and directing, Mr. Leguizamo had to deal with yet another a new situation. He got married in early July. The then single actor directed those hanky-panky scenes in the film: nude women in bedrooms, in a pool. How did he explain those to the wife?

"I told her to close her eyes until the scenes are over," he said. "I warned her, 'here it comes, you don't want to see that.' She's been mad. But I love my wife and I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize my relationship. I'm not Kobe Bryant."

He's an avid boxing fan - his character in the movie is seen studying fight films of Mr. Duran - and has his opinions about fellow New Yorker and the sport's biggest enigma, Mike Tyson.

"Tyson is an interesting cat. I've always admired him. But he's at a point in his career that he has to decide between being a circus freak and a great fighter. "

"You can't confuse a fighter by having designs on your face," said Mr. Leguizamo, referring to Mr. Tyson's Star Trek-like tattoo on his face. "You have to move your gloves too."

He wishes he had Mr. Tyson's talent in the ring.

"I always wanted to be a boxer. I would have done it for a little while if I could not act, but I would have never lasted. You have to have a tough childhood and incredible drive."

On this night, even Mr. Garson was talking tough.

The thin, balding, bespectacled man plays Sarah Jessica Parker's gay best friend, Stanford Blatch, in "Sex and the City."

"I started boxing about six months ago, mostly for the workout," Mr. Garson said. "I was in a terrible boxing movie a couple years ago that was called 'Play it to the Bone' that got me interested."

"I've vomited, I've passed out. I've cried. But what a great workout. I want be known as 'Kid Jew.' I'm going to fight three-round bouts. And I'm ready for John now. I can take him."

Mr. Olajide, the former middleweight contender who was in the movie and worked on Mr. Leguizamo's boxing skills, gave a scouting report on the boxer/actor.

"He's extremely strong, aggressive, hits good, good hand speed and definitely takes a good shot. He would have been a good welterweight."

Mr. Mercante, probably the greatest referee in boxing history (he includes Frazier-Ali, Frazier-Foreman and Ali-Paterson bouts on his resume) and who played a ref in the film, thinks a younger Mr. Leguizamo could have been a contender.

"John would have made a good professional fighter. He knows all the moves. He was active with a terrific jab. He's multi-skilled. A great actor too. Muscular and brains too."

Mr. Leguizamo is hanging up his gloves to prepare for another - and according to him - more difficult and cerebral challenge.

The actor, who was born in Colombia, will star in "Cronicas," a Spanish-language suspense movie about a reporter's plight to get the story of a serial killer.

"It's easier to do but harder on the soul," he said. "I'm shooting in Ecuador right now. It's my first Spanish-language movie. I thought I could speak Spanish until I started doing the movie.

"Then I realized I get all my tenses wrong. I can't improvise. I have to stick to the dialogue on the page, and I've never done that. I thought learning boxing was going to be difficult. But learning the Spanish language is tougher. It's really kicking my butt."

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