Jose Corpas


Jose Corpas is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. When he's not writing about sports or fiction, he runs Champion Auto School. The author of two boxing-related books, he can be followed on Twitter @CorpasWriter. 


Ever since his fighting rooster, the one trapped in a hen’s body, died in a blood-stained pit behind the Santa Maria cemetery many years earlier, Adrian Adama boxed with one of its feathers inside of each glove. That little white bird unexpectedly won eight consecutive matches and became something of a legend from El Morro all the way down to the Doña Juana Waterfall. The rooster was a Gallo-Gallina. Not a breed, but a genetic defect according to some. The bad gringos up north call it henny feathering, a recessive trait that exists even in the best of breeds. Female on the outside, male on the inside. Adrian Adama empathized.

When Adrian took up boxing later that year, it was said that he, like a fighting rooster, was built to fight. Long-limbed, quick, with a short torso, Adrian eventually grew to hate boxing. He despised being part of a half-naked spectacle staged before blood-thirsty crowds high on warm beer. Knockouts no longer thrilled Adrian and that charge of energy - sapped from his opponent’s chin – that ran from his knuckles and settled in his shoulder, ceased to addict. With each punch he threw, his disgust increased. Adrian Adama wanted out.

Out of a colonized island surrounded by big water. Where summers were so hot, flies dropped in midflight, their medium-rare bodies landing upside down on domino tables, a sunburned hand brushing them onto the dry ground. Out of this land of coconut limbers where residents rarely questioned why they and the mangey satos on the beach had the same voting power. He wanted out of a neighborhood with two entrances – one through the cemetery where the howls at night came from the unkept Tomb of the Witch - the other through the alley on the east, where the air smelled of ammonia and the ready rocks were dealt. A place where dark rum replaced Zoloft, spray-painted murals of teenaged ghosts decorated the streets, and the charm of the tropical colored homes faded the closer you got. He wanted out of a career that felt like a pugilistic snuff film and yearned for a world where inside mattered more than outside.  

Nobody knew it then but, that rainy night in Vegas when he boxed against the top ranked middleweight, would be his last match. The championship awaited the winner, along with a seven-figure payday. Adrian’s dream was about to come true, the experts repeated without confirming. Interviews asking the same questions became routine.

How didja get started in boxing?

“I never knew I had a lisp - no one told me. In high school, a kid made fun of me, said I spoke like a maricón. Next thing I knew, my right hand throbbed and he had swallowed his front tooth.”

How long have you been boxing?

Almost four years.

Is this your toughest fight?

In the ring it is.


He was in the best shape of his life, he told them, having spent five weeks training at a converted horse ranch in Arizona. He rose before sunrise, ran for forty-five minutes, rested, then worked out again around noon, when the sweat flowed easiest. Members of the boxing media showed up for the workouts in their ill-fitting Muhammad Ali t-shirts, talking in expired slang, and bopping their heads to a rhythm other than the one that blared from Adrian’s radio.

“Is that, like, Spanish rap?

Reggeaton,” Adrian told them.  

“Some gyms here don’t allow music.”

“To each their own.”

“Is it distracting?”

“I’ve learned to ignore most things.”

After an evening bowl of asopao, he sat alone on the porch and counted the coyote silhouettes in the distance while strumming a tiple once owned by Maso Rivera. Every night before retiring, he soaked in a tub of hot water and Epson salt and read the Christine Jorgensen biography.

The Vegas fight was only his second time away from home. The first was in Santo Domingo, where he paid the emergency room a visit the day after he fought. Unscathed from the match, but the straight-from-the-ocean conch he ate in Boca Chica made his skin itch and swell. At first, his friends there told him to rub Vicks Vapor Rub on the hives, because, they said, “that shit cures everything.”

Two hours after emptying the contents of that blue jar on his arms and torso, Adrian checked into an empty hospital that smelled like Pine-Sol. The front desk was unattended, the door behind the counter opening to a lime-green room filled with the sounds of Bachata. Adrian poked his head in and asked the couple dancing if anyone was attending.

