Labor of Gloves

No one thinks much of the Mexican boxers who fight out of Homestead. But that's nothing new to Johnny Torres. When he was a fighter, no one thought much of him, either.

"A lot of these kids are unwanted by society, I guess," Torres says, gazing around the gym, his affable smile revealing small, even teeth with a gap in the middle. His nose, broken several times, is a little swollen; thin scars circulate through his eyebrows and around his eyes.

Homestead has featured boxing matches since the 1920s, with a steady supply of fighters from the surrounding migrant community. At first the workers were Americans from southern states, says Bob Jensen, vice president for marketing and community relations for the First National Bank of Homestead and a local historian. But to fill the labor shortages during World War II, Bahamians and Puerto Ricans began to arrive. And Mexicans, strong in their numbers and in their passion for boxing. Still, Homestead boxers have never attracted the money or professional support essential to making it to the big time, the connections that make the difference between being rated by a sanctioning organization or not being rated at all, between getting a shot at the title and languishing on the club circuit.

Torres wants to create his homegrown champion by steadily developing a good amateur program, bringing along young boxers and working with them for years. "The best amateurs make the best professionals," he repeats often. But Hurricane Andrew cost Torres his house, his gym, and several of his trainees. The current PAL gym has been open for about seven months. Torres has set up his own eighteen-by-eighteen-foot boxing ring that takes up half the space; the Homestead Police Department has provided weight machines, punching bags, gloves, and uniforms. Torres estimates that as many as 60 youngsters come in regularly to train, with varying degrees of seriousness. Former world champion Lupe Pintor trained here when he fought in Miami this past summer.

In August Torres was invited to Colorado Springs by U.S.A. Boxing, the governing body for all amateur divisions in the nation, to be an assistant coach at a Junior Olympics training camp. He likes to tout the prospects of several of the kids he trains. One is his nephew, sixteen-year-old Steve Torres, who won his division at this year's state Golden Gloves championships and finished sixth in his class at the national Junior Olympics tournament in Marquette, Michigan. (Junior Olympics, which isn't affiliated with the Olympic Games, is one of several amateur boxing tournaments in the U.S.; probably the best known of these is the Golden Gloves.) Another sixteen-year-old, Roberto Duran (no relation to the Panamanian boxing great), also won his division at the state Golden Gloves championships. Torres's sixteen-year-old son Rocky, named after a boxer his father met in California, has 67 amateur fights to his credit; thirteen-year-old Joey Torres already has fought thirteen bouts. Three Torres proteges recently turned pro, among them Roberto's brother Ignacio Duran, and eighteen-year-old Fernando Martinez, who boasts a 5-0 record and has signed a management contract with Tuto Zabala, Miami's top boxing promoter. When Torres's amateurs arrive in the police department's blue van for a card in Miami or Hialeah, they still hear the old farmworker taunts, but not as often as they used to. "Who knows?" the trainer insists. "One of these kids could become champion of the world."

A number of local boxing professionals don't see it quite that way. Johnny Torres was a pretty good fighter in his day, they say, but he doesn't possess the skill and savvy to be a great trainer. "He can just barely teach his kids to look good in the process of getting beat up," says one boxing insider. "If they win, they win in spite of the fact they have no training."

But others view Torres as a capable trainer who's not adept at the politics of pro boxing. "He'll take them kids and make them into real fighters," says an ex-boxer who still works in the business. "So you know he's a good trainer. But to make that jump into being able to work corners in the big leagues -- maybe Johnny's not enough of a bullshitter."

Torres, who admits he always has something new to learn about coaching, is generally stoic in the face of criticism, which he has heard throughout his career. "No one's ever had any confidence in me," he says. "But that just makes me more determined."

The Homestead PAL gym is a typical neighborhood boxing gym, a long space smelling of sweat and mildew with cinderblock walls, a roughly patched tarpaper ceiling, and a concrete floor. Three heavy bags hang from chains on one side of the room, tall shards of mirrors lean against the opposite wall. Gloves are piled on a long table, easily grabbed for sparring. Young boys chase each other around the ring while men in work clothes stained brown from tomato-picking pour their last energy of the day into the big bags.

Jesse Torres, Johnny's older brother, holds one of the bags while his son Steve hits it. With his long black hair curling out from under a white mesh cap, Steve weaves and bobs, dances on thick legs, deflects imaginary punches, then throws a left hook high, a straight right lower, combinations, again and again. Jesse, taller and heavier than Johnny, fought a few professional bouts many years ago. But that was more to see what his sons were getting into, he says. Notwithstanding his obvious love for the sport, his eyes tell you his heart was never in it; they lack the crazy glint of ruthlessness and recklessness that all boxers must have. (Another Torres brother, 30-year-old Tony, turned pro at the age of fifteen. He recently retired A for the third or fourth time, according to Johnny.)

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