On 30 March 1965, at the peak of boxing‘s last golden age, José Torres, who has died suddenly aged 72 of a heart attack brought on by diabetes, became the first Hispanic world light-heavy- weight champion, stopping Willie Pastrano in nine rounds at Madison Square Garden. The win confirmed New York’s love affair with its adopted son, who had refused to fight unless the Puerto Rican anthem were played alongside the Star Spangled Banner before the fight.
The next day, Torres took his championship belt to the corner of Lexington Avenue and 110th Street, stood on a fire escape and announced: “This is for everyone.” New York’s passion was only intensified by Torres’s two epic title losses at the Garden to Dick Tiger of Nigeria. They loved Torres’s style, intelligence and heart. He was boxing’s renaissance man, confidant of the writers Norman Mailer and Pete Hamill, and his own careers as a writer and administrator broke ground for his fellow Latinos. Torres was the new personification of boxing as a noble art.
He was born in Playa Ponce, Puerto Rico, and started boxing after enlisting aged 17 in the US Army. He won a silver medal, representing the US, at light-middleweight at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, losing the final to László Papp of Hungary. The renowned trainer Cus D’Amato moved Torres to New York, and, in 1958, he won the national amateur middleweight title, and the New York Golden Gloves at 160lb. He earned money sparring at the Empire Sporting Club with D’Amato’s fighters, particularly the heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, whose “peek-a-boo” style D’Amato taught. Short and somewhat stocky, Torres found it suited him. “He had the most vicious body punches,” said the boxing writer Bert Sugar. “He beat Willie Pastrano by just beating on his body.”
Torres won his first 13 professional fights, quickly becoming popular enough among New York’s Puerto Ricans to sell out the St Nicholas Arena against Otis Woodard. But Puerto Rico never saw his best fights. His debut in San Juan ended in a draw with Benny “Kid” Paret, later killed in the ring by Emile Griffith. Torres won another 13 fights before, in his next big bout in San Juan, he was stopped for the only time in his career by Cuba’s Florentino Fernández. He bounced back with another series of wins, including victories over Don Fullmer and the former middleweight champ Willie Bobo, to get the title shot against Pastrano.
Fans in Puerto Rico wanted to see their champ fight more, but D’Amato was famed for carefully picking his fighters’ opponents. Torres returned to San Juan against the journeyman heavyweight Tom McNeeley, a non-title fight where he absorbed more punishment than he gave out. Three defences in 1966 against mediocre opponents such as Scotland’s Chic Calderwood didn’t help him prepare for Tiger, who won a close decision after 15 furious rounds. Their rematch was even closer, and when Tiger was announced the winner, the crowd nearly rioted.
Torres fought only twice more, though he famously, at a luncheon, challenged Muhammad Ali to a “big-money fight”. Ali told Torres’s wife to fatten him up on rice and beans first. He made records, and sang on the Ed Sullivan television show. Not content with being the darling of New York’s boxing writers, Torres worked with them. Jack Newfeld was press chief for Robert Kennedy’s campaign in 1968; Newfeld, Hamill and Torres quietly took RFK around New York, to Harlem and Spanish Harlem, talking with ordinary people. Torres worked on Mailer’s high-profile campaign to become New York’s mayor. He sparred with Mailer; Mailer and Hamill taught him writing.
His interest in fighting was fading. After a TKO of one Bob Dunlop in Sydney in 1968, Torres had a 1969 return to the Garden booked against the journeyman Jimmy Ralston. When Ralston pulled out at the last minute, and the promoter Teddy Brenner found one of Torres’s old sparring partners, Charley “Devil” Green, outside in the street and offered him $3,500 to take the fight. Green knocked Torres down twice in the first round, and though Torres knocked Green out in the second, he said he knew it was time to quit. His career record showed 41 wins, three losses and one draw.
Torres became a columnist, in English, for the New York Post, and, in Spanish, for the New York Spanish-language daily El Diario. He did fight commentary and radio talk shows, and collaborated with Sugar on Sting Like a Bee (1971), with an introduction by Mailer and epilogue by Budd Schulberg, still one of the best Ali biographies and examinations of the psyche of boxers. He later wrote Fire and Fear (1989) about Mike Tyson, another D’Amato protege, whose career Torres tried numerous times to save.
He advised a succession of Manhattan borough presidents, was the first Hispanic head of the New York State Athletic Commission, and president of the World Boxing Organisation. He moved back to Ponce in 2007, to concentrate on writing. He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Ramona, and four children.
• José Luis Torres, boxer and writer, born 3 May 1936; died 19 January 2009
Thursday, 22 January 2009
On the wall of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, to which José Torres was rightly admitted long before his death this week at the age of 72, a commemorative plaque sums up his life in just three words: “boxing’s renaissance man.” He was all that and more, the gutsy former light-heavyweight champion of the world, who later distinguished himself as a political activist and sporting administrator, before enjoying a successful career as a journalist and writer.
In the ring, Torres enjoyed his finest hour at New York’s Madison Square Gardens in 1965, where a sell-out crowd saw him knock out Willie Pastrano in the ninth, with a picture-perfect blow to the gut that sent his opponent crashing to the canvas. The next day, on a tour of the city, he stopped to climb a fire escape on Lexington Avenue. Holding the title belt aloft, he told a cheering crowd “this is for everybody!” saying that if someone like him could achieve something like this, then in New York, anything must be possible.
