By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Johnny Torres and a bunch of his relatives have put up a boxing ring in the middle of the spacious Club Fantasy Show, a nightclub in Little Havana. By ten o'clock on this Tuesday night the card is well under way, and a thin haze of cigarette smoke hovers tenuously in the air. Cocktail tables draped with white cloths have been pushed together around three sides of the ring. Here sit Florida Athletic Commission officials, the fight judges, a few journalists pecking at laptops, and two Galavision commentators with headphones who scrutinize a pair of color monitors while exchanging observations on the action. One of the commentators is three-time world champion Wilfredo Vazquez, elegant and catlike in a black tux.
Torres stands ringside, thumbs hooked jauntily in the belt loops of his jeans. The long-retired fighter, 42 years old, is training for a comeback bout he hopes will take place later this month (“Against a stiff,” he allows cheerfully). In his decade-plus of retirement, Torres has been setting up and taking down this ring at almost every one of Felix “Tuto” Zabala's local boxing programs. Zabala used to be his manager too, way back when Torres was 30 pounds lighter and punching his way out of the lime groves of Homestead. In recent years Zabala has been guiding the career of Torres's son Rocky (his real name), a popular local heavyweight.
On the raised canvas, Colombian flyweight Rodolfo Blanco connects with a right to the head of Orlando Gonzalez, a scrawny Cuban who probably experienced worse moments on the raft he piloted to Miami six years ago. Each punch, like a high-powered water sprinkler, propels sprays of sweat off both bodies. Gonzalez reels, then charges, but his right hook misses. Sections of the tightly packed audience begin to yell, then burst into a chant: Cu-ba! Cu-ba! Cu-ba!
As the bell sounds, only one card girl is waiting to mark the rounds, and she's not the usual bimbo in a thong bikini. This girl, who attracts only a few wolf whistles, has cropped fuchsia hair and wears black capri pants with a strapless lace bustier.
Miami boxing promoter Zabala recently inked a deal with Galavision and has staged two programs here at the Club Fantasy Show, although he says he may move to a hotel on Miami Beach. Telemundo broadcasts additional Zabala cards at the Mahi Temple and at the Curtis Ivy Police Athletic League gym in Homestead. The day after this fight, Zabala will ship a video of the matches to WAPA-TV, Channel 4, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The station will air the show, and from there the video will be distributed throughout Latin America. Zabala has been following this practice (independent of his network television deals) for about two decades now, ensuring that the programs reach his most passionate audiences.
New owners recently remodeled the Club Fantasy Show, but it retains the faux-decadent ambiance of its former incarnation, the long-time Calle Ocho landmark Club Copacabana. The room, which usually features live Latin music acts, is perfect for boxing, with seating on stepped tiers and up in the high balcony. The décor is somewhere between country estate and opium den: black walls paneled with mirrors and Asian-style brocade tapestries, other surfaces of rough-hewn stones. Spectators bunch around tables, stand hip to hip at the bar, sit in rows of chairs, or drape like snakes along the balcony railing overhead. Maybe half the audience is drinking alcohol, mostly beer. It's a local, small-venue kind of fight crowd, nothing fancy or Las Vegas about it (despite the club's stab at glamour): insiders and aficionados; working and retired boxers; and their wives, girlfriends, and kids. Attire ranges from suits to sweats.
Tuto Zabala wears his customary outfit of jeans, a short-sleeve print shirt, gold chain, and brown leather loafers. He cuts an imposing figure, more than six feet tall and substantially built. Although he is one of the boxing world's best-known impresarios, he dresses and behaves so unpretentiously he could easily be mistaken for just another Cuban downing a cafecito at the Versailles coffee window across the street. Sixty-two years old, Zabala's vaguely mournful face is only now becoming lined with age. His thick straight hair has been gray for as long as most of his friends can remember. While the action plays out in the ring, hot-white TV lights casting an electric fizz over the straining bodies, he stands back and surveys the scene. Someone wants to talk to him, and he moves off to confer; soon someone else needs him. In the cool, dim, vaporous air away from the kinetic disturbance in the ring, his image fades in and out of view as he works the myriad details of a boxing program, taking care of the business he's tended for almost four decades now.
There is some irony in the choice of venue. When Zabala moved to Miami two decades ago, this very building was the popular Copacabana, named after Havana's famous hotel. It was a wild time in Miami. Just as the first waves of post-Castro Cuban exiles were consolidating their political and economic power, 125,000 Marielitos and millions of drug-trafficking dollars began flooding the area.
