When we talk about boxing, we're never really talking about just one competitor, especially when we're mouthing off about who does and doesn't rank for the next great match. A fighter's greatness is a calculation of the forces in opposition. If you transpose this to actors who could toe up to Jake Gyllenhaal's brute force commitment in Southpaw, those of us running Hollywood anonymously from our laptops wouldn't know Miguel Gomez to put him on a list.
Now, you should.
Gomez plays Miguel 'Magic' Escobar, the younger, leaner middleweight who unseats Billy Hope from the top spot and instigates the unraveling of the champ's life.
"He's just a young guy trying to get his shot at the title," says Gomez, his natural voice at a fraction of the volume he gives in Southpaw, directed by Antoine Fuqua. "The only way in boxing that anyone is going to pay attention to you is if you make a spectacle. It's a marketing tool. You have to speak up and make yourself known or nobody cares about you. It's survival of the fittest. I thought about what I would do and I turned that all the way up. Closed mouths don't get fed. If you gotta scream and shout, you do it."
He's the nemesis, but the things driving him – desperation, crime, addiction – only darken the edges of the story. Gomez doesn't get many shots outside the ring to leave impressions, but he makes them count; the XXL attitude when he's heckling at a press conference, the bitter taste of the trash talk he hates to use. But it's the brief cutaway of Magic's panic and remorse after a hotel lobby shooting that catches us on the chin. The boxer-thug act drops.
"A lot of people don't necessarily read between the lines and they judge right away, but in my mind, he was trying to do his best and a terrible thing happened. Magic is fighting for his family. You see the conditions they live in. It's poverty. The emotion you see at the end of the film is what happened outside the ring, not in it." Gomez elaborates. "This film is important to me because I'm a father. I have a daughter and to watch Billy Hope lose his daughter was a really hard thing for me to watch. I wanted him to win the fight. He had to win the fight. That's why it was important to dedicate myself and rise to the occasion."
In a strange parallel of life and subject matter, Gyllenhaal was the marquee name coming off a big budget shoot for Everest and critical acclaim for Nightcrawler, while Gomez was the upstart with a half-dozen publicized credits, the biggest a supporting role on FX hit The Strain. Now Gyllenhaal is training six hours a day ahead of the shoot and it is down to Gomez to become the threat.
"I abstained from sex for two months because I know a lot of fighters that do that. I wanted to understand why they did that. It becomes sort of spiritual after you get past the first part of it. I see why they do it. I was an aggressive man. It helps you in those moments when you're exhausted and you have an energy you can draw from," he explains. "We trained like crazy, we sparred all the time, we ran miles every day and learned choreography. You have to roll with the punches, so to speak, and keep the diet of a boxer, live the lifestyle. Lotta protein, the right kind of carbs for the energy. Anything that tastes good? Don't eat it."
Also, and you can't make this shit up: Gyllenhaal is right-handed and had to box lefty, while Gomez is the natural southpaw.
"I couldn't fight left. It would defeat the purpose of the film's title. So I watched a lot of Miguel Cotto – the combinations, the stance, and Terry Claybon (the film's trainer) had to really work with me to fight right-handed. I was using different parts of my brain, so I was brushing my teeth right-handed, doing things off set just to get used to it. Then, during shooting, I'd get hit and instinctively switch back to my left. Terry would be constantly like 'get back to your right!'"
Weeks of fight scenes and shots to the face didn't matter. As a Colombian kid who trained early as a boxer, making Southpaw fulfilled a childhood dream.
"Being able to come out to a crowd like that and have a title fight is incredible," he says. "I've been a fan for a long time. Seeing the HBO cameras there and the referees. Then you have Roy Jones Jr. watching you… you know he's watching your footwork, making sure everything is right. For him to say, 'You guys put the work in, I can tell,' is a real honor for me."
None of which happens without a lead willing to get in the ring.
"We hit each other all the time," Gomez says. "Never on purpose but I think it was important for the film to take it as far as you can and go for it. Accidents happen, you know? I wouldn't want to fight a pro fighter, in any way shape or form. They dedicate their whole life." Gomez flashes a grin. "Jake is hard enough."