By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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For three years he worked in the fields by day, trained by night, and fought when he could. He made $75 for his first pro fight, $125 for the second, then $250 and $300. He won each bout easily, he recalls. Then he fought a televised bout with former amateur champ Johnny Compo. He lost in a split decision. The next year he won his first Florida state championship, and suddenly he didn't have to go back to the fields. The Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department offered him a teaching job. He and his father also started a small business farming green beans, but that fell victim to the big freeze of 1983, losing thousands of dollars.
Lonic died in 1981, shortly after acknowledging in a Miami News article that he regretted never believing that Johnny Torres would amount to anything.
Torres doesn't hold that against the old man. "He'll never die," he says. "When kids come to me with problems, I think about, 'What would Ben Lonic have done?' I repeat what he told me, and it works. Sure, he made a few mistakes, but I learned a lot from him."
Says Hank Kaplan: "Lonic came from a very rugged background and wasn't that cultured. Some of the matches he'd make for his fighters weren't to their greatest advantage. He gave them all the love he could, but he was only capable of so much. I was at his funeral. He was a very, very popular guy in Homestead and loved by a lot of people. Johnny Torres was one."
Not long after Ben Lonic died, his gym burned down. Torres, who says he felt responsible for carrying on in Lonic's footsteps, opened his own gym on Krome Avenue. A rent increase and racial threats -- he and Rosa say they got phone calls warning the "spic coach" to get out of Homestead -- convinced Torres to set up shop in Florida City. Then in 1988, Homestead Police Chief Curtis Ivy called Torres, offering to pay him to run the boxing program at the PAL gym. That facility was destroyed by the hurricane. Now there's the new gym on Flagler, and Torres says he hopes to move to a bigger location, the AAA Best Lumber building just up the block, in the next year or so. (That edifice has its own claim to boxing history: It once housed a potato-packing business in which the legendary heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano was an investor. Marciano occasionally trained there in the Fifties.)
Like Lonic, Torres has taken his share of young boxers into his home to feed. "A lot of people say I'm the second Ben Lonic," he muses. "There are differences. For instance, he wanted boxers. I want winners."
Eleven years ago, in his dressing room before his fight with Boom Boom Mancini, Torres received the congratulatory bouquets of roses and the well-wishing telegrams with an anxiety that persisted behind his characteristic bravura. In an interview the day before with Miami News sportswriter Tom Archdeacon, he had spoken optimistically of his chances: "'Who knows? If he sets himself right, I might hit him straight on the chin. The main thing is I don't want to look bad for the folks back home. I'm a migrant out of the tomato fields and I've tried to be an example for a lot of the Mexican kids.... I want them to see anything is possible if you try.'"
But for Torres on that Thanksgiving at Caesar's Palace, the fates had decided something else. "I knew I was going to get beat," he says now. Afterward, in despair, he took a trip to South Bend, Indiana, where much of his and Rosa's families have done seasonal work and where many relatives now live, a distant place that represented refuge from the heat and hardship of South Florida. While he was there, Torres recalls, he sought counsel from a priest. The advice was to go back to what he loved, to "start over again, work at what I could." So he did.
For the first time both he and Rosa have steady incomes. She commuted to beauty school in Miami every day for a year and a half and is now a manicurist at Classy Nails in Homestead. In their mid-thirties, with their children mostly grown, they relish their unprecedented freedom. "Everything is starting to come back," Torres says. "I believe I'm going to go back up."
Each of Torres's three pro fighters was scheduled to box on Tuto Zabala's September 10 card at Miami Jai Alai. The main event was to be a title match between flyweights Danny "Bazooka" Nu*ez, a local favorite, and Jesus "Kiki" Rojas. Another attraction was Crawford Grimsley of Sunrise, a 30-year-old some were tentatively calling "The Great White Hope." A handsome heavyweight with a platinum flat-top and legs like pillars, Grimsley had knocked out six previous opponents in the first round.
Unbeaten Fernando Martinez's opponent fails to show up at the weigh-in, where Osvaldo Garza also learns his foe has been disqualified. That leaves Nacho Duran, whose third professional bout will be against Dominican Hilvin Florentino. Nacho's first two outings yielded a draw and a loss by split decision. Former Hialeah mayor and longtime boxing promoter Julio Martinez, whose Mundo Promotions staged both those cards at the Seville Hotel in Miami Beach, says he remembers Nacho's fights quite well and was impressed by his tenacity. "He fought a kid from Puerto Rico who had more fights, and lost a four-round decision," Martinez says.