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.

“We don't do business together anymore, but I still consider [King] my friend,” Zabala explains. “We've been friends a long time. I even had a fiftieth birthday party for him; it was about fifteen, seventeen years ago. It was in our back yard. We had lechón asada and black beans.”

Now that Tutico is away in Spain, Zabala has returned to those long days in the office with a phone receiver in each ear. “In the past it was like a vacation,” he laments half-seriously. He rarely visits his gym anymore. “The fighters always ask me for money,” he explains, laughing at his own exasperation.

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

On a wall of Zabala's tiny back office, where his desk sits almost flush with a credenza that holds a computer and fax machine, certificates of appreciation for “Abuela Carmen” and “Grandpa” are taped up among the newspaper clippings and plaques. There's a Best Grandfather award near a mounted 1998 clipping announcing Zabala as Promoter of the Year by International Boxing Digest magazine. In the office anteroom, salsa is playing on a small radio. The fighter Giorbis Barthelemy, dressed like a Ralph Lauren model in rolled jeans and crisp striped shirt, is waiting to speak to Zabala. Roberto Quesada rushes in, out, and back in an hour, escorting Zabala's brother Armando. Florentino Fernandez, the great Cuban middleweight who thrilled the crowds in Havana, San Juan, and Miami in the Fifties and Sixties, stops by to chat for a few minutes, as he does almost every day. Fernandez is still solid and vigorous in his sixties, good health he attributes to his devotion to Santería.

Seated at a desk piled with papers and pamphlets and mounds of business cards, Zabala picks up call after call on his office phone and cell phone, which often ring at the same time. Most are about the upcoming card at the Fantasy or the one four days later at the Mahi Temple. “Yeah, Steve,” he answers one caller. “No, he's a right-hander. Who says that? Let me call Puerto Rico.” Last year Zabala closed down his operations in San Juan, but Puerto Rican pugilists remain a staple of his programs. One of the scheduled fighters is complaining because someone told him his opponent is zurdo, left handed, even though he's not. “A left-hander is tough,” Zabala explains. “Nobody wants to fight a left-hander. But he'll fight.”

Before he can ring up the falsely accused right-hander's manager, he gets another call. “He was supposed to have a visa; yeah I knew, I knew,” he says. “Let me see what I can do.” Then another: “Hay pocos boxeadores y ya tenemos dos semanas.” The show's in two weeks and there aren't enough boxers lined up. A constant hazard.

Former matchmaker Enrique Encinosa remembers one occasion in the Eighties when every bout on the undercard of a Happy Lora-Wilfredo Vazquez match fell through. “One guy had high blood pressure, one guy came in ten pounds overweight, another guy had the flu, another one was in jail, one didn't show up,” Encinosa recounts. “Legally we needed a minimum of 26 rounds to put on the card. So Tuto and I stood at the front door as the fans were coming in. We'd see fighters looking for free tickets as usual, and we'd say, “Want to fight tonight?' They'd say, “I got no trunks.' “Oh, we've got trunks back in the dressing room,' Tuto would say. And we did it; we got enough to put on the show. The [mandatory ring] doctor gave them physicals on the spot.”

Currently, in addition to his regular cards at the Fantasy (or perhaps in the future, a different venue on Miami Beach), the Mahi Temple, and at the PAL gym in Homestead, Zabala says he's working on lining up programs in Los Angeles and Ontario, California, and at an Indian casino in San Jacinto. Plus the series of shows he and Angelo Dundee are discussing, to be presented at Dundee's training center in Davie. Of all the people in the boxing business in South Florida, Dundee, at age 78, may be the only one who's lasted longer than Zabala. “But we're not lasting,” Dundee says of their longevity. “We're just enjoying what we do. We could get along with any situation in our business.”

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