The fight ended with a frenzied sellout crowd screaming happily, a brave and rugged middleweight out on his feet, fans scrambling into the ring and the victor seizing the microphone between gloved fists to shout in Spanish an invitation to his next fight two weeks hence. It was another triumph for José Torres, stablemate of Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson and the most promising young middleweight around, the special idol of New York's multitudinous Puerto Rican colony.
Last Thursday night's fight at Sunnyside Gardens was only Torres' ninth professional bout but in that brief period he has become the sensation of the small clubs of the city, to which he draws bigger crowds than Madison Square Garden gets for most of its televised attractions. It ended, as usual, in a knockout, this time over veteran Ike Jenkins in the fifth round. No other ending would have satisfied the Puerto Ricans. When Torres fights they demand a knockout, with howls of "¬°Ahora!" as they sense it is coming and a thumbs-down gesture that points to where they want to see his opponent. Before each Torres fight they patronize peddlers who pass among them hawking pictures of their hero, including one which features a Spanish calendar. During the preliminaries they whistle at girls, boo the boxers in the ring and have a glorious time betting on the round that the knockout will come in. They do not bet against Torres.
All this is fine and healthy for the sport, but it signalizes an important change that has come over it.
In this time of prizefighting's decadence even a very promising new boxer must be no less than sensational to impress the old hands of the sport because, they tell you, television is a cannibal that eats up bright young fighters when they are tender. It is hard nowadays for a beginning boxer to learn his art. If he is good there is danger that he will be rushed too fast into the contender ratings. In the old days a promising young fellow was given years of seasoning and scores of fights, all of them educational, before he was taken too seriously. Benny Leonard had 107 professional fights before he was allowed to try for the lightweight title. Sugar Ray Robinson had 75 before he won the welterweight championship. Other great men of the ring waited even longer for their glory. Consider the case of Archie Moore, who had 17 years of fighting behind him before he won the light heavyweight title.
December 15, 1958
So the old hands around Stillman's Gym sigh a little these days when they see the tempest of excitement being stirred up in New York by José Torres, who already has acquired an impassioned following of fans and is even being talked of as a future champion. In his eighth fight Torres drew one of the largest crowds in 20 years at St. Nicholas Arena. His fans, who are mostly Puerto Ricans, too, at present, will assure you that José is ready right now to take on Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight title.
José, who has sparred with Robinson, does not deny this.
"I think I hurt him," he says, and adds with quiet enthusiasm for himself, "I think I could take him."
Torres' self-confidence is astonishing in one so young and with so little ring experience. He is only 22 years old and started boxing when he was 18, which is three to five years late in the opinion of most trainers. But he has justified it in every fight.
"My only problem now," says José, "is that I don't know yet whether I can go a really fast 10 or 15 rounds. I will have to find that out first. Then I can tackle some big name fighters."
He will not find it out soon, the way he has been going, because he generally stops his man early. His opponents at this stage, naturally, have been unranked and even pretty much unknown, but they have included veterans who might reasonably have been expected to solve the puzzles that the Torres style imposes on opponents. None of them has been able to do it. So far he has not been hit a really hard blow in any pro fight.
Some extremely keen minds have been fascinated by this problem in ring chess. Champion Sugar Ray, a master of the moves, studied the style and decided he knew the answer. Recently he backed the experienced Otis Woodard to prove it. The astute Ray coached Woodard before the fight, and he counseled him in his corner during the fight. At the end of the first round Sugar Ray was pleading with Woodard to throw uppercuts. Woodard threw uppercuts, and at the end of the second round Robinson was pleading with him to protect himself against right-hand smashes to the jaw. At the end of the third Sugar Ray was suggesting that Woodard might try pulling Torres' head toward him with his left hand the while he banged away at it with his right, a sign of desperation since this is not precisely a legal maneuver. At the end of the fourth Sugar Ray had little to say, and at the end of the fifth a doctor stopped the bout to save Woodard from needless punishment. In the howling crowd of Puerto Ricans at St. Nick's a brother of Torres jumped up and down with joy.
The Torres style, so seemingly insoluble, derives from that of his stablemate, Heavyweight Champion Patterson, who has not been solved yet either. Patterson, taking a rather special pride in his protégé, has been giving Torres pointers.
The style was created by their manager, Cus D'Amato, who calls it "boxing out of a defense." It provides an instant and punishing answer to every one of boxing's half dozen standard punches. It is sometimes ridiculed (Charley Goldman, trainer of Rocky Marciano, calls it "the peekaboo style"), but it is the most successful style around right now. It helped make Patterson champion, and it has made Torres the idol of New York's 640,000 Puerto Ricans, not to mention quite a few other aficionados of no particular ethnic persuasion.