“Excuse us,” said the woman, flustered. “I’ll get them.”

Seconds later, the same couple, wearing white lab coats, re-entered the room and tended to Adrian’s allergic reaction. He stayed away from shellfish after that and aside from a dozen consultations about hormones and reassignment, the only other time he stepped inside a hospital was for the required MRI before the Vegas fight.

All along Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra Drives, talk of the evening’s bout dominated the parlors, with the last-minute money backing the other guy. Adrian was “too pretty,” the high-rollers said. Pretty boys, like college graduates, were more likely to cave-in when the pressure was on. They had options other than fighting. They were busy thinking, not punching.

While his opponent’s family dressed for the Red Carpet, Adrian’s mother, sister, and two neighbors went to the nearest church. After praying for the safety of both, the neighbor originally from Guayama, used coconut oil and seven coins to cast a spell designed to give Adrian increased fortitude.

In the dressing room two hours before the fight, Adrian pissed into a clear cup while two inspectors in maroon blazers watched. One of the inspectors poured half the urine into a labeled test tube and left the other behind to oversee the hand wrapping. Adrian turned a folding chair backwards and used to backrest to support his outstretched arm.

In the room with them were his handlers, his father, and two guys from the neighborhood – one of them recently released after doing three for armed buffoonery. His father, who trained Adrian until it he ran out of tactics borrowed from cockfighting and the Rocky movies, sat along the wall with the others and talked baseball.

Remember when thirty homers in a season was a big deal?

How about that year Larry Hisle had?

He’d bat seventh today.

One of them leaned in and, in a whisper, asked if they had ever thought about letting Adrian use the juice.

“He don’t need it,” replied Adrian’s father.

“Nah,” agreed the friend.

“He can do what everyone else does,” another added. “Hire a nutritionist after he loses.”

“Yeah,” they laughed in unison. “A nutritionist.” 

Adrian’s mind wasn’t on steroids, drug tests, baseball, or even boxing. “Finally,” he mumbled to himself while his trainer, a Cuban Osainista, silently and carefully wrapped twenty-four feet of white surgical tape and gauze between Adrian’s manicured fingers, and around his calloused knuckles.

Honey-complexioned, black waves tied in a bun, with the legs of a dancer, Adrian was what the cellblock boys called pretty. He’d have been popular in the Oso Blanco, his friend told him. Popular enough that they might’ve had to move him to Bayamon where the females were. His trainer, dressed in white and quietly summoning the help of Ogun, used the final pieces of tape to secure Gallo-Gallina’s feathers to the back of each hand. Then he leaned in and whispered in Adrian’s ear, “You can live with regret, but life is easier without it.”

The promoter, Don Poonetter, entered the room, followed quickly by tension.

“Win tonight and the championship is next,” Poonetter proclaimed. A balding legal aid attorney from the rust belt who was once accused of pedophilia, he crept towards Adrian, and asked, “Are you ready to be champ?”

“I’m ready to be what I always dreamed of,” Adrian replied.

“That’s what I want to hear,” Poonetter bellowed.

He continued, but Adrian stopped listening. Once the rumors had surfaced of Poonetter’s romantic involvement with a freckle faced girl who still had some of her baby teeth, Adrian regretted having signed with a promoter recommended by those who didn’t know better. More than once he asked out of their contract, only to be met with the promise of litigation.

After the inspector initialed the hand wraps and his trainer slipped on the gloves, Adrian looked Poonetter in the eyes and said, “Finally.”

That’s what Gallo-Gallina told him just before he died.

Ever since Gallo-Gallina was a young cockerel who, because he had no comb, dodged being tossed into a pot with sliced carrots, soft rice, and boiling water, he and Adrian communicated with their eyes. And when Adrian’s father first heard the crowing of a young cockerel among the pullets, it was Adrian, then sixteen, who saved the bird’s life.

