He was sitting on the edge of the table, staring into the doctor's eyes. His nose looked like the side of a big hill. The eyes were empty, and above each one there were jagged cuts held together by thin strips of clamped tapes. But the real hurt was visible only when he moved off the table, and then his body hung slightly to the left and his face expressed pain when he walked. Wayne Thornton had taken an unforgettable beating.
"I told you I was tough," he said. "I'm California tough."
Thornton was indeed that. For 15 rounds last Saturday night at Shea Stadium a crowd of 12,000 watched Light Heavyweight Champion Jose Torres hammer Thornton with everything but the scoreboard, watched Torres flirt with true greatness and finally witnessed a fight that for pure elemental conflict stood out like Thornton's nose. It was, if your sensibilities could stand it, a magic night for boxing.
It was also a fight that was actually over in the first round. Midway in that round Torres, a 9-to-5 favorite who was making his first title defense and first appearance in a year (in New York's first outdoor show in six years), delivered the blow that finished Thornton. He slammed a right to the back of the challenger's left kidney, and it jacked Thornton up for the eventual devastation. Then, spinning to the left, Torres dug a left hook to the other kidney and followed that with a right cross. Thornton was on his way down, and Torres kept chopping away until Thornton was draped over the ropes. He was down twice in that round, but he survived, and that was all he would do the rest of the evening. He had nothing left.
May 29, 1966
Willie Pastrano, who was at ringside, pointed to Thornton after the first-round butchery, raised his eyebrows and spread his hands by his heart. Thornton had to have all heart now, he was saying, and who should have known better than Willie? The punch that caught Thornton, the one behind the kidney, was similar to the one that Torres used to destroy Willie's heart—and career.
Still, Torres did not come out of the round undamaged. He had a cut extending the length of his right eye, where Thornton had butted him. He had difficulty seeing out of it until the eighth round, and between the second and eighth he was not the fighter he had been in the beginning. Chiefly, he appeared tired and discouraged because he had not been able to put Thornton away. He did, however, open cuts above both of Thornton's eyes in the fifth round.
Thornton was staggered again in the eighth and ninth, and at one point he caught nine straight blows to the head. After that series Torres just shook his head. If he was annoyed at Thornton's indestructibility, he was even more disturbed by his opponent's back-alley tactics. Thornton heeled, held (mainly Torres' left hand, the one that kept raking the right kidney), butted and used his shoulder. In the eighth, after a verbal exchange in a clinch, Thornton stuck his tongue out at Torres.
"Man, he ees a dirty fighter," Torres said later in the dressing room. "He uses terrible language, too. But I don't mind. I just don't like when he grab my nose and start twisting it. One time he did that and I say, 'Hey, man, let her go.' I also kept sayin' to him, 'Man, you can't fight. I can fight. You punch like a little girl.' "
Thornton did not apologize for his crudity. "Sure," he said, "I knew I was fouling him. Why not? I'd have hit him over the head with the stool if I could. This was for the title."
To be certain, the title in itself is enough to inspire any fighter, but there was a bit more at stake for Jose Torres in this one. He was searching for an identity that he had lost. A proud, intelligent man, he has always wanted to be a symbol to his people. "I only knew I owed my people," he said, telling of his thoughts before the Pastrano fight. "I could only think about my position as the champion. Important people would listen to me, people who could help improve the conditions in which most Puerto Ricans live."
When he did become champion, he returned to Puerto Rico as that symbol. "The government offices closed, the schools closed," he said, "and the sick people waved to me from hospital windows and I heard the sirens of the firehouses and the ringing of church bells.' Then it all changed. He did not defend his title for a year, the main reason being that he had a pancreas condition. But the Puerto Rican people did not understand anything about—"what you call thees?"—pancreas. Heroes fight, and they fight often. A fighter is not a politician or a writer (Torres wants to be a writer). A fighter just fights.
"I want to win sensationally," he said before meeting Thornton, "so I can convince my people that I am a hero."
Torres did all of that, and was every bit as good as his words. "Now I am a professional," he had said while in training. "I can do many things I wouldn't dare do before. I am on the verge of being an artist." Torres has always had quick, powerful hands that explode into deadly combinations, but equally impressive in last week's fight was the way he moved. When he threw a right to the kidney he was in and out, spinning and cutting to the other side, where he would shoot a left hand to the other kidney or hook to the head. The moves were fluid, and more than anything they reflected a man who knew his business and knew that his business in the immediate future is going to be making money out of his title. His biggest purse prior to Thornton had been only $14,850. For this one Torres received $75,000. Thornton collected $25,000, some of which he will have to squander on a nose job.
"One day I'll get it fixed," said Thornton. "Maybe when I'm through fighting. But I don't pay much attention to it anyway. I've got a lot to show for it."
He had chopped cotton in Louisiana when he was 10 years old, and then he moved to California, where he rode "sickles" and the waves of the Pacific and where, as a kid, he looked for fights and usually found them. But now Thornton is all respectability, the owner of four apartment buildings and an insurance agency, and he walks around forever smiling like a guy who has put something over on the world. "Why do I always smile?" he asks. "Why not? I never thought life could be this good."
This, of course, was said before the fight. Afterward it took a while for the old buoyancy to reassert itself. When it did, his smile told anyone who was interested that Wayne Thornton's life does not change because of one beating. Yes, he was disappointed, but that was only because he had been so impotent against Torres. All he could do was hold on. His plan had been to crowd Torres, to stay in command and to go to the body early and then to the head.
"I just didn't have anything left after that punch to the kidney in the first round," he said. "We thought Torres would fold between the second and eighth rounds, but he didn't. Even if he had, I couldn't have done anything. Sure, it seemed he'd forget to throw to the kidney for three rounds, but then he'd come back and—rap, rap, rap!"
Would he fight Torres again?
"I'd do it once a week. Just give me time to rest," he said, and then, as if remembering something he should have never forgotten, he added: "Willie Pastrano warned me of that kidney punch. He said he got hit there by Torres, too, and that he saw yellow spots. I saw them, too."
Over in the other dressing quarters, which were jammed with such friends as Norman Mailer and Peter Falk and a phalanx of his countrymen, Torres sat in a little office before coming out to the main room. When he did emerge, the Puerto Ricans started shouting: "Here he comes, here he comes! Make way for Jose." Torres found his way to a table and stood on it. The cameras flashed, and the questions fell. "Yes," he said, "I saw Clay fight on television this afternoon. I think I had a tougher time with Thornton than I would with Clay."
"Arriba, arriba!" his followers squealed in response to the answer.
The literary profession, it seems, will have to struggle along a while longer without the services of Jose Torres. The proud Puerto Ricans could not be happier. Arriba!