EPIFANIO “Epi” Quiroga thinks about his brother every day. The times they had growing up, and the memories they made together: “He was such a giving person. People loved him inside and outside the ring. Robert never asked for recognition, so it has been my life’s mission to make sure he gets it before I’m gone.”
Robert Quiroga grew up in the tough Westside of San Antonio to become the city’s first ever world champion. Also the first American to hold a title in the super-flyweight division – he won the IBF belt in 1990 at just 20 years old.
“We weren’t at the poverty end, but it was hard, a lot of drugs, a lot of gangs,” Epi recalls. “My dad was a functioning alcoholic, so my mom kept the family going. She was the one who steered Robert into boxing to keep him away from bad influences.”
Meanwhile, Akeem Anifowoshe, a lightning-quick 5ft 8in Las Vegas-based Nigerian, had competed in the 1986 World amateur championships in Reno. Disillusioned with the unpaid ranks after dropping a controversial decision, he turned professional the following year under the ring moniker of Kid Akeem. Possessing natural ability complemented with the fine-tuning of trainer Miguel Diaz, by 1991, after scorching to inside-schedule victories in five NABF title fights, Akeem was ready to step up.
In an unfashionable 115-pound division, Quiroga had developed into a fine champion. He was to fight Kid Akeem in his third defence, and biggest test, at the HemisFair Arena in downtown San Antonio. Akeem was the betting favourite, a sentiment endorsed by the fighter’s self-assurance. At ringside for Boxing News was respected writer and historian Bob Mee, who recalls: “He [Akeem] seemed very, very confident. But could be quite difficult. He was brash, but you felt it was a front and he wasn’t really opening up. Quiroga was very easy to talk to – a tough kid. A nice kid, very proud, you got the sense that maybe he couldn’t quite believe he’d got to that level. The people of San Antonio had got themselves a hero, and he did his best to live up to it.”
Serving in the US submarine corps, Epi had flown in a couple of days before the fight: “I noticed the promoters had fight posters printed saying ‘Never Before and Maybe Never Again’, and I wondered what it meant, nobody could explain it. But now I think somebody knew something was going to happen.
“At the press conference, Akeem was talking a lot, saying he was gonna knock this little ‘Mexican’ out. He wanted to make a bet for his whole purse! Robert was just business – his attitude was always, ‘Let me show you what I can do in the ring.’ A lot of people thought Robert was just a stepping stone for Kid Akeem.”
In an incredibly candid, heartfelt five-page letter to his city written in 1992 and discovered only after his death, Quiroga describes some of his innermost feelings surrounding the fight: “I’m ready and I’m pumped. The music starts and away we go, heading to the ring, the crowd roaring, chills all over my body… We’re in the ring giving the stare-down, now I do not have no butterflies or nervousness, very unusual because I get them for every fight. I guess I just wanted to get it on.”
When the action began, on the Saturday afternoon of June 15, 1991, they went off at such a savage pace, it was unthinkable it could be maintained for 12 rounds. Denying Akeem the space to think, the busy champion pressurised, his positive start forcing the African to work at untried intensity just to stay on terms. In round three, Akeem found his rhythm, showcasing dazzling variety. A long, fast right hand sliced open a cut above Quiroga’s left eye.
By halfway, both had dispensed with any ostensible notion of defence and seemed to have silently agreed upon a slugfest. The crowd were amped up to the point of frenzy. Plastic beer cups were being hurled into the ring and disturbances broke out amongst the raucous spectators.
“What a war, non-stop action,” Quiroga writes. “Seven, eight, nine passed and I now start feeling the pain. I start feeling tired, blood all over my body… Rounds 10 and 11, second wind kicks in, but still feel the fight is very close. Kid A looking stronger, not hurt at all, just a stream of blood coming from his bottom lip.”
Quiroga, his white trunks crimson from another cut above his left eye, still looked strong after 10. But Akeem knew he needed an impressive finish in a very close fight. Somehow, left eye shut, he found the energy to produce it. In round 12, Quiroga’s vigour relented for the first time as Akeem unloaded on a clearly tired champion, now looking like he may wilt.
“Round 12, this is where I got energy from who knows where,” says Quiroga in his letter. “For a while I felt like throwing in the towel, but my pride wouldn’t let me. The people cheering, ‘Robert…Robert… Robert’ gave me a lot of motivation to keep going at this point in the fight.”
The champion summoned one last effort, pushing out punches as the seconds ticked away on a fight extraordinary for the quality of action.
“I didn’t know who was winning, but I didn’t care,” Quiroga writes. “I just wanted to defend my title like a champion. The bell rings to end the fight, and man am I glad it’s over. Akeem and I embrace and congratulate each other on a great fight.”
The official verdict came: Quiroga via unanimous decision. In such a competitive contest, a narrow victory either way would’ve been a fair outcome, but two cards of 116-112 were shamefully unreflective of the Herculean challenge by Akeem.
Almost immediately, however, the scoring was forgotten. Moments after the announcement, Akeem vomited blood before slumping to the canvas. Ian Darke, commentating for Sky Sports, initially feared the worst, telling viewers: “Akeem is in what looks to be a very serious condition.” A feeling shared by Mee, stood only feet from the stricken fighter: “Sitting ringside I remember him going down and immediately thinking, ‘This is bad.’”
