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.

The club boxing industry in Puerto Rico, too, was beginning a slow decline. Many of the venues that had seen so many ferocious slugfests were closing; it became harder to put on local fight events as television focused on the big-name cards that U.S. casinos paid huge fees to host. Club boxing everywhere was taking a hit, but Miami's economy was no doubt better equipped than Puerto Rico's to withstand such vicissitudes. And Miami occasionally could attract major fights, such as the great Alexis Arguello-Aaron Pryor fourteen-round marathon at the Orange Bowl in 1982.

Neither Zabala nor his family wanted to leave San Juan, but by 1980 he thought he had no choice but to relocate to Miami, where he took a job as regional representative for Muhammad Ali Professional Sports. This new promotions and management outfit had been founded in California by the ebullient promoter Harold Smith. (Ali was paid for the use of his name but wasn't affiliated with MAPS.) Zabala retained his close contacts with fighters and trainers in Puerto Rico, however, and continued to promote events on the island.

Felix "Tuto" Zabala: The man in Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Felix "Tuto" Zabala: The man in Miami

In Miami generations of celebrated champs -- Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Joe Louis, Roberto Duran, and Thomas Hearns, to name a few -- had at one time or another trained at Miami Beach's famous Fifth Street Gym, owned by promoter Chris Dundee (brother of trainer Angelo). After more than 30 years in South Florida, Dundee would continue to promote boxing until he was sidelined by a stroke in 1990. He sold the gym in 1982 to Zabala, the man who succeeded him as the area's most active and enduring boxing impresario. (Chris Dundee died in 1998.)

Zabala sold the gym less than a year after he bought it and began what would be more than a decade (although not uninterrupted) of televised bouts at Tamiami Park and the Miami Jai Alai fronton. The glittery, kitschy Las Vegas-style jai alai complex would gradually lose its sparkle until the management discontinued boxing shows at the end of 1996. But in its glory days (before buckets had to be placed around the floor on rainy nights), the fronton seemed made for the raucous crowds and slugfests, not all of them in the ring; chair-slinging audience brawls weren't unheard of. Carmen Zabala, who worked in her husband's office then, remembers the fronton as her favorite venue. “I loved helping out,” she says. “I loved the press conferences. Everything was fun. Now it's all different. There used to be more families [in the audience]. It's hard to describe, but there just isn't the fanaticada [boxing following] there used to be.” Still Carmen is in the audience at nearly every one of her husband's shows.

Meanwhile, as the Eighties began, Harold Smith, chairman of MAPS, was at the pinnacle of the boxing world and known for treating his fighters like kings. In the space of about three years, Smith had come to control five world champions and a stable of top contenders. But in 1981 he was indicted for participating in what federal prosecutors called the biggest bank heist in history: Smith, an assistant, and a bank officer embezzled almost $22 million from a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Beverly Hills. In 1983, with MAPS disbanded and his stable of champions having bolted, Smith was sentenced to nine years in prison. During the five and a half years he served, news reports noted that he continued to manage some of his fighters' careers from jail.

As Smith was exiting, Willy Martinez was entering Miami's boxing scene, and it was Zabala who helped him put together his first program. “Willy was an insane ride,” recalls writer Enrique Encinosa, who was Zabala's matchmaker in the Eighties. “He came into boxing spreading money. You had to figure it was dirty money; the guy came on like a cliché -- white suits, white limo, blond wife with lots of jewelry, tacky chains. With Willy it was, “Hey, lobster dinners, champagne, a limo for the fighters.'”

The good relations between Martinez and Zabala didn't last. For months they fought over the rights to Miguel “Happy” Lora, the celebrated Colombian bantamweight Zabala had guided over several years to a world championship. (Lora has since retired to his farm in Colombia, but both he and Zabala have said their relationship, after some major contract conflicts, is as close as family.)

In 1986 Zabala had to cancel a show at Tamiami Park because, he claimed, Martinez stole two of the principal fighters on the program. Zabala decided by then that his only recourse was to publicly denounce Martinez as the drug trafficker most people suspected he was. Zabala made the announcement on Spanish-language radio and called a press conference. This displeased Martinez to the point that he paid two Metro-Dade Police officers to stop Zabala and his wife as they were leaving a restaurant. (“The cops were waiting for him with binoculars at a Burger King across the street,” remembers Richard Scruggs, the assistant U.S. attorney who later prosecuted Martinez.) A few minutes into a search of Zabala's car, the officers pulled out a bag of cocaine and handcuffed him.

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