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.

Ignacio, whom everyone calls Nacho, turned pro in April. He is eighteen and a senior at South Dade High. His dark eyes are ringed by long curly lashes; a thin, neatly trimmed mustache and that cleft chin give him a vaguely old-fashioned Latin movie-idol look. Nacho came home to his mother after his first professional fight in Miami Beach (a draw) with his handsome face swollen and bruised. It was the first time Eloisa Duran had seen that kind of carnage in her own house A amateur boxers always wear protective headgear in the ring, and referees stop a fight if it appears either boxer might be even slightly injured. At times since then, Nacho has been suddenly and excruciatingly struck with headaches. He is seeing a doctor about it. And now Eloisa wishes both boys would stop boxing.

Despite Nacho's headaches and the remarks about lime fields and farm work he endures ("Up there in Miami Beach, they try to get you down"), he doesn't question his decision to pursue a boxing career. "Sometimes they ask me why I do it," he says. "I say I like it." In his family's small memento-filled living room, boxing trophies and medals from amateur fights are lined up on bookshelves, along with snapshots and portraits. On the wall a painting of a snowy, icy landscape is hung next to a framed image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, superimposed on that nation's flag. Eloisa Duran, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, lists in Spanish her very rational fears about her sons' safety and her objections to their continued boxing. But from her tone, it's clear she knows nothing will change their minds.

Advance notices for his fights sometimes announce "Ignacio Duran, from Mexico." Despite having lived in the U.S. since the age of eleven, Nacho says he is pleased to be billed that way. Though both he and Roberto are really fighting for themselves, because the sport has caught them and demanded something valiant from them, they aren't unaware of boxing's pre-eminent status in their homeland, nor of the numerous great boxers Mexico has produced. "To this day, Mexico is still turning out the very best small men," historian Hank Kaplan points out. "So they have a lot of heroes to look up to. Mexican fighters have long been known in the boxing community as men who can take a great punch; they have great courage and never give up."

"Boxing is Mexico's sport," declares 25-year-old Osvaldo Garza, another Johnny Torres protege, who won one professional fight in July 1993 and then was sidelined until last month with a broken foot. Garza, a bearded, round-faced heavyweight, used to walk to the gym from Florida City with his boxing gear in a plastic grocery bag. He was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital to a Mexican mother and Mexican-American father and began boxing at age eleven. He served in the U.S. Army during the invasion of Panama and in the Persian Gulf War, and he has written some poetry, including a poem comparing Mexican boxers to speedy, unstoppable foreign sports cars. "I am a Mexican by blood," Garza asserts. "Being as I grew up in Florida, I'm labeled Chicano. But all the time, my roots are in Mexico."

Johnny Torres wasn't thinking about Mexican roots when he got serious about boxing at the late age of seventeen. He'd simply found that the controlled violence of the sport was the perfect medium for his anger.

"I used to hate everything and everybody," Torres recalls. He killed birds with a BB gun; he roared through the labor camps, chasing people into their houses and running over dogs. He sold empty bottles to make a little change, but kids at school still made fun of his worn clothes. And when Torres was about fifteen, he discovered Ben Lonic's boxing gym on North Flagler in Homestead.

Lonic, a club fighter in Newark, New Jersey, during the Forties, moved to Homestead in the Seventies as part-owner of a hotel. He soon became involved in training local youngsters and in producing boxing matches. "He trained them, he developed them, he put on his own shows and gave them exposure. He loved his fighters and took excellent care of them. He controlled them in a sense," says boxing historian Hank Kaplan. "After a while they were ready to turn professional. He would book them in professional boxing shows, and on and on, hoping and dreaming he would develop someone of great stature A which never happened, of course. But he had a lot of exciting nights trying."

When Torres came to him, Lonic was managing a few moderately successful professional fighters he'd started as amateurs, notably Kenny and Steve Whetstone and Dexter Smith, all of whom were street kids who had eaten most of their meals at Lonic's table for years. Torres found that he couldn't wait to stop work at 5:00 and get to the gym. And when he began entering amateur contests, he discovered he had little trouble beating his opponents. It all came naturally. Lonic taught him some skills, Torres says, but never encouraged him. In fact, he remembers arriving more than once for a match to find Lonic working his opponent's corner. After a handful of amateur fights, Torres turned pro in 1979, at nineteen. He and Rosa could use the money, he rationalized; they already had two children. Of course there was also the chance he would stun everyone and box his way to fortune and fame. Why not?

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