The Puerto Ricans are the latest immigrant tide to flood New York. They have been flocking to the city at a rate which sometimes has exceeded 50,000 a year. Their predecessors—the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Negroes from the South—all in their turn have contributed members to the royalty of sport, but it is doubtful if any similar group ever has exceeded the enthusiasm of the citizen-immigrant Puerto Ricans for an athlete. It is understandable. Crowded into slum areas and working at menial jobs, they have little else to cheer about. But in sport they have put up to national acclaim a few representatives like Ruben Gomez, former Giant pitcher, and in boxing they have given us Sixto Escobar, the bantamweight champion of the '30s. The Puerto Ricans are hungry for another hero at the moment and José Torres is it.
He is worthy of it—a young man with a fine air of dignity about him and the warm friendliness of a puppy.
Torres took up boxing at the late age of 18 simply because he was in the Army and was tipped off that if he made an athletic team he would automatically be relieved of grubby details that he hated.
"These fellows told me that if I made a team I would not have to do K.P.," he explained, "so I picked boxing. I thought it would be good to know about it."
He gives credit to Master Sergeant Pat Nappi as "the first who taught me to fight with my hands up," a training that made it a fairly simple matter to adapt to the style D'Amato teaches. Most young fighters hate to keep their hands up. It is tiring, for one thing, and it looks timid. But with hands up José beat everyone he met in the Army, then went on to reach the finals of the light middleweight division in the 1956 Olympics, where he was defeated by the Hungarian veteran, Laszlo Papp. It was the third Olympic title for Papp, who had knocked out Spider Webb in the 1952 Games. Torres takes some consolation in the fact that he lost to him by a single point.
At 22, Torres stands 5 feet 10 inches tall and, his handlers believe, will have no difficulty staying within the 160-pound middleweight limit from which Patterson graduated to heavyweight caliber. He boxes now at about 160 pounds. He has good shoulders, nicely muscled arms, legs that look tireless and a calm, disciplined approach to fighting that seems very un-Latin. Outside the ring he has the gentle ways of any well-raised young man, speaks politely to his elders and most respectfully of D'Amato, whom he regards as another father.
Boxing prestige has meant a great deal to Torres, more than the eight suits and 14 pairs of shoes he has accumulated since he began to fill the small clubs of New York. He has begun to see the sport as a means to greater success, wealth and fame. He still lives in an $11-a-week room in Brooklyn, but in the future he sees a pleasant apartment and marriage to his girl, Ramona Ortiz, who comes to his room once a week with her mother to tidy it up. Torres feels marriage is now about a year away. His first few fights paid him a mere $250, but when he began to appear at St. Nick's he was clearing close to $2,000 a fight. D'Amato so far has refused to take the usual managerial percentage from him.
"There will be time enough when he begins to make important money," D'Amato says. "I'd only have to pay it out in income tax anyway."
Torres is under the immediate instruction of Joe Fariello, a trainer who, at 21, is a year younger than his pupil and has been training fighters since he was 17. After 10 amateur fights, in which he broke his nose and his hands, Fariello was about to quit boxing for a career as a draughtsman when D'Amato, foreseeing a time when he would be too preoccupied with managerial duties to teach his young fighters personally, offered him a post as trainer. Fariello turned out to be a natural teacher with a remarkable gift for clarifying the more complex moves.
TWO PUNCHES TO WORRY ABOUT
"Cus always had a way of teaching fighters," Fariello says, "and he taught me to do it."
The style is quite simple to understand. Its basic position is a semi-crouch, left foot a trifle forward, with both gloves tight against the cheeks. The elbows are extended slightly from the body.
"It's a counterpunching style but you can lead from it, too," Fariello explained the other day at Stillman's. "We say that when you block a punch you should throw a punch, and you can do it from this style.
"The only two punches our style has to worry about are the upper-cut and punches to the sides (see pictures). Some people have the impression that our fighters can be hit in the body. It looks rather open and a lot of them try it. But if, say, an opponent throws a right hand to the left side, Torres' left elbow goes back to block it and he can then hook inside the right. The same applies to a blow on the other side.
"You slip an uppercut and you have a clean left-hook shot to throw or you can just knock it off with the glove."
Consequently other trainers around Stillman's don't like to have their charges spar with Torres.
"They say it's discouraging," Fariello explained. "The fighter tries to hit him and gets hit back. He can't get a clean shot at Torres himself. A trainer doesn't want his fighters to become discouraged."
One of those Torres has discouraged is Joey Giardello, the No. 4 middleweight. They sparred recently and, says Fariello, "Torres almost knocked him out." Torres is not, however, a sensational puncher. He succeeds mostly by attrition, wearing his man down until the fight is stopped.
Both D'Amato and Fariello believe Torres can gain the title some day.
"He can do it," Fariello says, "if he takes care of himself outside as well as he does in the gym. So far he is doing very well. He is not a fast liver. He only goes with one girl. I guess he's a little on the bashful side.
"The tough problem will be to get a crack at the title. Cus has in mind to put him in against as many unrated fighters as possible, because once you start fighting rated fighters it is impossible to get fights below that level. We want José to have all the fights and all the experience he can get."
For that reason, and because of D'Amato's antipathy for the International Boxing Club and television generally, you are not likely to see José on your home screen very soon. The TV monster will not be allowed to devour him.