BARCELONA — In an auditorium as chilly as a meat locker, a tough working-class neighborhood here hosted Catalonia's amateur boxing championships over the weekend. In the ring, the pugilists pounded each other as their trainers shouted from the corners, some in Spanish, others in Catalan: "Hit, hit, jab, finish him!"
But after the bell rang and the three-round fights were over, the exhausted boxers — their noses bloody, their cheeks swelling — embraced.
The audience, the competitors and the coaches represented the gamut of emotions and politics swirling in Catalonia on the eve of Thursday's early election to replace the secessionists and others tossed out of office by Madrid after a chaotic referendum and unilateral declaration of independence in October — events declared illegal by the constitutional courts, the central government and even Spain's King Felipe VI.
In the stands around the boxing ring, there were staunch pro-Spain unionists beside pro-independence Catalans — as well as plenty of people who were sick of the whole debate over whether the well-to-do Catalonia region, with its unique language and culture, should remain a part of Spain or go its own way.
As much as the various sides disagreed about the coming parliamentary vote, they appeared to share a sense that the people of Catalonia are more divided than ever — and that Thursday’s election, described by pollsters as too close to call, is unlikely to settle matters.
This idea of a fractured, weakened Spain going into 2018 worries Europe, which faces its own surge of nationalist, populist movements.
“Society is broken,” said Rafa Martin, 55, owner of the Barcelona Verdun gym and the son of political refugees from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
“There is more hate. Things that were underground, that were unspoken,” are again said in the streets, he said.
Martin explained: “Anyone who thinks differently is bad. If you want a united Spain, you’re a fascist. If you want an independent Catalonia, you’re a traitor.”
Activists on both sides say their social-media accounts are filled with taunts and threats of violence.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his government, evoking the untested powers of the 1978 constitution, called the early election in Catalonia after dissolving the region’s Parliament on Oct. 27.
Rajoy has urged Catalans to oust the separatist politicians, telling supporters of his conservative Popular Party in Barcelona that he wants to see a massive turnout to say “no” to their cause.
"It's urgent to return a sense of normality to Catalonia and do so as soon as possible to lower the social and economic tensions," Rajoy said in a visit to Barcelona last month.
But as many here have observed, there is little normal about this election.
The former president of the Catalonia region, Carles Puigdemont, fled into self-exile in Belgium in late October. Now he is seeking to return to power, addressing crowds back home via teleconference links from an office in Brussels.
Although Spanish prosecutors have dropped their request for Puigdemont’s extradition, the separatist leader still faces arrest for rebellion if he returns to Spain.
What happens if Puigdemont’s party is a top vote-getter, and he is elected president again?
Meanwhile, former vice president Oriol Junqueras sits behind bars in the national prison in Estremera, in pretrial detention as prosecutors weigh sedition charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 30 years. He pens letters to his party's followers, which are read aloud at rallies by his surrogate on the campaign.
Another pair of activists, Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, who ran pro-independence Catalan civil society groups, also are awaiting a possible sedition trial while being held without bail in a Spanish jail.
In Barcelona on Saturday night, there was a rally lit by torches, with onlookers sporting yellow ribbons in support of what critics of the Rajoy government call the “political prisoners.”
“Imagine if Puigdemont is elected president again. Then let us see if Europe can turn a blind eye toward Catalonia,” said Gabriela Serra, an ousted lawmaker from the far-left pro-independence party known as CUP.
Serra said Puigdemont could form a “government in exile.”
“Why not?” she said. According to Serra, Catalans did something not seen in a generation in Europe: “More than 2 million people staged an act of mass civil disobedience. They voted!”
At the boxing match in Barcelona’s La Mina neighborhood Sunday afternoon, Jose Casado watched one of his fighters bob and weave after his opponent landed a wicked undercut.
Casado, 36, trains fighters at the Club Esportiu Esparta and is a pro-Spain campaigner in the coming election. “We are totally against independence. Why? We believe that Spanish unity is indivisible,” Casado said.
Perhaps amend the constitution, he said, and give the regions of Spain more autonomy, more control; let them keep more of their tax money at home — but they must remain a part of Spain.
“In my gym, I have people who are really pro-independence, others in the middle or on the other side. I have some fascists. I have radical leftists. But as soon as they step into the gym, it’s not allowed,” he said. “Ten minutes earlier, they were outside arguing.”
Asked to compare the strength of the unionists and pro-independence forces as if they were boxers, Casado said, “Yeah, that would be a tough fight.”
Although he thinks his side will win, he acknowledged he is worried. “Neither side will stop,” he said.
The most recent surveys of potential voters, released Friday, found the parties for and against independence tied, with neither side looking at a clear majority. That could change. The situation is fluid. Election officials are ready for a record-high turnout of more than 80 percent.
Xavi Moya, 50, is a boxing legend in Catalonia, with more than 200 fights in a career that also included mixed martial arts. He won two international championships in full-contact boxing while fighting under the Catalonian flag, a first.
“The Spanish government and President Rajoy, they put their feet on our neck,” he said. “It’s too much.”
He added: “I am pro-independence. We think we have the potential to be on our own.”
Moya said separatist politicians had maybe tried to go too far, too fast. But he stressed that the aspiration for independence, expressed by 2 million voters in the October referendum, was valid despite those mistakes.
“It is true as well that for a long time the Spanish government has not listened to us,” Moya said. “They ignore us. It is always no, no, no. The people are really fed up.”
And now, what happens after the election? Moya and the other coaches interviewed by The Washington Post said there should be talk, not fists.
“In a competition, you fight in the ring, and at the end you hug. Here it should be the same,” he said. “But it’s not.”
Raul Gallego Abellan contributed to this report.