“Then he must fight,” his father said.

His father, Aron, a burly man who earned three stripes and a limp during his two tours in Vietnam, kept a yellow piragua cart, a few Camaguey chickens, and never more than two roosters inside his muffler and carburetor shop. Drafted into service three weeks after being scouted by the Pirates, he kept a few folded piasters in his wallet next to a photograph of himself in a Cangrejeros uniform.

Along with the limp, which he got after stepping on a landmine, he came home with three medals, neuropathy, and diabetes though Dr. Sangano at Walter Reed Medical Center said the latter resulted from eating too much rice and beans. But the worst of his ailments was the iridophobia.

Living on a tropical island filled with lagoons, rivers, and rain seasons, colorful reminders without a pot of gold at the end were everywhere. Each one triggered brutal flashbacks of the rainbow herbicides he inhaled in Vietnam. Agents Orange, White, Blue, Green, Purple, and Pink.  

Perpetually tired, and at times too sick to open a shop that served clients who paid half their bill in “Dios te bendigas,” he was often behind in rent. The luxury of a pet was one he could not afford.

“If he wins one match, I’d be surprised,” he mumbled the day Gallo-Gallina revealed himself to be male. The only reason Aron allowed his son to keep him was to mend their relationship, which was strained since Adrian’s birthday earlier that year. Concerned that Adrian had never been seen with a girl, his father offered him a date with Lucy, a twenty-something, sometimes prostitute everyone considered clean.

“Don’t worry if you finish quick,” Aron encouraged.  

“It’s not that.”

“She won’t tell anyone, she’s not a bochinchosa.”

“I’m just not into that,” Adrian said, and his father’s expression became that of a child who just unwrapped a pair of dress socks on Christmas.

“Mijo, I knew,” was his mom’s reaction when Adrian told her he was different. “So was my uncle.”

“This is different.”

He elaborated, hoping his parents were not disappointed.

“Bueno, that’s between you and God.”

Alegria, a little over five-feet tall with Taino hair, despised boxing and only tolerated cock fighting. She tried getting Aron to stop fighting the birds, but, it was too hard to convince a man who been forced into combat in a jungle with a name he couldn’t pronounce. A man who had his finger on a trigger for two years, obeying orders to “turn every Charlie you see into zipperheads,” and then spent the rest of his life fighting those demons that followed him home.

At a young age, Alegria heard stories about a P-47 Thunderbolt dropping bombs over her mother’s childhood town two days before All Saints Day in 1950. Left homeless, the family moved into a damp, wooden shanty home near the Malecon, a neighborhood yet to be visited by Google Maps. Alegria was born and raised there, in a bedroom separated from the living room by a bedsheet.  

Aron, who was raised in the mud slum of El Fanguito and walked around naked until he was four, married Alegria before his first tour in Vietnam. Adrian was born seven months later. Adrian’s sister, Ava, was born after Aron’s honorable discharge. Ava got her curls, and curves, from her mother and her neuropathy and IBS from the 17th Parallel. Semi-mute, she never had a boyfriend. But the year Gallo-Gallina was born, Ava became pregnant and though she never told anyone, Alegria knew because the toilet seat had turned blue. Ava ended up having a miscarriage during the first trimester, spent a week in the hospital, and never identified the father. She was not yet fourteen.   

That same year, Adrian briefly dropped out of high school after flunking a history exam. The history the teachers taught, he explained, was different from the one his mother spoke of. “Go back to school and if you have to be wrong to graduate, then be wrong,” she implored.

After school, he sold piraguas to the tourists up and down the cobblestone street of San Justo. Whenever tourists asked where to get drugs, he sent them to the candy store where Mack Truck had his guys posted. Mack Truck offered commissions, but Adrian rarely accepted, satisfied instead with protection that came with being involved with “The Mack.”

Early in the mornings, before school, he trained Gallo-Gallina.

