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.

At the same time Zabala and his partner, Antonio Veciana, another founding member of Alpha 66, worked hard raising money for la causa, they also learned how to negotiate yet another intrigue-filled netherworld, that of pro boxing. One of their major contacts was Angelo Dundee, a trainer who lived in Miami but worked with an impressive lineup of Cuban and Puerto Rican fighters. “He'd call me and say he needed a couple of fighters, and if I had the talent I'd send them over there,” Dundee recalls. “And any fighter he thought had a future, he'd send him over to me to look at him. We handled a few fighters together, the Hidalgo brothers.” Dundee's older brother Chris was the top promoter in Miami then, staging weekly shows in Miami Beach and always looking for new talent to interest the fans. Most Tuesday-fight nights, Zabala was in Miami with one or two of his fighters.

Prior to the revolution, Angelo Dundee had been traveling regularly to Cuba, bringing in boxers from Miami to fill action-packed cards presented by the legendary impresario Cuco Conde. Cuba before 1959 was, in the view of most observers, experiencing a golden age of professional boxing. But by 1962 many of the best fighters had left the island, and most of them wound up in Miami with Dundee. The venerable trainer, who became famous for his work with Muhammad Ali and eleven other world champions, continues to mentor newcomers (some sent by Zabala) at his new training center in Davie. “Tuto always knew how to recognize good talent,” Dundee says. “He knows all the Latin-American talent. When I got to check up on a Latin fighter, I call him up.”

Boxing fans of a certain generation still talk about the incredible Florentino Fernandez-Rocky Rivero bouts Zabala staged at the open-air Hiram Bithorn stadium in San Juan. “Those were the best fights ever,” declares Dundee, who has seen a few exciting matches in his half-century career.

In his thirteen-year career, Wilfredo Vazquez won three world championships and defended his flyweight title four times
photo courtesy Tuto Zabala
In his thirteen-year career, Wilfredo Vazquez won three world championships and defended his flyweight title four times

“We had two fights between Florentino and Rocky Rivero,” Zabala confirms. “But the money went to Alpha 66.”

Nowadays Zabala gives a more or less set description of his political fundraising activities in Puerto Rico; he declines to go into detail or discuss the stories some tell of gun-running and other violations of U.S. neutrality laws committed in the service of the struggle for a Cuba libre. Tuto and his compatriots “always had the appearance of not having to do with [military activities],” remembers fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco. “If you asked Tuto, he'd just laugh.”

In 1965 Alpha 66 lost one of its chiefs and much of its momentum. Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, attempting to incite insurrection on Cuba's north coast, was captured along with three other Alpha 66 members. He would spend the next 22 years in Castro's prisons. “When Gutierrez Menoyo went to jail,” Zabala says simply, “I gave it up.”

In fact he didn't give up all clandestine anti-Castro activities, and on at least one occasion after the capture of Menoyo he ran afoul of U.S. authorities. Newspaper accounts many years later allude to a conviction in the early Seventies for embezzlement -- but no how, where, or why. Zabala does not want the real story published, he says, because he fears his relatives in Cuba will suffer retaliation as a result of his actions. “It's something to tell in the future,” he concludes.

Tutico says he learned about those days from reading and sources other than his father, who rarely talks about his role in the anti-Castro movement. “It was really hard for him, I know,” Tutico offers. “He lost his youth and a lot of money fighting to get his country back. He always told me he's been a foreigner everywhere he goes.”

“But Tuto wasn't just boxing and Alpha 66,” Pacheco resumes. “He was a promoter in every sense of the word. He brought bands [to San Juan]; he did exhibition baseball shows.” Pacheco remembers one such baseball adventure Zabala took him on in the mid-Sixties, an exhibition series between the then-world-champion Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Indians, in Maracaibo and Caracas, Venezuela. “Tuto calls me and says, “How would you like to go with the Pittsburgh Pirates to play the Indians?' I said I don't like baseball. “Oh, it's free. You'll sit next to Roberto Clemente. We're leaving Sunday. We got everybody.'

“Now, Pittsburgh was it in those days. I said, “You mean everybody? No way you're getting Roberto Clemente to go along.' Tuto says, “We got everybody.' And sure enough there's Roberto Clemente and the whole [Pittsburgh] team on the plane.”

Life in Puerto Rico's boxing subculture, though, offered little big-league glamour. Zabala bore the added burden of being the sole support for his family (though Carmen assisted her husband in tasks ranging from answering phones to taking tickets). Their second child, Susana, was born in 1964, and Tutico four years later. As the Sixties ended, Fidel Castro had survived military incursions, assassination attempts, and a trade embargo. The Cuban exiles, who had expected to be able to return to their homeland within a few years, were growing frustrated.

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