LAS VEGAS – Antonio DeMarco was just a guy promoter Gary Shaw used to fill out his cards. DeMarco was not under a promotional contract with Shaw's company, nor was he a guy Shaw considered much of a prospect.
After every fight card he appeared on for Shaw, however, he would take the time afterward to handwrite Shaw a note of thanks.
Shaw was taken by DeMarco as much for his affable nature, humility and personal story as much as he was with his potential.
"I didn't really see much in him," Shaw says. "He was just a nice kid, a guy you enjoyed being around. But did I think this was a guy who would one day be fighting for a title and who would be a top prospect in boxing? No way. Not in a million years."
On Saturday, however, armed with a promotional contract with Shaw and a lot of momentum as one of the game's fastest rising prospects, DeMarco will meet Jose Alfaro for the interim World Boxing Council lightweight belt in a Showtime-televised bout at the Treasure Island casino.
Shaw has been burned plenty in the past by boxers he'd gotten close with only to see them bolt for what they felt were greener pastures. But he and DeMarco are clearly smitten with each other.
DeMarco leaned across a table at one point as Shaw was speaking about him and planted a kiss on Shaw's right cheek.
"This kid," Shaw said, throwing his arm around DeMarco's shoulder, "is one of the most special kids I've ever had an opportunity to promote. He's remarkable, really. He's clearly the fan favorite on my staff. They love him. They cheer for him as hard as if they were cheering on their own kid."
But DeMarco, 23, isn't the kind who wants much in return. He was born into a poor home in Los Mochis, Mexico, and still doesn't have a lot despite a 22-1-1 professional record.
Shaw recently gave DeMarco a wad of money as a gift in an effort to allow DeMarco to take care of his young daughter, Camilia. DeMarco, though, refused the cash.
"I want to earn what I get," DeMarco said. "I love Gary for what he's done for me, but I earn my money in the ring."
No DeMarco fight seems easy, no matter how ordinary the opponent. Time and again, DeMarco finds himself locked in these life-and-death, edge-of-your-seat struggles.
DeMarco dutifully explained how he follows trainer Romulo Quirarte Sr.'s game plan, at which point Shaw could listen no more.
"Complete, total bull," Shaw said as DeMarco tried to say he follows Quirarte's plans. "Once he gets hit, he forgets all about the plan. He just starts to fight."
DeMarco is a spindle of a fighter, reed-thin with legs no thicker than a dining room table and arms that rival Olive Oyl's. But despite the frame, he's suddenly begun to develop pop in his hands and that has allowed him to advance from being just another guy into one who has serious potential.
He forced the veteran Almazbek Raiymkulov to quit in a Feb. 7 bout in Anaheim, Calif., and stopped Anges Adjaho in July.
He's a natural right-hander who fights out of a southpaw stance, which makes his jab that much harder since his power hand is in front. And he's as brave as he is thin, which has made him must-see TV as he's made his rise toward the top.
DeMarco is soft-spoken to a fault and almost always has at least a soft grin on his face. But when he's got gloves on his hands, he's no longer placid and easy-going.
"I have a lot of reason to fight," DeMarco said. "My wife and my daughter are relying upon me. I want my daughter to have the kind of things I couldn't have. I don't want her to struggle, to want something and not be able to buy it. I want her life to be so much better than mine."
Alfaro is a former World Boxing Association champion who studied under the late, great Alexis Arguello. He'll be a formidable foe for DeMarco, who concedes he's impressed by what he's seen of Alfaro.
Underneath that "Aw, shucks" exterior, though, is a fierce competitor. It's what has carried him to a 22-1-1 record and it's probably what will carry him on Saturday in what will be the most significant fight of the year.
He's been begging for a shot to fight Edwin Valero, one of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers in the sport, a plea that brings a smile to Shaw's face.
"A lot of guys, maybe most guys, they want the tough fights only when they have to and even then, only if the money is right and everything else lines up perfectly," Shaw said. "This kid, he's telling me he wants everyone. He said he wanted to fight Valero. I said, 'You mean the guy with all the knockouts?' And he said yes. But I started to think about it and I didn't want to go out and pursue the fight and then fight out there was some kind of a language barrier and he was talking about someone else.
"So I had (matchmaker) John Beninati call him and talk to him again. John asked him, 'So, just to be clear, are you talking about the Edwin Valero with all those knockouts?'
And Tony smiled and nodded and said, 'Yep, that's the one.' He is such a sweet kid and he looks like you could snap him in half, but he's got a heart the size of the Grand Canyon and he's a guy that just never quits. How can you not love this kid? I mean, it's impossible."