Before Duran and After

Cuban exile and WRHC-AM sports talk-show host Minito Navarro has always had a passion for punchers

The press conference at Victor's Cafe had been convened to introduce Jorge Luis Gonzalez to Miami. The heavyweight amateur boxing champ from Cuba defected a few months earlier while at a meet in Finland, and now, on this June afternoon in 1991, he was a hot property. Dozens of representatives of the Spanish-speaking media were present, along with an ample assortment of managers, trainers, fighters, matchmakers, fans, and hangers-on.

At six-foot-seven, his scalp shaved in front and with long locks in back, the saturnine Gonzalez was a striking figure. Already the owner of two Pan Am Games gold medals, he was expected to have no trouble dispatching William Campudani, the Texan who would oppose him in a bout at Tamiami Park the next day. Gonzalez's manager, Luis de Cubas, gloated about his coveted prizefighter with words as shiny as his own slicked-back black hair. "This is the world heavyweight champion of the future," de Cubas proclaimed. "This kid is 26 years old and he's ready for the career he deserves!"

At this a voice suddenly pierced the chatter of the assembled reporters. "­Parate!" the man shouted. "Stop! You're a liar! Jorge Luis Gonzalez isn't 26. He's almost 30."

The source of the outburst was an old man wearing a guayabera and a baseball cap, standing at a table and waving a small ID card. It was a Red Cross ID, the man explained, and he'd acquired it from the Finnish government after Gonzalez sought asylum there.

Most of the journalists knew Minito Navarro from his twenty-odd years as sports commentator for Cadena Azul, WRHC-AM (1550). A few knew him from times and places more distant. "You're undefeated, but who have you beaten?" he challenged. "­Muertos! Stiffs! When you're world champion, I'll be a priest!"

The crowd laughed, Navarro sat down, and the press conference proceeded without further incident.

It would take nearly four years, but Navarro got the last laugh when the still-unbeaten Gonzalez finally entered the ring against a top-ranked foe. In Las Vegas this past June, World Boxing Organization heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe knocked out the Cuban defector in the sixth round.

The way 80-year-old Minito Navarro sees it, passing yourself off as a world champion when you're not the material is no small offense; it's tantamount to messing with history. It's a disrespectful slap to all the great Cuban fighters, many of whom he has known.

Beyond his two decades as an observer of sports history, Navarro himself is somewhat of a historical figure. In his wallet he carries snapshots of his wife Beda, his two daughters, his grandchildren, and a small black-and-white head shot of a man he describes as his younger daughter's godfather. This man is Fulgencio Batista, the last president of Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power. Navarro also carries a laminated photo ID showing him at age 45, its ornate cursive print identifying Minito Navarro (no one calls him by his given name, Yrmino) as Mayor of San Jose de las Lajas, a small city 32 kilometers southeast of Havana. Navarro was the last mayor of San Jose before the revolution. Like Batista, he fled Cuba as Castro's army marched into Havana on New Year's Day, 1959.

Navarro has many more photos he displays with the same reverence, though they depict a more recent past and an entirely different world. These are photos of Roberto Duran. Navarro was closely associated with the Panamanian boxing legend for eight years, beginning in 1980, a pivotal time during a career in which the fighter won a world championship in one of boxing's most exciting battles, only to retire months later after quitting in the middle of a title defense. Navarro, by all accounts, was largely responsible for Duran's comeback, in which he joined the handful of fighters who have won four world titles in four different weight classes. Ring en espanol magazine termed the turnaround "the amazement of the boxing world."

Says Miami writer and former boxing manager Enrique Encinosa: "Minito was like a Svengali to Duran. He pumped him up with words."

Duran, now 44, is still fighting but Navarro has retired as Svengali, believing the man he thinks of as a son has been finished as a fighter for years. Ironically, Luis De Cubas, Jorge Luis Gonzalez's manager, has handled Duran for the past two years.

The host of WRHC's Saturday morning call-in show Desayuno Deportivo (Sports Breakfast) always arrives at the studio early. While he waits in the booth, Navarro studies the Herald's sports sections, both English and Spanish. His eyes are gray and he wears gray-rimmed glasses to read. Large ears and a sparse fringe of gray hair protrude from under his baseball cap. A navy blue nylon jacket covers his guayabera as insulation against the air conditioning. He sits in one of three chairs pushed up to a narrow ledge, each chair with its own microphone hanging like fruit on a vine from a branchlike apparatus. A blinking phone sits on the ledge next to him. Behind him, outside the vertical-blinded windows on the back wall, sunlight is spreading over the roofs and trees of Little Havana and Navarro's house, less than two dozen blocks away.

