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Torres! Torres! Torres!

Apropos of nothing let's take a moment to appreciate Jose Torres. Here is what Leonard Shecter wrote about Torres for Sport magazine back in 1965:

Tell the life of Jose Torres to music, rippling, sensual Spanish music. Don’t tell it, sing it. Guitairs, clacking claves, men’s voices together in song. The singing is important because Torres is surrounded by noise, the noise of people. Hubbub. Children laughing, running. The trill of spoken Spanish, almost without consonants, flowing like the music.

…The life of Torres is like no other. A fighter who sings, a fighter who did not fight, a soilder who did not train, a man who never finished high school but is a friend to American literati. Norman Mailer. James Baldwin. He lived with Pete Hamill, a young writer who is coming fast. Hamil gave him money. Cus D’Amato, a fierce, bristling man with eyes hard and black and shiny as obsidian, the man who mesmerized Floyd Patterson to the heavweight champship. Cus D’Amato gave him money. His father gave him money. Cain Young, real-estate operator, a tough man with a buck. Cain Young gave him money.

Jose Torres, a fighter who writes for a newspaper. A fighter who sits at the feet of Norman Mailer and tries to learn about writing novels. “Tell me, Norman, when you start a novel, do you know how it will end?”

…What do people like Mailer see in Torres? His English is poor and slurred. He is difficult to understand. He does not close his lips when he talks. He sounds punchy, which he is not. Oh, boy, is he ever not punchy. He laughs. “I don’t speak Spanish good either.” A man in a hurry; quick body, quick mind. No time to speak distinctly. He knows all the words, though. In his basement, music. And a light bag. But books, too. A wall of books. He hasn’t had the time to read them all. He will, he says, only not while he’s champion. “I don’t take my wife everyplace. She is too jealous. She’s got a perceptive mind. She can tell when I like a girl. Or if a girl likes me.” They yell at each other a lot in Spanish. With the hi-fi going. Beautiful.

“He’s alive,” Hamill says. “He’s a champion,” Mailer says in the quick tough monotone he uses. “And bright. He’s bright enough to be an executive of a corporation. And he’s a fighter.”

In a 1996 Esquire essay, Pete Hamill wrote:

In the 1950s, when I was hanging around Sullivan’s Gym and the Gramercy Gym, there were fixed fights. Mob guys like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo had taken over the sport; one lightweight champion loaned his title to others at least twice; the welterweight division was a slag heap. The goal of these fixed fights was the gambling coup. A fighter was given money to lose. If you knew that a 3-to-1 underdog was certain to win, you could make some money. Everybody in boxing knew what was going on. Sportswriters knew, too. Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post called boxing “the red-light district of sports.”

The exposure of those fixed fights almost killed boxing. Older fans turned away; if they wanted fiction, they’d go to the movies. The young took their ritualized violence from pro football or hockey; they found their models of elegance in basketball. The young didn’t start going to the fights until the rise of Muhammad Ali.

As the fight racket lay dying, there were calls for reform, of course. There were investigations, a few indictments. A dwindling number of fight fans shrugged in a fatalistic way. It was futile to rail about the corruption in boxing; it had been there from the beginning, and only a fool could believe in complete redemption. Such fans hoped only that the beauty of the art would somehow survive, like flowers blooming in a garbage dump. They were looking for another Robinson. I was one of them.

Across the years, in spite of everything I knew, my passion endured. Newspapers and magazines paid me to cover fights when I’d have paid my own way. I’ve been thrilled at fights in Mexico City and Dublin, Tokyo and San Juan. When the old Garden was torn down, I kept going to fights in the antiseptic new Garden. Eventually, the pearl-gray hats and pinkie rings vanished. The lush blond molls gave way to anorexic models. I kept going to the fights.

Along the way, I came to believe that fighters themselves were among the best human beings I knew. They were mercifully free of the macho bullshit that stains so many professional athletes. They were gentle in a manly way. It is no accident that for almost forty years now, one of my closest friends has been Jose Torres, who was light-heavyweight champion of the world in the 1960s and later chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. We used to discuss big fights with the passion of enthusiasm.

Not anymore.

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