By Michael E. Miller
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Johnny Torres and a bunch of his relatives have put up a boxing ring in the middle of the spacious Club Fantasy Show, a nightclub in Little Havana. By ten o'clock on this Tuesday night the card is well under way, and a thin haze of cigarette smoke hovers tenuously in the air. Cocktail tables draped with white cloths have been pushed together around three sides of the ring. Here sit Florida Athletic Commission officials, the fight judges, a few journalists pecking at laptops, and two Galavision commentators with headphones who scrutinize a pair of color monitors while exchanging observations on the action. One of the commentators is three-time world champion Wilfredo Vazquez, elegant and catlike in a black tux.
Torres stands ringside, thumbs hooked jauntily in the belt loops of his jeans. The long-retired fighter, 42 years old, is training for a comeback bout he hopes will take place later this month (“Against a stiff,” he allows cheerfully). In his decade-plus of retirement, Torres has been setting up and taking down this ring at almost every one of Felix “Tuto” Zabala's local boxing programs. Zabala used to be his manager too, way back when Torres was 30 pounds lighter and punching his way out of the lime groves of Homestead. In recent years Zabala has been guiding the career of Torres's son Rocky (his real name), a popular local heavyweight.
On the raised canvas, Colombian flyweight Rodolfo Blanco connects with a right to the head of Orlando Gonzalez, a scrawny Cuban who probably experienced worse moments on the raft he piloted to Miami six years ago. Each punch, like a high-powered water sprinkler, propels sprays of sweat off both bodies. Gonzalez reels, then charges, but his right hook misses. Sections of the tightly packed audience begin to yell, then burst into a chant: Cu-ba! Cu-ba! Cu-ba!
As the bell sounds, only one card girl is waiting to mark the rounds, and she's not the usual bimbo in a thong bikini. This girl, who attracts only a few wolf whistles, has cropped fuchsia hair and wears black capri pants with a strapless lace bustier.
Miami boxing promoter Zabala recently inked a deal with Galavision and has staged two programs here at the Club Fantasy Show, although he says he may move to a hotel on Miami Beach. Telemundo broadcasts additional Zabala cards at the Mahi Temple and at the Curtis Ivy Police Athletic League gym in Homestead. The day after this fight, Zabala will ship a video of the matches to WAPA-TV, Channel 4, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The station will air the show, and from there the video will be distributed throughout Latin America. Zabala has been following this practice (independent of his network television deals) for about two decades now, ensuring that the programs reach his most passionate audiences.
New owners recently remodeled the Club Fantasy Show, but it retains the faux-decadent ambiance of its former incarnation, the long-time Calle Ocho landmark Club Copacabana. The room, which usually features live Latin music acts, is perfect for boxing, with seating on stepped tiers and up in the high balcony. The décor is somewhere between country estate and opium den: black walls paneled with mirrors and Asian-style brocade tapestries, other surfaces of rough-hewn stones. Spectators bunch around tables, stand hip to hip at the bar, sit in rows of chairs, or drape like snakes along the balcony railing overhead. Maybe half the audience is drinking alcohol, mostly beer. It's a local, small-venue kind of fight crowd, nothing fancy or Las Vegas about it (despite the club's stab at glamour): insiders and aficionados; working and retired boxers; and their wives, girlfriends, and kids. Attire ranges from suits to sweats.
Tuto Zabala wears his customary outfit of jeans, a short-sleeve print shirt, gold chain, and brown leather loafers. He cuts an imposing figure, more than six feet tall and substantially built. Although he is one of the boxing world's best-known impresarios, he dresses and behaves so unpretentiously he could easily be mistaken for just another Cuban downing a cafecito at the Versailles coffee window across the street. Sixty-two years old, Zabala's vaguely mournful face is only now becoming lined with age. His thick straight hair has been gray for as long as most of his friends can remember. While the action plays out in the ring, hot-white TV lights casting an electric fizz over the straining bodies, he stands back and surveys the scene. Someone wants to talk to him, and he moves off to confer; soon someone else needs him. In the cool, dim, vaporous air away from the kinetic disturbance in the ring, his image fades in and out of view as he works the myriad details of a boxing program, taking care of the business he's tended for almost four decades now.
There is some irony in the choice of venue. When Zabala moved to Miami two decades ago, this very building was the popular Copacabana, named after Havana's famous hotel. It was a wild time in Miami. Just as the first waves of post-Castro Cuban exiles were consolidating their political and economic power, 125,000 Marielitos and millions of drug-trafficking dollars began flooding the area.