At 8:30, as Navarro commences his hourlong broadcast with a rundown of the previous day's baseball scores, Felix Zabala and his son push into the narrow room carrying posters and papers. "Tuto" Zabala, Miami's most successful boxing promoter, and Tutico, his matchmaker, are regular guests on the radio show. This Saturday there's a lot of boxing to talk about: Mike Tyson's comeback, three title fights the Zabalas are staging at Miami Jai Alai, an upcoming junior welterweight title bout in Las Vegas featuring a Puerto Rican fighter associated with the Zabalas' Allstar Latin American Promotions. Leonardo "Moro" Mas, the Puerto Rican, is a frequent crowd pleaser at the fronton.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Moro Mas beats Frankie Randall," Navarro ventures, gesturing and nodding emphatically with every statement. "The last time I saw Randall -- the only man ever to defeat Julio Cesar Chavez -- he was not the same fighter. I don't know why, but he is nothing like he was."

"This is Moro's most difficult fight in two years," remarks the elder Zabala, a tall and hefty silver-haired man resplendent in a tropical print shirt. Dark glasses shadow his large, mournful-looking eyes. "He has to take advantage of this break."

"Anything's possible," adds Tutico, pulling his mike closer. "Frankie Randall is 33, and he's won enough. Moro Mas is 26, he's just starting out in his life and his career. Tiene hambre. He's hungry." (As it happened, on the day before the fight Randall declined to fight Mas.) Tutico himself is still in his twenties, and like his father, he's a massive presence. Besides "making" matches -- the fine art of pairing fighters -- he helps with the endless marketing and promotion work that's necessary to make local club fights profitable, and he works corners during bouts.

A caller wants to know whether the recent postfight death of Colombian Jimmy Garcia will change boxing. The three men blame Garcia's death on a lack of training, rapid weight loss, and an overzealous family. They agree boxing isn't as deadly as its reputation. "There are more deaths in auto racing, for instance," Navarro concludes, "because in the ring, there are just two men."

After the show the trio adjourns for breakfast at the rustic, bustling Cuban restaurant Rancho Luna, owned by a long-time sponsor of both Navarro's show and Allstar Latin American Promotions events. The palm frond- and horseshoe-accented cafe is a favorite spot for fighters; the place, Tuto Zabala confides, is also known as la casa de los campeones. Roberto Duran always liked to eat here, too, Navarro adds. "Lunch, dinner, and snack."

Tuto Zabala and Navarro have been friends for some fifteen years, ever since Zabala moved his boxing promotions to Miami from Puerto Rico, where he settled after the Cuban revolution. The two men share a lifelong involvement in sports and an unbreakable attachment to boxing. "Boxing is my business," says Zabala. "And it's hard to promote, so sometimes I don't like it so much. But Minito is completely dedicated to it."

Seated across from one another with a cell phone between them, the Zabalas order cafe con leche, scrambled eggs, and ham. Navarro, having three hours earlier eaten the breakfast he makes for himself every morning without fail (two scrambled eggs, juice, cereal), opts for only a frothy pink mamey batido.

It was this sort of moderation and daily regimen that Navarro tried to instill in the impulsive, excessive Roberto Duran. Certainly Navarro wasn't the only self-disciplined person to concern himself with Duran's physical and mental conditioning: Hector "Plomo" Qui*ones, the man who took Duran from a shoeshine boy in the slums of Panama City to a world champion, was his principal trainer until just a few years ago, and Duran has worked with other prominent trainers for individual fights. "Minito was like his counselor," remembers Fausto Miranda, a sports editor for El Nuevo Herald and a friend of Navarro since the Thirties. "He provided psychological and mental support. He also sometimes worked in Duran's corner as a second."

As Navarro remembers it, he first met Duran in 1972, after the Panamanian defeated Ken Buchanan in Madison Square Garden for the world lightweight title. Navarro was covering the fight for WRHC, for which he had recently begun working. "I had been in Miami more than ten years then and hadn't been involved in boxing, but I said to myself, 'Someday I'm going to work with him,'" Navarro says. "We became good friends after that fight." When he wasn't on the road covering baseball or boxing events, Navarro began spending many hours with Duran, sometimes traveling to the fighter's training camps in New York and California.

