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If anyone can talk about picking yourself up and taking up where you left off, it's Tuto Zabala. His cell phone rings, and as he talks, in Spanish, he walks quickly into another room of the restaurant. Ali and Napoleon are shown to a table Zabala reserved the day before. Everyone at the place knows him. Soon the waiter brings plates heaped with mounds of glutinous yellow rice and chicken. Zabala returns and places his cell phone on the table beside his plate. Trainer Roberto Quesada, who works with most of Zabala's fighters, was calling from Juarez, Mexico. One of their boxers is scheduled for a six-rounder the following night. The atmosphere south of the border is a little edgy, reports Quesada, because of the national elections scheduled to start the morning after the fight, and there'll be no alcohol sold after midnight.
“Have another beer,” Zabala urges Napoleon. “Iced tea for you, Ali?” The fighter, having made quick work of his lunch, nods. Zabala orders a scotch and water for himself.
After about a half-hour and another phone call, Zabala excuses himself to return to his office; an associate is waiting to see him. He calls goodbye to the restaurant owner and strides outside into the blinding sun.
Zabala's Allstar Latin American Promotions office is squeezed into a tiny storefront on the upstairs level of a strip mall in west Miami-Dade, not far from where he and his wife, Carmen, live. Allstar represents about 50 boxers (not all very active) from several nations, the majority from Puerto Rico and Colombia. Zabala and his son, Felix Jr., have managed (in addition to three-time champion Wilfredo Vazquez) world champions such as Edwin “Chapo” Rosario, Manuel “Olympico” Herrera, Miguel “Happy” Lora, Beby Sugar Rojas, Alfredo Escalera, Pedro Padilla, Carlos Mercado, Angel Espada, and Esteban de Jesus.
These days Zabala travels with his fighters to bouts around the world, though out-of-town dates come sporadically, and sometimes only Quesada will accompany the combatant. Until a year ago, Felix Jr., more commonly known as Tutico, had done most of the jetting around. Now 32 years old, Tutico began working for his father at age 15, helping out as a cornerman during fights and as an all-purpose assistant trainer. “And then when I turned 18,” Tutico recalls, “I wanted to become a manager, so for my birthday present I asked my dad for a couple of fighters. One was Beby Sugar Rojas; the other one was Freddy Delgado from Puerto Rico. I managed Rojas for the world title in 1987.” Over the years Tutico became a respected manager, matchmaker, booking agent, and promoter in his own right. Last year, though, he got a job offer he couldn't refuse: general manager of one of the National Football League's European farm teams, the Dragons, in Barcelona, Spain.
Zabala Sr. first learned about Ali Baba from the boxer's representative, whom Zabala met at a WBC convention in South Africa about eighteen months ago. Zabala signed up Ali before he'd even seen him in action. “I don't need to see a fighter sparring,” he explains. “All I see is the eyes and how they talk to me. I can tell if they're going to lie to me. I can see how dedicated they are.”
While some seasoned observers question the infallibility of that approach (and point out, indulgently, that all boxers lie), there's little doubt about Zabala's skill at evaluating fighters. He never would have lasted this long without it, or without the equally ineffable gift for making a match -- throwing two unpredictable guys in the ring to get the right fight on the right night. And somehow arranging the hundreds of variables that go into producing a show fans want to see.
Not many people are successful doing this job fight after fight, month after month. The more optimistic promoters labor under the impression that they'll make it to the top if they just get smart and lucky enough to sign a superstar. And if they find a Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard or Oscar de la Hoya, they can indeed ensure their fortune. Tuto Zabala, though, has never had that kind of spectacular break. He brings up talented fighters who compile good records; a fair number win championship belts. But only a few consistently turn back serious challenges or just keep fighting and winning enough important matches to earn big money and respect.
“Tuto had some guys who could fight,” says Don Hazelton, former long-time Florida state athletic commissioner and current boxing commissioner for Miccosukee Indian Gaming. “I think Tuto has got more time [as a promoter in Florida] than anybody else. He does a lot of “little guy' fights that are very popular in the Hispanic community. Some of his [fighters] are shopworn, but he gets a good fight out of them. He always winds up with a sponsor or two and a television contract. He had some kids who fought for titles and some who went places, but he's not considered to be a paragon as far as getting them out [of the lower levels].”
Dean Lohuis, chief boxing inspector for the California Athletic Commission, claims his state hosts the most boxing programs in the nation; Lohuis knows Zabala and most of his boxers. “Generally when [Zabala's] fighters come over here, the shows have been good,” Lohuis observes. “The commission has experienced no problems with him -- what he says, he does, and his finances are in order. Some of his out-of-state shows I've seen were poor and some good, although when his fighters step up to the next level, they lose.”