The money and disorder contributed to something of a boxing renaissance in Miami during the Eighties. The Copacabana was a favorite party spot of boxing high rollers, chief among whom was the ostentatious promoter Willy Martinez. Zabala says he first met Martinez at one of the lavish banquets the promoter used to throw at the Copacabana. Most who knew him suspected Martinez's wealth came from sources other than boxing, namely drugs, Miami's growth industry in those days. But nobody was going to ask, certainly not the producers of Miami Vice, who used Martinez's waterfront Miami Beach mansion in various episodes.
Not long after their meeting, before things began to go wrong for both men, the flashy Martinez and the easygoing Zabala copromoted a title fight. They later became bitter enemies, loudly accusing each other of dirty dealing, of stealing fighters and money. Arrested in 1988 on drug-trafficking charges, Martinez secured himself a reduced prison sentence by helping prosecutors snag his many accomplices. Just in recent weeks, rumors have placed a surgically altered Martinez back in Miami, walking incognito through his old haunts.
Regardless of where Willy Martinez is, he's not promoting boxing in Miami. Nor are most of the town's other key players of the Eighties and even the Nineties. Over the years they've dropped out for one reason or another -- age, arrest, addiction; some simply threw in the towel. The fans who formerly packed venues such as the Miami Beach Convention Center, the Miami Jai Alai fronton, and Tamiami Park now stay home and watch the fights on TV. But Tuto Zabala is still around and still putting on a good show. His soul, like Miami's, is in the wide, Spanish-speaking world to the south. Zabala has been working in Latin America and with Latin fighters probably longer and more extensively than any other active promoter. “Tuto is the man in Miami,” declares Ferdie Pacheco, the famed “ring doctor,” television commentator, and renaissance man. “Latin America is filled with people who want to come here and be fighters, and they all come to him.”
“To me he's the best promoter in Miami,” says boxing historian Hank Kaplan, who has been immersed in the industry even longer than Zabala. “He puts on an artistic show. It flows properly; the timing is right. His matches are entertaining. He simply knows his stuff. The other [South Florida-based] guys are Johnny-come-latelies, and I don't think they're real good promoters.”
Zabala, however, is an example of more than survival in a brutal and unpredictable industry. His story takes in a generation of Cuban exiles who reinvented Miami by reinventing themselves to succeed in a new world. Zabala hadn't planned to make a career in boxing, but his new reality pushed him into the middle of a profession that draws people from the edge -- those who have to inventar or resolver, as the Cubans say, to stay alive -- the kinds of people driven to risk and lawlessness. When Zabala says he knows everyone in the fight game, he's stating a fact. He has been right there in the middle of all the blood and sleaze, and he hasn't come out pure and innocent. But he's also lived a remarkable saga, a life that invites speculation and exaggeration. For his part Zabala rarely volunteers information and is not inclined to reminisce.
Still, apart from his personal triumphs and misadventures, Zabala has staged some of the best boxing matches of the past half-century -- even if they weren't for $13 million purses or watched by 13 million cable subscribers. He has, in fact, nearly perfected the more intimate art of club boxing, even as this wonderfully rambunctious phenomenon is becoming an outdated curiosity.
Alex “Ali” Baba, a 29-year-old fighter from Ghana whom Zabala brought to Miami about sixteen months ago, has just walked in the door of El Viajante restaurant on Flagler Street and 74th Avenue. With him is his trainer, Napoleon Abby, also from the capital city Accra; they've just come from their daily two-hour practice. Zabala has invited the pair for a late lunch of arroz con pollo, a Viajante specialty they've grown fond of. Ali Baba is a sinewy 112 pounds; Napoleon's six-foot frame is well padded. He has a wide, easy grin and loves to debate and drink beer, while Ali is quiet and watchful. Both miss their wives and children back in Ghana, but they're even more determined to return home, one day soon, with a championship belt and some money.
“Ali!” calls Zabala, turning in his seat at the restaurant bar. His expression is somewhat regretful, even when he smiles. Reaching out to shake hands with the fighter, he asks in accented English: “How are you? Ready for arroz con pollo?”
Ali smiles and confesses quietly: “I can't sleep because last time I lost.” His perfect 16-0 record was blemished two weeks earlier in a match at the Club Fantasy Show, despite a large African cheering section in the balcony. He hopes the loss won't affect his number two ranking by the World Boxing Council (WBC) in the flyweight division.
Zabala flutters his hands as if dismissing Ali's anxiety. “Oh, don't worry about it,” he insists, shaking his head. “That was nothing. That's not going to stop you.” (Indeed Ali would go on to win a July 21 match at Miami's Mahi Temple and reach number one in the WBC rankings.)