By June 1980, when Duran signed to challenge Sugar Ray Leonard for the WBC welterweight title, Navarro was helping his friend prepare for one of the toughest fights of his career. The quick, devastating Leonard was favored, but Panamanians and Central Americans considered the fight a test of national pride. Gen. Omar Torrijos, president of Panama at the time, had planned to attend the bout at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, but the general's physician feared a loss by Duran would be too hard on the president's heart. So Torrijos watched the match at home on television, his doctor by his side. He need not have fretted: Duran, Mano de Piedra, won a unanimous fifteen-round decision. The victory prompted more news reports about the psychological boost to his paisanos. Navarro, who has filled a huge scrapbook with clippings and photographs related to that fight alone, keeps in a small orange gym bag the red gloves, now autographed, that Duran wore.

Five months later, Duran fell from national hero to untouchable. In a November rematch with Leonard in New Orleans, Duran quit in the eighth round, uttering the now famous plea, "No mas," and telling reporters he was suffering from stomach pains. Navarro was at ringside that night and remembers Duran and his entourage after the fight, on the twelfth floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, "as they always were -- crazy. He was with his friends, all these colonels from Panama, drinking, dancing. They had no shame. I just stood in the corner, very depressed and dazed."

A few months later, an out-of-shape, overweight Duran fought a nobody in Detroit and lost. He returned to Panama to the opprobrium of his formerly adoring public. He told everyone he was retired. They all said he was finished anyway. A few months later, Duran was walking up the red-tiled steps to Navarro's modest three-bedroom house in Flagami. "He was crying," Navarro recounts. "His manager, Carlos Eleta, had abandoned him. He was ashamed. He said his career was over, that he was liquidado. Don King had yelled in his face: 'You're finished!'"

Navarro was sympathetic but firm. "Tu no estas liquidado. Te vuelvo a ser campe centsn," he said. "I'll make you champion again. You have to go back to the gym, go back to the right diet and discipline. You have to stop partying all night."

Duran found a new manager in his old friend Luis Spada. Navarro sometimes accompanied the fighter (on a bicycle) on his morning ten-mile run, after which he'd make him a tonic of two raw eggs in a glass of sweet red Vi*a 25, a wine from Spain. Duran, Navarro recalls, didn't give up nightlife altogether. His favorite clubs were Papa Grande on Coral Way and Douglas Road, a place on SW 27th Avenue off South Dixie Highway called Honey for the Bears (both are now closed), and the club at the Days Inn (now Howard Johnson) on Le Jeune, where Duran rented a whole floor for his entourage. "There was a Latin band every Saturday night," recalls Richard Dobal, one of Duran's assistant trainers in 1982 and 1983. "Duran would go on the stage and sing and he'd play the drums. We went out all the time," continues Dobal, who now works as a BMW salesman in Miami. "Minito would go along, kind of like to make sure nothing got out of control."

Navarro won a few dance contests during these evening forays. And Duran won his third world title in 1983, knocking out junior middleweight Davey Moore in Madison Square Garden. (He would earn his fourth world title almost ten years later, in a 1991 decision against Iran Barkley.) "The rehabilitation of Roberto Duran," wrote Julio Ferreiro Mora in the August 1983 edition of Ring en espa*ol, "has been on the scale of a miracle, something that seemed impossible ever since that terrible night in November 1980. . . . Minito Navarro, a Cuban who has consecrated his life to boxing, made this glory possible."

The article quoted Navarro: "It was the happiest day of my life. It was even better than the day I was elected mayor of my town back there in Cuba, San Jose de las Lajas."

Minito Navarro's father Yrmino was a provincial official in the government of Gerardo Machado. Beginning with the 1926 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, when Minito was eleven, he frequently accompanied his father to baseball games in the U.S. Some major league teams had training camps in Cuba in those years, and Cuban boxers -- Babyface Quintana, Black Bill, Pedro Pablo Cardenas, Bizco Herrera, Elpidio Pizarro, and the legendary Kid Chocolate -- were gaining notoriety outside the island. In 1930, Navarro says, he was in New York for Chocolate's first loss (to the Englishman Jack "Kid" Berg) after 165 consecutive victories -- a loss Navarro and the New York sporting press considered a robbery. Nearly 50 years later, Navarro would self-publish a biography of Chocolate, a.k.a. Eligio Sardinas Montalvo, who he regards as the best pugilist in boxing history.

