"Boxing is Mexico's sport," declares 25-year-old Osvaldo Garza, another Johnny Torres protege, who won one professional fight in July 1993 and then was sidelined until last month with a broken foot. Garza, a bearded, round-faced heavyweight, used to walk to the gym from Florida City with his boxing gear in a plastic grocery bag. He was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital to a Mexican mother and Mexican-American father and began boxing at age eleven. He served in the U.S. Army during the invasion of Panama and in the Persian Gulf War, and he has written some poetry, including a poem comparing Mexican boxers to speedy, unstoppable foreign sports cars. "I am a Mexican by blood," Garza asserts. "Being as I grew up in Florida, I'm labeled Chicano. But all the time, my roots are in Mexico."
Johnny Torres wasn't thinking about Mexican roots when he got serious about boxing at the late age of seventeen. He'd simply found that the controlled violence of the sport was the perfect medium for his anger.
"I used to hate everything and everybody," Torres recalls. He killed birds with a BB gun; he roared through the labor camps, chasing people into their houses and running over dogs. He sold empty bottles to make a little change, but kids at school still made fun of his worn clothes. And when Torres was about fifteen, he discovered Ben Lonic's boxing gym on North Flagler in Homestead.
Lonic, a club fighter in Newark, New Jersey, during the Forties, moved to Homestead in the Seventies as part-owner of a hotel. He soon became involved in training local youngsters and in producing boxing matches. "He trained them, he developed them, he put on his own shows and gave them exposure. He loved his fighters and took excellent care of them. He controlled them in a sense," says boxing historian Hank Kaplan. "After a while they were ready to turn professional. He would book them in professional boxing shows, and on and on, hoping and dreaming he would develop someone of great stature A which never happened, of course. But he had a lot of exciting nights trying."
When Torres came to him, Lonic was managing a few moderately successful professional fighters he'd started as amateurs, notably Kenny and Steve Whetstone and Dexter Smith, all of whom were street kids who had eaten most of their meals at Lonic's table for years. Torres found that he couldn't wait to stop work at 5:00 and get to the gym. And when he began entering amateur contests, he discovered he had little trouble beating his opponents. It all came naturally. Lonic taught him some skills, Torres says, but never encouraged him. In fact, he remembers arriving more than once for a match to find Lonic working his opponent's corner. After a handful of amateur fights, Torres turned pro in 1979, at nineteen. He and Rosa could use the money, he rationalized; they already had two children. Of course there was also the chance he would stun everyone and box his way to fortune and fame. Why not?
For three years he worked in the fields by day, trained by night, and fought when he could. He made $75 for his first pro fight, $125 for the second, then $250 and $300. He won each bout easily, he recalls. Then he fought a televised bout with former amateur champ Johnny Compo. He lost in a split decision. The next year he won his first Florida state championship, and suddenly he didn't have to go back to the fields. The Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department offered him a teaching job. He and his father also started a small business farming green beans, but that fell victim to the big freeze of 1983, losing thousands of dollars.
Lonic died in 1981, shortly after acknowledging in a Miami News article that he regretted never believing that Johnny Torres would amount to anything.
Torres doesn't hold that against the old man. "He'll never die," he says. "When kids come to me with problems, I think about, 'What would Ben Lonic have done?' I repeat what he told me, and it works. Sure, he made a few mistakes, but I learned a lot from him."
Says Hank Kaplan: "Lonic came from a very rugged background and wasn't that cultured. Some of the matches he'd make for his fighters weren't to their greatest advantage. He gave them all the love he could, but he was only capable of so much. I was at his funeral. He was a very, very popular guy in Homestead and loved by a lot of people. Johnny Torres was one."