It was August 1981, and the 23-year-old Torres was slated to face Isidoro Moreno, recently arrived from Cuba on the Mariel boatlift, a charismatic boxer idolized by his passionate Cuban fans. Torres, born in Okeechobee into a family of Mexican migrant agricultural workers, knew no one expected him to beat Moreno, whose explosive right hand had knocked out his eight previous opponents. A half-dozen times that long day, under a steamy sky churning with high sea clouds, Torres drove his lime-laden truck to the packing house, unloaded the crates, and headed back into the grove for more fruit. Each trip earned him between five and ten dollars.
Married with five children and the veteran of twenty professional fights, Torres was one of scores of struggling small-time boxers in South Florida. The state championship he sought wasn't sanctioned by any boxing organization; it was, in the words of boxing historian Hank Kaplan, a "mythical title, a creation of some promoter." But it was a championship, and it was Johnny Torres's first shot at a title of any kind.
To everyone's surprise, he won it, knocking out Moreno halfway through the scheduled twelve-rounder. Described by writer Enrique Encinosa in a postfight article in Boxing Today as "a fair puncher and second-rate boxer with the heart of a wounded cougar," Torres had become the first man from Homestead and the first Mexican American to hold a professional boxing championship in Florida. His winnings: $600 and a championship belt. Far more important, he was a celebrity in his hometown, the incongruous little piece of Mexico at the gateway to the Florida Keys.
"It was real tough for me, working in the field and boxing at the same time," recalls Torres, now 36 years old and a good deal heftier than in his welterweight days. "It was horrible, man. And people used to laugh at me, they'd say, 'Send him back to pick tomatoes!' They'd call me a wetback. But after I won that championship, everything was easier."
If the next two years were easier, they were hardly tranquil. Longtime Homestead impresario Ben Lonic, Torres's manager and the man who taught him how to box, died. Torres signed to three straight mismatches, bouts with former world champ Alfredo Escalera and contenders Jesus Nava and Dujuan Johnson, and lost them all. Then in July 1983, in a bid for the Florida state lightweight championship, he knocked out Pedro Laza, a Marielito then considered one of the best local prospects.
With the victory, Torres held the lightweight and junior-welterweight state championships simultaneously. That October, however, he lost his lightweight crown in a split decision against a cocky nineteen-year-old named Juan Arroyo.
Less than a month later, on Thanksgiving Day 1983, Torres faced off against World Boxing Association lightweight champ Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. A year earlier Mancini had beaten Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim so badly that Kim died after the bout. Torres, out of shape and disheartened after the loss to Arroyo, had agreed to the contest only two weeks before A after both Laza and Arroyo had turned it down. With less than a minute remaining in the first round of the nationally televised bout, Mancini caught Torres with a left hook to the temple. The fight was over. Torres was dazed and incoherent for an hour afterward. "All of a sudden, I lost everything," he recalls, ducking his head slightly to the side in a staple boxing defensive move the years have reduced to an unconscious mannerism. "All of a sudden, I was nothing."
Like most fighters, Torres can't get boxing out of his blood. And like countless other former boxers who turn to training and managing when they leave the ring, he dreams of coaching the right kid into that rare warrior who gets the breaks and makes the millions. "I'm going to be right there," he promises, with the unfathomable optimism peculiar to those who've been bruised and cut and scarred so much that they come to believe in beating the odds.
The Police Athletic League (PAL) gym where Torres trains his young hopefuls is a converted garage on North Flagler Avenue in Homestead, next door to a combination bar-package liquor store. Nearly all the boys who come here have picked vegetabl-
+es in the flat fields that stretch out from Homestead; many still harvest crops when they're not in school. The neat rows of squash and tomatoes and the mosquito-thick groves of limes, avocados, and mangoes are hardly inner-city streets, yet this stark setting holds much of the same deprivation and isolation, anger and violence, that impels hungry urban kids to excel at boxing. And as in the urban ghettoes, the life expectancy here can be far too short: One of Torres's best amateurs, eighteen-year-old Alfredo Martinez, was murdered a few years ago, shot to death in a fallow field after being robbed by a teenager who lived in the South Dade Labor Camp.