Repeating everything his father did, he made the bird run on a makeshift treadmill to strengthen the legs. He had the rooster walk a tightrope to improve its balance. He fed it corn, grains, the baby crabs that washed up on shore by his home, Antoplex, and Galliforte. Adrian taught the bird to strike with its feet first, saving the beak for last. He forced the bird to do pushups and taught it to move side to side, stressing defense. When Gallo-Gallina started fighting, it was Adrian who wrapped the halfmoon-shaped blades around it’s scaly legs, using twenty-four inches of white surgical tape. After every workout, he soaked his bird in a bin of warm water, salt, and herbs.

Gallo-Gallina beat black birds, white birds, and tall birds. Fighting only during the third quarter and the new moon, never the week of a full moon, when the blood flowed easier, Gallo-Gallina kept winning. Everyone was amazed that Adrian’s bird was as good, if not better than, normal roosters. Others suspected more sinister forces were at work.

Brujeria,” some said. Rumors spread faster than a virus. Alegria bought unusually large amounts of salt, kept mirrors under her bed, and drank from red cups. The Adama’s defied nature they agreed, by letting that bird live.

He should’ve been put down from day one.

I hope he’s not breeding it.

Aren’t they sterile.

“One shouldn’t foster God’s mistakes,” they pleaded with Aron.

But that bird won thousands of dollars for Aron. No one was sadder than he when Gallo-Gallina died. Adrian might have been, had he not looked into the bird’s eye during its final seconds.

In the front row of La Gallera Wepa, where you could feel the breeze from the flapping wings, were the usual old guys, their big bellies screaming reduced testosterone. Just behind them, the younger crowd, blinged-out, designs carved into their close-cropped hair, smiles on their faces, with beers in the hands. Bets were placed by color – I got 200 on blue!

An MC made frequent announcements while a clown walked the stands, scaring the younger children, who tucked their faces behind their mother’s arms. Liquor sponsors placed posters along all the walls and a small contingent from Mexico unfurled a flag whenever one of the black and gold birds from Oaxaca fought.

Everyone scooted to the edge of their seats when Gallo-Gallina entered the pit. When Adrian ran his fingers through the white plumage before the birds faced-off, he didn’t notice a difference in Gallo-Gallina. When the buzzer went off and the neck feathers stiffened, his pet did something it never had never done before.

Normally a defense-first fighter who struck with the deadly accuracy of Alexis Arguello, on this night, his last night, Gallo-Gallina went Kamikaze. At the first lull, when the referee separated the contestants, Adrian thought about stopping the fight. Something, he felt, was wrong with his friend. “Check for a cut,” Aron told him from the front row, a tear forming in his eyes. Instead, Adrian looked into Gallo-Gallina’s eyes.

Most birds don’t get the chance to break out of their shells. Many of the ones who do, don’t live long enough to blow out a candle. And a gallo-gallina, that rarest of birds, almost never gets to feel a caress, much less be given a name. Between fights, Adrian massaged Gallo-Gallina, becoming one with its feathers. But this bird, living on borrowed time and in an incorrect body, had served its purpose. He was true to himself and taught anyone who bothered to pay attention that what counted most was what was on the inside. Adrian empathized.

When Adrian stepped into the ring in Vegas, he was undefeated in fifteen fights. He had been matched up along the way like all prospects were. He fought a tall guy, a bald guy, and a guy named Johnny. This time, most felt Adrian was in over his head. But most failed to pay attention to what was inside his head.  

His entire life he had been told it was a sign of mental illness, that it was anti-nature. They didn’t listen when Adrian suggested nature was imperfect, that some eyes don’t see. Besides, he wasn’t changing, merely turning himself inside out.

When the bell rang, and Adrian charged ahead with his hands down at his side, asking to be hit, his father, seated in the first row, rose to his feet. When his son made eye contact with him, a tear rolled down Aron’s cheek, because, he understood. Finally.


© The Acentos Review 2019