This section of the novel comes as the sun sets one evening on Santiago as he is out in the sea and he remembers a time when he was victorious "to give himself more confidence." He remembers when he was playing the hand game with a black man called Cienfuegos (a hundred fires). The battle raged back and forth all night, but in those days we are told that just as this man had his nickname, Santiago was called El Campeon (the champion):
The odds would change back and forth all night and they fed the negro rum and lighted cigarettes for him. Then the negro, after the rum, would try for a tremendous effort and once he had the old man, who was not the old man then but was Santiago El Campeon, nearly three inches off balance.
Thus Santiago is remembering another titanic struggle to recall his strength and powers of perseverance. Although he only possessed this nickname when he was young, it speaks a lot about the depths of his strength and stubborness: precisely the qualities that he has to resurrect to catch the fish he is now engaged in a conflict with.