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.

Some of the Cuban pugilists never could adapt to the U.S. system. They dreamed of glory and riches awaiting them as professionals, but “they're used to the state paying all their expenses, being completely taken care of,” Quesada says, “so when they come here, it's a major shock for them to find out it's a battle every day and that they have to work to survive. The ones willing to learn, they can succeed. But some of them don't want to learn. They become very disillusioned and a lot of them start getting into drugs, and they give up.”

Tuto Zabala also fled Cuba's communist regime when he was young and rebellious. And like the recently arrived boxers, he had to begin a new life under different rules. But that was 40 years ago. Now just about everything on both sides of the Florida Straits -- except Fidel Castro -- has changed radically.

Felix "Tutico" Zabala, Jr., with son Felix at the Vazquez gym, now manages pro football in Barcelona but keeps his hand in boxing
Steve Satterwhite
Felix "Tutico" Zabala, Jr., with son Felix at the Vazquez gym, now manages pro football in Barcelona but keeps his hand in boxing
Zabala and bigtime impresario Don King used to do business together
photo courtesy Tuto Zabala
Zabala and bigtime impresario Don King used to do business together

When Castro's rebel army marched into Havana in the first days of January 1959, Felix Zabala was 21 years old. He worked in a bank, but he and his twin brother, Domingo, also had fought in the extensive underground resistance against corrupt Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. After Castro's government began its transformation into a communist regime, the Zabala family's tobacco farm in Pinar del Río was seized. At about the same time, Zabala's father died of a heart attack. In 1960 an older sister, Hilda, a nun, was among a large contingent of the nation's Catholic clergy expelled from the island. The family heard nothing from her for the next decade.

Zabala again took up arms, this time against the Castro government, though his activities soon were known to the authorities. After he was detained for questioning in August 1961 (the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion had failed in April of that year), Zabala made quick arrangements to flee the island. Only a year and a half earlier, he and his high school sweetheart, Carmen Rego, had married. Their first child, Betty, was less than a year old. On August 25, 1961 -- Zabala repeats the date as though he says it all the time -- he dressed in black slacks and a white shirt and got a ride to the Havana airport -- alone. A friend of his who worked for KLM airlines shoved a clipboard into his hands, directing him to stand at the boarding-gate entrance and check off passengers' names as they filed past, headed for a flight to Jamaica. “Then when everyone had boarded,” Zabala recounts, “my friend took the list from me and said, “Okay, get onboard now.' So I walked in like I was part of the crew, the plane took off, and I got to Jamaica with no problem.”

Zabala lived by himself for three months in a rooming house in Kingston, earning his keep by driving tourists to and from the airport. Then with the help of a network of Cuban militants, he joined the growing exile community in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was among the founders, in 1961, of the paramilitary anti-Castro organization Alpha 66.

Five months after Zabala settled in San Juan, his wife and child and younger brother Armando, only seven years old at the time, arrived from Havana by boat. Carmen had left her entire family back home, where her father owned the Santa Barbara bar in central Havana. Both her parents died soon after she fled to Puerto Rico, but she couldn't return for their funerals. Zabala and his twin, who had shared first-place academic honors at Colegio de La Salle and who looked so much alike they would substitute for each other undetected on the school's basketball team, were separated. Both brothers ultimately wound up in high-profile sports professions, each in its way reflecting the character and culture of his respective nation. Domingo, long a top official with Cuba's treasured national baseball team, now serves as the country's baseball commissioner. The brothers don't talk on the phone but have reunited since the revolution, for a few days at a time, on trips the Cuban team has made to or through the United States.

Besides brother Domingo, two of Zabala's sisters still live in Havana. (Zabala returned to Cuba in 1982 for the first time, for his mother's funeral.) The youngest sibling, Armando, grew up in Puerto Rico, received a degree from the University of Illinois, and for more than ten years worked as a trauma physician in Chicago. He has just moved to Miami. Another Zabala sister, Elvira, now resides near Fort Worth, Texas, where she moved after living almost 30 years in Puerto Rico.

Zabala wasn't interested in boxing when he lived in Cuba. He doesn't remember exactly how he first got into the fisticuffs business in Puerto Rico, but it was a way to raise money for Alpha 66. The paramilitary operations the organization was then conducting were far more serious than today's target practice in the Everglades. Zabala's chief task, he recalls, was transporting men and arms from Puerto Rico to a base in the Dominican Republic. From there small armed groups launched raids into Cuba.

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