It was the highlight of a long journey that had begun in Ponce, a city on Puerto Rico’s southern coast where he was born in 1936, and eventually saw Torres fêted as one of the most stylish fighters of his generation, who mixed a high-handed “peek-a-boo” defence with flashing combinations and a famously destructive body-shot. After learning to box in the US Army, and winning silver as an amateur in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, his 11-year career saw him win 41 fights, with 29 knock-outs. He lost just three times, scoring one draw.
He successfully defended his world title three times, against Wayne Thornton, Eddie Cotton, and Chick Calderwood, before losing an epicbattle on points against Nigeria’s Dick Tiger, another of the greats of theera, who narrowly outworked him over 15 rounds. A rematch the following year resulted in a carbon copy of the first engagement, with both men trading blows until the final bell. After the result was announced, outraged fans, who thought Torres had deserved to win, began to riot. The NYPD could not properly quell the violence until sunrise.
In retirement, Torres was drawn to politics, working as an aide to Paul O’Dwyer, the president of New York City Council. He later became Puerto Rico’s official representative in the city, and also spent several years as both chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, and a supervisor for the World Boxing Organisation.
During the 1980s, he tried his hand at journalism, writing a column in the New York Post which vociferously championed the causes of the Latino community. It led him to pursuea career as a writer, completing several books about his sport, including Sting Like a Bee, a biography of Muhammad Ali, and Fire and Fear, about Mike Tyson and the “parasites” who surrounded him. Torres wasalso friends with Robert F Kennedy, who he used to take on tours of Latino neighbourhoods, and Norman Mailer, with whom he agreed to spar for three rounds on a Saturday morning,even though the literary great was well into his sixties.
In later years, Torres returned to Ponce, where his wife, Ramonita Ortiz, said he died from a heart attackon Monday morning. The mayor ofthe city declared three days of official mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half mast, in honour of: “avery valiant man who aside frombeing a great athlete was a great human being.”
Jose Torres, boxer, political activist, sports administrator, journalist, author: born Ponce, Puerto Rico 3 May 1936; 1965-67 world light-heavyweight champion; married Ramonita Ortiz; died Ponce, Puerto Rico 19 January 2009.
José Torres, 72, Boxing Hall of Famer and Official, Dies
José Torres, a former light-heavyweight champion who became a boxing official and a literary presence in the sport as a biographer of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, died Monday in Ponce, P.R. He was 72.
Fighting professionally from 1958 to 1969, Torres had a record of 41-3-1. He captured the light-heavyweight crown in March 1965 when the referee stopped his fight with Willie Pastrano after the ninth round. After three title defenses, Torres lost the championship to Dick Tiger of Nigeria on a decision in December 1966. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997.
Torres was the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission from 1984 to 1988, becoming the first former professional boxer and the first Latino to head the agency, which oversees boxing in the state.
He was the author of “Sting Like a Bee: The Muhammad Ali Story” (1971) and “Fire and Fear: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson” (1989), and he wrote for The New York Post and the New York newspaper El Diario La Prensa.
Torres, a native of the Ponce area and the son of a businessman, learned to box in the Army and captured the light-middleweight silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He earned his first boxing paycheck, $40, serving as a sparring partner for Sugar Ray Robinson in 1957.
Early in his pro career, Torres became friendly with young writers, among them Pete Hamill, who was with The Post. Hamill helped Torres get a column in the paper, and Torres wrote often on Hispanic community affairs. Norman Mailer wrote the preface to Torres’s biography of Ali. They remained friends, and as late as 1984, Torres was regularly sparring three rounds on Saturdays with Mailer, who was 61.
When Torres was introduced as the state athletic commissioner in November 1984 by Gov. Mario Cuomo, his guests included Cus D’Amato, his former manager; Hamill; Budd Schulberg, who wrote the epilogue to the Ali biography; and Mailer. Torres cited D’Amato as “the man who created the fighter” and Mailer as “the man who created my intellectual capacity.”
Torres vowed that as chairman of the athletic commission, he would promote educational opportunities for fighters “at least so they can read their contracts.”
“José will probably get a quicker response from me than other chairmen have gotten,” Cuomo quipped, “because he has this enormous chain of influential columnists.”
Torres, a member of the athletic commission before becoming its chairman, had also been active in politics, working for Paul O’Dwyer when he was the president of New York’s City Council and for Andrew Stein when he was the Manhattan borough president.
In his review of “Sting Like a Bee,” Leonard Gardner wrote in The New York Times that Torres had written “a study of the psychic content that in boxing is the hidden part of the iceberg.”
Shortly after resigning as athletic commissioner in May 1988, Torres reflected on the customary view that “the world of pugilism is acceptable only as a throwback to our basic animal instinct.”
Writing in The Times, Torres said he had hoped to induce people “to look at it from a more humane point of view, making them understand that, ultimately, boxing is a contest of will and character where triumphs are decided by the power of the mind, not of the flesh.”
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