If anyone can talk about picking yourself up and taking up where you left off, it's Tuto Zabala. His cell phone rings, and as he talks, in Spanish, he walks quickly into another room of the restaurant. Ali and Napoleon are shown to a table Zabala reserved the day before. Everyone at the place knows him. Soon the waiter brings plates heaped with mounds of glutinous yellow rice and chicken. Zabala returns and places his cell phone on the table beside his plate. Trainer Roberto Quesada, who works with most of Zabala's fighters, was calling from Juarez, Mexico. One of their boxers is scheduled for a six-rounder the following night. The atmosphere south of the border is a little edgy, reports Quesada, because of the national elections scheduled to start the morning after the fight, and there'll be no alcohol sold after midnight.
“Have another beer,” Zabala urges Napoleon. “Iced tea for you, Ali?” The fighter, having made quick work of his lunch, nods. Zabala orders a scotch and water for himself.
After about a half-hour and another phone call, Zabala excuses himself to return to his office; an associate is waiting to see him. He calls goodbye to the restaurant owner and strides outside into the blinding sun.
Zabala's Allstar Latin American Promotions office is squeezed into a tiny storefront on the upstairs level of a strip mall in west Miami-Dade, not far from where he and his wife, Carmen, live. Allstar represents about 50 boxers (not all very active) from several nations, the majority from Puerto Rico and Colombia. Zabala and his son, Felix Jr., have managed (in addition to three-time champion Wilfredo Vazquez) world champions such as Edwin “Chapo” Rosario, Manuel “Olympico” Herrera, Miguel “Happy” Lora, Beby Sugar Rojas, Alfredo Escalera, Pedro Padilla, Carlos Mercado, Angel Espada, and Esteban de Jesus.
These days Zabala travels with his fighters to bouts around the world, though out-of-town dates come sporadically, and sometimes only Quesada will accompany the combatant. Until a year ago, Felix Jr., more commonly known as Tutico, had done most of the jetting around. Now 32 years old, Tutico began working for his father at age 15, helping out as a cornerman during fights and as an all-purpose assistant trainer. “And then when I turned 18,” Tutico recalls, “I wanted to become a manager, so for my birthday present I asked my dad for a couple of fighters. One was Beby Sugar Rojas; the other one was Freddy Delgado from Puerto Rico. I managed Rojas for the world title in 1987.” Over the years Tutico became a respected manager, matchmaker, booking agent, and promoter in his own right. Last year, though, he got a job offer he couldn't refuse: general manager of one of the National Football League's European farm teams, the Dragons, in Barcelona, Spain.
Zabala Sr. first learned about Ali Baba from the boxer's representative, whom Zabala met at a WBC convention in South Africa about eighteen months ago. Zabala signed up Ali before he'd even seen him in action. “I don't need to see a fighter sparring,” he explains. “All I see is the eyes and how they talk to me. I can tell if they're going to lie to me. I can see how dedicated they are.”
While some seasoned observers question the infallibility of that approach (and point out, indulgently, that all boxers lie), there's little doubt about Zabala's skill at evaluating fighters. He never would have lasted this long without it, or without the equally ineffable gift for making a match -- throwing two unpredictable guys in the ring to get the right fight on the right night. And somehow arranging the hundreds of variables that go into producing a show fans want to see.
Not many people are successful doing this job fight after fight, month after month. The more optimistic promoters labor under the impression that they'll make it to the top if they just get smart and lucky enough to sign a superstar. And if they find a Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard or Oscar de la Hoya, they can indeed ensure their fortune. Tuto Zabala, though, has never had that kind of spectacular break. He brings up talented fighters who compile good records; a fair number win championship belts. But only a few consistently turn back serious challenges or just keep fighting and winning enough important matches to earn big money and respect.
“Tuto had some guys who could fight,” says Don Hazelton, former long-time Florida state athletic commissioner and current boxing commissioner for Miccosukee Indian Gaming. “I think Tuto has got more time [as a promoter in Florida] than anybody else. He does a lot of “little guy' fights that are very popular in the Hispanic community. Some of his [fighters] are shopworn, but he gets a good fight out of them. He always winds up with a sponsor or two and a television contract. He had some kids who fought for titles and some who went places, but he's not considered to be a paragon as far as getting them out [of the lower levels].”
Dean Lohuis, chief boxing inspector for the California Athletic Commission, claims his state hosts the most boxing programs in the nation; Lohuis knows Zabala and most of his boxers. “Generally when [Zabala's] fighters come over here, the shows have been good,” Lohuis observes. “The commission has experienced no problems with him -- what he says, he does, and his finances are in order. Some of his out-of-state shows I've seen were poor and some good, although when his fighters step up to the next level, they lose.”
Zabala professes no dissatisfaction with his place in the industry. “I know my limits,” he acknowledges, raising an arm, palm up, as if stopping traffic. “I go only so far.” And that's how it is with many of his best fighters, time after time. They are handsome and charismatic, and they look good in the ring against not-so-good opponents. In Miami's Hispanic melting pot, entire immigrant communities rally passionately around them. A few years ago Nicaraguan junior middleweight Jorge Luis Vado drew thousands of adoring nica fans, no doubt hoping he'd be the next Alexis Arguello as he took out opponent after opponent.
