Ring Cycle

Miami boasts a boxing legend who has kept on swinging through good times and bad. He's the king of the clubs. He's Tuto Zabala.

Zabala professes no dissatisfaction with his place in the industry. “I know my limits,” he acknowledges, raising an arm, palm up, as if stopping traffic. “I go only so far.” And that's how it is with many of his best fighters, time after time. They are handsome and charismatic, and they look good in the ring against not-so-good opponents. In Miami's Hispanic melting pot, entire immigrant communities rally passionately around them. A few years ago Nicaraguan junior middleweight Jorge Luis Vado drew thousands of adoring nica fans, no doubt hoping he'd be the next Alexis Arguello as he took out opponent after opponent.

In late 1995 the undefeated Vado got the call he and the Zabalas had been waiting for: a nationally televised shot at one of the best fighters in any weight class, American Terry Norris, for a title bout in Phoenix. Unlike their managers, fighters can't afford to acknowledge their limits; they have to believe they're the greatest or they can't get in the ring. Vado climbed in and clearly was inept next to the agile Norris, who knocked him out early in the second round. Sportswriters later questioned why such a mismatch even was allowed on TV. Then Vado lost a subsequent match in Nicaragua and retired briefly. He returned to the ring but never recouped his earlier glory, either in Miami or his homeland.

Tuto and Carmen Zabala first met as Catholic high school students in Havana
Steve Satterwhite
Tuto and Carmen Zabala first met as Catholic high school students in Havana
The great Florentino Fernandez, who thrilled crowds in Zabala-promoted fights in Puerto Rico, now quietly observes in Miami
Steve Satterwhite
The great Florentino Fernandez, who thrilled crowds in Zabala-promoted fights in Puerto Rico, now quietly observes in Miami

Tuto Zabala can't remember when he bought this funky, smothering-hot garage of a gym on NW Eighteenth Avenue just south of Miami Jackson High, but it was at least ten years ago. The gym once was named after beloved Cuban trainer Caron Gonzalez, but a few years after Gonzalez died (in 1996), Zabala renamed it for Wilfredo Vazquez, he explains, because “everyone names places for someone who died, but [Vazquez] has done something when he's living.” (Vazquez, a three-time world champion flyweight, in 1998 relinquished his World Boxing Association crown in an unsuccessful challenge to World Boxing Organization king Naseem Hamed in Manchester, England.)

In addition to the formidable Vazquez, boxers from dozens of nations -- hall-of-famers to neighborhood gangstas -- have trained here. Graffiti artists recently decorated the gym's façade with bold colors and tags.

Inside nothing seems to have changed over the years. Two ratty sofas molder along a wall at the gym's entrance. Patched, soiled punching bags hang from the ceiling like apparitions in the gray light. Even the dank air seems to be coated with a dull veneer of sweat and grime. Plastered on every wall are layers of fight posters, publicity photos, snapshots of boxers and boxing insiders. There's a Don King of fifteen years ago standing next to Tuto Zabala, who looks barely older today. Eight-by-tens of Salvador Sanchez, Wilfredo Benitez, Ken Norton, Michael Spinks. There are pages torn from Ring magazine, flyers announcing long-forgotten bouts at the Mahi Temple, Miami Jai Alai, the Seville Hotel.

Colombian junior middleweight Nicolas Cervera rides over on his bicycle every day, toting a boombox and CDs. “Music is mandatory in this gym,” declares trainer Roberto Quesada, a bodybuilder with an angular jaw and curly brown hair. “The music helps you get into a rhythm when you're working out.” And so to the lilting vallenato of Colombian singing idol Carlos Vives, Ali Baba slips into the ring to begin nine rounds of sparring, three each with three different fighters.

“[His winning opponent] last time was heavier than him,” says his trainer Napoleon Abby, “and he only had three days to train. You need to spar three or four times to be prepared for a fight.” In protective headgear and cup, Ali and former featherweight world champ Juan Polo Perez shuffle and circle, ducking and jabbing. Polo Perez connects with two or three combinations to Ali's head; the Ghanaian answers with a right hook. Their skin is already shiny with sweat. A bell sounds and the fighters separate; Polo Perez wanders over to Quesada, and Ali to Abby, who pours ice water onto Ali's face and into his mouth.

When the third round with Polo Perez begins, Quesada commences taping the gloves at the wrists of Ali's next sparring partner, Rodolfo Blanco. The 33-year-old Blanco, a native of Cartagena, Colombia, won the International Boxing Federation flyweight title in 1992, lost it five months later, and had not fought in four years when Zabala brought him to Miami in 1996. Blanco lost his three subsequent matches, but by 1998 he had improved enough to challenge superflyweight champ Johnny Tapia -- in Tapia's hometown of Albuquerque. Blanco lost a decision before a record crowd. That was the beginning of a six-match losing streak that ended with his TKO of Orlando Gonzalez on July 18 at the Club Fantasy Show.

Over the years several Cuban fighters have appeared at the gym, fresh from the island's highly touted amateur system, thinking perhaps of following in the steps of Sugar Ramos, Luis Manuel Rodriguez, José Napoles, or Florentino Fernandez: the last great wave of Cuban warriors. Quesada, who for eighteen years worked within Cuba's state training institution before emigrating to Miami in 1990, knew most of the newer arrivals when they were fighting on the island. “I knew Orlando Milian since he was a little boy,” Quesada recalls. “I knew Giorbis [Barthelemy] and Diobelys Hurtado and Garbey and Casamayor.” Milian and Barthelemy were once under contract to Zabala. Barthelemy now manages himself but still fights on Zabala's cards.

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