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 and his wife still appear shocked at the memory of the traffic stop; Carmen remembers screaming at the officers: “Willy Martinez did this!” and the cops asking her who Willy Martinez was.

When Martinez was arrested in 1988, he pleaded guilty to drug and money-laundering charges and agreed to turn in his associates; two years later he had helped lock up three cops, a DEA agent, and other crooks. His testimony also helped to convict Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud on corruption charges in 1993. (Daoud accepted a $10,000 bribe from Martinez in exchange for lobbying Donald Trump for the closed-circuit television rights to a Trump-sponsored fight in Atlantic City.) Instead of the life prison term he could have received, he was rewarded with a nine-year sentence.

At his sentencing Martinez testified that he had paid the two officers to plant the coke on Zabala and to provide protection and perform other favors. If nothing else the bizarre incident proved to prosecutor Scruggs that in a county where an enormous percentage of the residents were making money from drug trafficking at the time, Tuto Zabala was not. If he had been selling drugs, Scruggs reasons, Martinez wouldn't have had to pay cops to stage a phony bust.

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

Zabala nevertheless got caught up in an unrelated caper right about the time Martinez was busted. Since promoters always need financial backers for their fights, Zabala surely listened with great interest when a Los Angeles jeweler, Roberto Alcaino, came to him in early 1988. Alcaino wanted to coproduce a championship spectacular, but not because he loved the sweet science. He needed to clean $50,000 in dirty cash, and boxing events -- which usually lose money -- are great laundering vehicles. Alcaino and Zabala formed a company, Antillas Enterprises, to promote an April 1988 contest at the Miami Beach Convention Center between Zabala's superflyweight champion Beby Sugar Rojas and Gilberto Roman.

Neither Zabala nor his partner was aware that U.S. agents had infiltrated Alcaino's large drug-importing and money-laundering operation. Alcaino was just part of a complex international network involving the Medellín drug cartel and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The Rojas-Roman bout was a thrilling and bloody twelve rounds, with Roman winning a split decision. But five months later, a federal grand jury in Tampa indicted Zabala, Alcaino, and 83 other people in several cities on 43 counts of drug trafficking and money laundering. In 1989 Zabala entered a secret plea and began serving a five-year prison sentence.

In early 1991 two-time Olympic gold medalist Jorge Luis Gonzalez defected from Cuba's boxing team during a competition in Finland. News of the towering heavyweight's flight was followed with great interest by professional agents and everyday Cuban exiles. Zabala was still in prison at the time, so Tutico and his father's old political and professional associate Antonio Veciana jumped on a plane to Helsinki. So did Luis De Cubas, a rival promoter (and Cuban) also based in Miami. Gonzalez wasn't easy to find. But when he emerged, Tutico had him signed to a contract that promised a $30,000 bonus, a car, and a food and housing allowance. But De Cubas claimed he had signed Gonzalez first, and soon afterward Gonzalez notified Tutico that he had decided to go with De Cubas, who had convinced him he would regret making a deal with a convicted felon, Zabala Sr.

Once in the United States, Gonzalez began what everyone expected would be a stupendous pro career by steamrollering every opponent. Tutico and Veciana filed a lawsuit contending their contract with Gonzalez was the valid one. In mid-1992 the parties agreed that De Cubas would manage Gonzalez, but the Zabalas would be paid (no dollar amount was mentioned) to go away. In a June 1995 title fight, then-heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe knocked out a sluggish and poorly conditioned Gonzalez in the sixth round. After a subsequent string of losses, Gonzalez has won his last few matches, but he's now in his midthirties.

Zabala was released from prison in June 1991 and took up where he'd left off (“I just need my phone and fax machine, and I'll be ready to go,” he told the Herald). Tutico had been filling in admirably, and Allstar resumed staging regular cards, televised by Univision, at the Miami Jai Alai fronton.

“Tuto wasn't a criminal guy,” says Ferdie Pacheco. “He didn't have any profession besides boxing, and most everyone in boxing has some other profession. I don't know how people survive [in boxing] with nothing to back them up. He was doing what Cubans call resolver, and the answer was drugs. He didn't cry about it. He just said, “Well, this is what it is. You do your time.' He's always been incredibly optimistic and happy, one of the few guys everybody liked.”

For a few years, until the spring of 1998, Allstar and Don King Productions had a copromotion deal, though the relationship between Zabala and King goes back to the early Seventies, when Zabala was still in Puerto Rico. “I sent him four-round fighters, three-round fighters,” Zabala recalls. Their association ended during preparations for that 1998 Wilfredo Vazquez-Naseem Hamed confrontation in England. King had wanted Vazquez to fight the WBA mandatory challenger, Antonio Cermeno, whom King promoted. Zabala logically went for the more lucrative and higher-profile bout.

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