In late 1995 the undefeated Vado got the call he and the Zabalas had been waiting for: a nationally televised shot at one of the best fighters in any weight class, American Terry Norris, for a title bout in Phoenix. Unlike their managers, fighters can't afford to acknowledge their limits; they have to believe they're the greatest or they can't get in the ring. Vado climbed in and clearly was inept next to the agile Norris, who knocked him out early in the second round. Sportswriters later questioned why such a mismatch even was allowed on TV. Then Vado lost a subsequent match in Nicaragua and retired briefly. He returned to the ring but never recouped his earlier glory, either in Miami or his homeland.
Tuto Zabala can't remember when he bought this funky, smothering-hot garage of a gym on NW Eighteenth Avenue just south of Miami Jackson High, but it was at least ten years ago. The gym once was named after beloved Cuban trainer Caron Gonzalez, but a few years after Gonzalez died (in 1996), Zabala renamed it for Wilfredo Vazquez, he explains, because “everyone names places for someone who died, but [Vazquez] has done something when he's living.” (Vazquez, a three-time world champion flyweight, in 1998 relinquished his World Boxing Association crown in an unsuccessful challenge to World Boxing Organization king Naseem Hamed in Manchester, England.)
In addition to the formidable Vazquez, boxers from dozens of nations -- hall-of-famers to neighborhood gangstas -- have trained here. Graffiti artists recently decorated the gym's façade with bold colors and tags.
Inside nothing seems to have changed over the years. Two ratty sofas molder along a wall at the gym's entrance. Patched, soiled punching bags hang from the ceiling like apparitions in the gray light. Even the dank air seems to be coated with a dull veneer of sweat and grime. Plastered on every wall are layers of fight posters, publicity photos, snapshots of boxers and boxing insiders. There's a Don King of fifteen years ago standing next to Tuto Zabala, who looks barely older today. Eight-by-tens of Salvador Sanchez, Wilfredo Benitez, Ken Norton, Michael Spinks. There are pages torn from Ring magazine, flyers announcing long-forgotten bouts at the Mahi Temple, Miami Jai Alai, the Seville Hotel.
Colombian junior middleweight Nicolas Cervera rides over on his bicycle every day, toting a boombox and CDs. “Music is mandatory in this gym,” declares trainer Roberto Quesada, a bodybuilder with an angular jaw and curly brown hair. “The music helps you get into a rhythm when you're working out.” And so to the lilting vallenato of Colombian singing idol Carlos Vives, Ali Baba slips into the ring to begin nine rounds of sparring, three each with three different fighters.
“[His winning opponent] last time was heavier than him,” says his trainer Napoleon Abby, “and he only had three days to train. You need to spar three or four times to be prepared for a fight.” In protective headgear and cup, Ali and former featherweight world champ Juan Polo Perez shuffle and circle, ducking and jabbing. Polo Perez connects with two or three combinations to Ali's head; the Ghanaian answers with a right hook. Their skin is already shiny with sweat. A bell sounds and the fighters separate; Polo Perez wanders over to Quesada, and Ali to Abby, who pours ice water onto Ali's face and into his mouth.
When the third round with Polo Perez begins, Quesada commences taping the gloves at the wrists of Ali's next sparring partner, Rodolfo Blanco. The 33-year-old Blanco, a native of Cartagena, Colombia, won the International Boxing Federation flyweight title in 1992, lost it five months later, and had not fought in four years when Zabala brought him to Miami in 1996. Blanco lost his three subsequent matches, but by 1998 he had improved enough to challenge superflyweight champ Johnny Tapia -- in Tapia's hometown of Albuquerque. Blanco lost a decision before a record crowd. That was the beginning of a six-match losing streak that ended with his TKO of Orlando Gonzalez on July 18 at the Club Fantasy Show.
Over the years several Cuban fighters have appeared at the gym, fresh from the island's highly touted amateur system, thinking perhaps of following in the steps of Sugar Ramos, Luis Manuel Rodriguez, José Napoles, or Florentino Fernandez: the last great wave of Cuban warriors. Quesada, who for eighteen years worked within Cuba's state training institution before emigrating to Miami in 1990, knew most of the newer arrivals when they were fighting on the island. “I knew Orlando Milian since he was a little boy,” Quesada recalls. “I knew Giorbis [Barthelemy] and Diobelys Hurtado and Garbey and Casamayor.” Milian and Barthelemy were once under contract to Zabala. Barthelemy now manages himself but still fights on Zabala's cards.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”