Navarro himself fought fifteen amateur bouts, after which he concentrated on playing baseball and basketball. At 21 he became a pilot in the Cuban army. His father, he says, used his influence to get him an early release. At the age of 23, he began managing a group of amateur national boxing champions, including three who later would achieve some professional prominence: Julio Pedroso, Pedro Poey, and Santiago Sosa. "Minito guided them and helped in their training," recalls El Nuevo Herald's Fausto Miranda, who worked as a sports journalist in Havana at the time. "We met in '36 or '38," says Miranda. "That was before Minito went into politics."

Navarro first met Fulgencio Batista when the general was running for president in 1940. "I was in a group of people who went around to different provinces to campaign," he says. "One day when we were at a meeting, I said, 'Mr. President, I want to belong to your party.'" Batista was elected (following one four-year term, he commenced a half-dozen-year exile), and two years later Navarro won a seat on the San Jose city council. He and Beda Facenda were married in 1944 and had a daughter, Annabelle, in 1946. Although he continued to work with boxers, politics was taking up more of his time.

In 1954 Navarro was elected mayor of San Jose. By then Batista had regained the presidency. Navarro says he and the general were close friends. He and his family often visited Batista's country house near Marianao. When his second daughter Marta was born in February 1954, Batista, whose wife was also named Marta, asked to be the godfather. Today Marta and Annabelle are both married and living in Miami. Marta barely remembers Batista, but she did develop into an enthusiastic boxing fan, traveling to all of Duran's fights while her father was working with him.

San Jose de las Lajas, situated among several lakes, was an industrial city. Known as the "Detroit of Cuba," it was home to eighteen U.S. companies, including Goodyear and DuPont, according to Navarro, who used tax exemptions to lure the firms. Unfortunately for him, the exemptions didn't expire until just about the time Castro took power.

Navarro and five other batistianos were spirited out of Havana at sunrise on January 1, 1959, in a military aircraft. Batista had left before dawn, bound for the Dominican Republic. While Navarro settled in Miami, his wife and two daughters remained in San Jose, corralled in their luxurious home by Castro's soldiers. Beda Navarro was held for a week in the infamous Morro Castle.

The family was reunited in Miami shortly after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Like most exiles, Navarro put in his time at menial jobs -- night clerk at the Hotel Senado, seller of Moro cigars -- until he found a job as a sports announcer at WQBA-AM (1140). In 1969 he took a similar position at a station called Radio Mundo, which three years later was sold and renamed WRHC.

These days, though he no longer travels to out-of-town sporting events, Navarro's duties at WRHC -- the Saturday-morning show, plus two short sports segments per day -- keep him busy. At home he shows off his stacks of scrapbooks, bulging with autographed photos of the greatest boxing and baseball stars of his lifetime: Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore, Sonny Liston, Jose "Mantequilla" Napoles. Navarro is especially proud of the shots of Kid Chocolate A training in Central Park, shadowboxing, attending a weigh-in, posing nude, and as a viejo living with his son in a tattered flat in Havana (Chocolate died there in 1993).

And there are the mountains of photographs, clippings, and mementos chronicling eight years of Roberto Duran's career. He remains friends with Duran and his big family, Navarro says, and sometimes sees "Cholo" when he comes to Miami. "I'll always think of him like my son," he says, adding that although they have little besides boxing in common he has always been drawn to the instinctively martial Panamanian and understands why Duran, who had no formal education and no professional skills other than boxing, continues to fight. "He's a good person," Navarro says, "but bruto."

Navarro's involvement with Duran's career ended in 1988, when the fighter was preparing for a super-middleweight match with Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns. Navarro thought the fight was folly, and not just because Duran would be stepping up to yet another weight class. "'Hearns is younger than you, he's stronger, and he's a better fighter than you,'" Navarro remembers telling Duran, 37 years old at the time. "'He'll knock you out in the third round. I will not go back in your corner.'

"It turns out I was wrong," he recounts. "The fight ended in the second round.

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