By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The money and disorder contributed to something of a boxing renaissance in Miami during the Eighties. The Copacabana was a favorite party spot of boxing high rollers, chief among whom was the ostentatious promoter Willy Martinez. Zabala says he first met Martinez at one of the lavish banquets the promoter used to throw at the Copacabana. Most who knew him suspected Martinez's wealth came from sources other than boxing, namely drugs, Miami's growth industry in those days. But nobody was going to ask, certainly not the producers of Miami Vice, who used Martinez's waterfront Miami Beach mansion in various episodes.
Not long after their meeting, before things began to go wrong for both men, the flashy Martinez and the easygoing Zabala copromoted a title fight. They later became bitter enemies, loudly accusing each other of dirty dealing, of stealing fighters and money. Arrested in 1988 on drug-trafficking charges, Martinez secured himself a reduced prison sentence by helping prosecutors snag his many accomplices. Just in recent weeks, rumors have placed a surgically altered Martinez back in Miami, walking incognito through his old haunts.
Regardless of where Willy Martinez is, he's not promoting boxing in Miami. Nor are most of the town's other key players of the Eighties and even the Nineties. Over the years they've dropped out for one reason or another -- age, arrest, addiction; some simply threw in the towel. The fans who formerly packed venues such as the Miami Beach Convention Center, the Miami Jai Alai fronton, and Tamiami Park now stay home and watch the fights on TV. But Tuto Zabala is still around and still putting on a good show. His soul, like Miami's, is in the wide, Spanish-speaking world to the south. Zabala has been working in Latin America and with Latin fighters probably longer and more extensively than any other active promoter. “Tuto is the man in Miami,” declares Ferdie Pacheco, the famed “ring doctor,” television commentator, and renaissance man. “Latin America is filled with people who want to come here and be fighters, and they all come to him.”
“To me he's the best promoter in Miami,” says boxing historian Hank Kaplan, who has been immersed in the industry even longer than Zabala. “He puts on an artistic show. It flows properly; the timing is right. His matches are entertaining. He simply knows his stuff. The other [South Florida-based] guys are Johnny-come-latelies, and I don't think they're real good promoters.”
Zabala, however, is an example of more than survival in a brutal and unpredictable industry. His story takes in a generation of Cuban exiles who reinvented Miami by reinventing themselves to succeed in a new world. Zabala hadn't planned to make a career in boxing, but his new reality pushed him into the middle of a profession that draws people from the edge -- those who have to inventar or resolver, as the Cubans say, to stay alive -- the kinds of people driven to risk and lawlessness. When Zabala says he knows everyone in the fight game, he's stating a fact. He has been right there in the middle of all the blood and sleaze, and he hasn't come out pure and innocent. But he's also lived a remarkable saga, a life that invites speculation and exaggeration. For his part Zabala rarely volunteers information and is not inclined to reminisce.
Still, apart from his personal triumphs and misadventures, Zabala has staged some of the best boxing matches of the past half-century -- even if they weren't for $13 million purses or watched by 13 million cable subscribers. He has, in fact, nearly perfected the more intimate art of club boxing, even as this wonderfully rambunctious phenomenon is becoming an outdated curiosity.
Alex “Ali” Baba, a 29-year-old fighter from Ghana whom Zabala brought to Miami about sixteen months ago, has just walked in the door of El Viajante restaurant on Flagler Street and 74th Avenue. With him is his trainer, Napoleon Abby, also from the capital city Accra; they've just come from their daily two-hour practice. Zabala has invited the pair for a late lunch of arroz con pollo, a Viajante specialty they've grown fond of. Ali Baba is a sinewy 112 pounds; Napoleon's six-foot frame is well padded. He has a wide, easy grin and loves to debate and drink beer, while Ali is quiet and watchful. Both miss their wives and children back in Ghana, but they're even more determined to return home, one day soon, with a championship belt and some money.
“Ali!” calls Zabala, turning in his seat at the restaurant bar. His expression is somewhat regretful, even when he smiles. Reaching out to shake hands with the fighter, he asks in accented English: “How are you? Ready for arroz con pollo?”
Ali smiles and confesses quietly: “I can't sleep because last time I lost.” His perfect 16-0 record was blemished two weeks earlier in a match at the Club Fantasy Show, despite a large African cheering section in the balcony. He hopes the loss won't affect his number two ranking by the World Boxing Council (WBC) in the flyweight division.
Zabala flutters his hands as if dismissing Ali's anxiety. “Oh, don't worry about it,” he insists, shaking his head. “That was nothing. That's not going to stop you.” (Indeed Ali would go on to win a July 21 match at Miami's Mahi Temple and reach number one in the WBC rankings.)