Incomprehensibly, sickening chants of “D.O.A… D.O.A…” started in the crowd as Akeem was being carried out on a stretcher, a sound that will stay with Bob forever: “It was chilling. Just horrible. I thought, ‘These people have been so nice all week, and now there’s a baying mob.’
“Through the 90s it was terrible as there were a succession of incidents like this, and a lot of times I questioned the morality of the whole thing [boxing]. With the chants echoing around the place, I did wonder, ‘What am I doing watching this?’”
Amid the chaos, Akeem slid into unconsciousness. His brain was swelling. Neurosurgeon Dr. Gerardo Zavala, who treated Akeem upon arrival at the hospital’s trauma unit, remarked: “The pupil in the right eye was dilated. The pressure inside the head was very high.” In stark terms, “The man was dying when he came into the hospital.”
Sky seconded Mee to the Baptist Hospital to monitor events and relay information to the producers: “I got out of the arena with Sky’s permission, as it was obvious Akeem was unwell. I jumped in a cab with Mike Marley, the American journalist, and we got to the hospital just as they were bringing him in. It was clearly bad. I remember his wife coming in, obviously distressed. We were there into the small hours, waiting for the surgeon.”
Dr Zavala had administered medication to reduce the swelling and drilled a hole in Akeem’s skull to insert a gauge measuring the pressure on the brain. Fourteen hours after being admitted, Akeem regained consciousness. Almost three weeks later, on July 4, still lacking the ability to walk unaided, he left the hospital with his wife to return to their Las Vegas home against Dr Zavala’s wishes, who wanted him to remain under the care of a neurosurgeon.
At the beginning of his convalescence, the gravity of Akeem’s injuries had not fully registered with the fighter himself. As he struggled to come to terms with the gradual realisation that his boxing career was over, the story became even more desolate; involvement with drugs ultimately led to his deportation back to Nigeria after arrests for dealing cocaine. The exact circumstances of what followed remain somewhat mysterious, but contemporary reports came back at once heartbreaking, bizarre and terrifying. Believing himself to be the victim of a curse, Akeem visited a jungle witch doctor, who in an attempt to lift the apparent spell, removed two bucketfuls of ‘black blood’.
Kid Akeem Anifowoshe passed away in December 1994 after collapsing at his home in Lagos, leaving behind wife Sharon and their three children. He was just 26.
Epi recalls that following the fight’s traumatic events, retiring was never a question for Robert: “He was a fighter. He made his city proud, and there was no stopping him.”
“I went through the worst pain I’ve ever been through, hurting for about two weeks after the fight, and Kid A in the hospital for two weeks,” writes Robert. “I didn’t have much time to think about it after the fight, but as months have passed I’ve thought about it a lot and my feelings are that it was an accident. I feel sorry for him, but life goes on for me.”
Quiroga’s first defeat – a 12th-round stoppage by Julio Cesar Borboa – came in January 1993, only two months after surgery for nerve damage on his right hand. Following an unsuccessful comeback fight in 1995, he retired from boxing for good.
“He didn’t want to fight just for money,” Epi says. “Once his desire had gone, Robert knew the time was right.”
In August 2004, almost 10 years after Akeem’s death, Robert Quiroga – father to two daughters – was murdered in San Antonio. The same gang culture Robert shunned his whole life had fatally crossed his path. A rogue member of the infamous Bandido motorcycle gang, acting alone, knifed Quiroga in the back multiple times after a trivial disagreement.
Initial devastation felt by the city was quickly replaced by rage. Epi, an everyday family man, suddenly found himself in conversation with gang leaders and organised crime figures asking if they could avenge Robert’s killing.
“They were calling me out of respect for Robert,” Epi explains. “There was gonna be a bloodbath. Somebody was going to pay for what they did to my brother. He was a Latino icon. It’s human nature, you want revenge, but I had to pull it back and protect his legacy. It was damage control, things could’ve escalated badly.
“Robert was murdered out of envy by his school bully. This guy bugged him throughout his life. Robert knew a lot of people and made no discrimination or judgement. People loved him for that. After boxing, he worked as a youth counsellor, running programmes for getting kids away from drugs or gangs. There weren’t a lot of role models for Latinos in the city, but he empowered people to do better for themselves.
“To keep Robert’s memory alive, I wanted to focus on something for the community, so I set up a campaign in his honour called SAbullyfree.com, where we visit schools, educating kids about bullying.”
Pride in his brother’s achievements, and the impact he had on those he encountered, is absolute: “Now, 12 years after his death, people I’ve never met before still come up and tell me what Robert did for them; how he helped them or what he said to them that changed their lives positively. That’s the legacy of a true champion.”
The experience was one Mee cannot forget, for all the wrong reasons: “It was something that never quite leaves you. I was sorry for what happened to both of them. They put themselves on the line, for their lives as young men to turn like that was incredibly sad.”
The masterpiece of bravery and skill Quiroga and Akeem created together on the Texas canvas is a scant monument for the family and loved ones they left behind. As brothers, fathers and sons, they will never be forgotten.
“Somebody upstairs loves me, he’s always by my side and looking over my shoulder. To all the kids out there, be champions in life. Don’t be fools, stay in school and out of gangs.” Robert Quiroga.