Thin sunlight moved across the Atlantic like a weary pelican and came and went through the hotel room. Below, a ribbon of sand was filled with young women just down from half-hour lunches and Saturday night at the movies next to the home-town bookkeeper, women who stared at the Latin men—the ones with eyes of the hunter, hats tipped for romance and hands ready for a stake that will get them back in a domino game or down on a cockfight—and saw only Valentino-Greco dancing toward their tiny slice of sand. Above, in the room, just the whir of a film projector bruised the silence.
But there was another sound, and if you are familiar with the career of Jose Torres, the light heavyweight champion of the world, you could hear it. It was the sound of six violins, two trumpets, two guitars and one bass, a longing, grieving, emotionally romantic sound. Torres has been listening to this sound for a long time now, and it expresses what he feels inside, a bewildering feeling of unfulfillment and rejection. "What do my countrymen want from me?" he asks. He then pauses, and says, "I am the champion."
He is, but few in San Juan, Puerto Rico respect him as a fighter. Once, there and in Spanish Harlem, he was a symbol of all that his people wanted to be, but now the mention of his nickname, "Chegui," brings only an expression of dyspepsia to a Puerto Rican's face. Much of his unpopularity has to do with that long period when Cus D'Amato had him. The Puerto Ricans wanted their symbol to fight, but Cus was not interested in symbols. He picked the spots for Torres. The people picked on Torres.
"How come you no fight?" his people asked.
October 23, 1966
"I fight," he always said.
"Yes, you fight," they said. "Bums you fight." The words cut deeply.
"Maybe my people have left me, but with this fight I will bring them back to me," said Torres in his room, watching the picture on the wall of Scotland's Chic Calderwood taking an inordinate amount of time to dispose of a popgun named Yolande Pompey.
"Calderwood, he has a good jab," somebody in the room said. Torres, sitting on the bed and wearing a gold, saucer-shaped Catholic medal around his neck, nodded and then yawned. Pompey having been finally cuffed into unconsciousness, the crowd moved into another room in the suite, the floor of which was covered with nickels and dimes.
"It's a Puerto Rican custom," said Trainer Johnny Manzanet. "It brings luck. Everybody who comes in the room throws a nickel on the rug before they leave."
Jose Torres needed neither luck nor much of anything else to earn his $60,000 purse against Chic Calderwood last Saturday night in San Juan's muddy, gnat-smothered Hiram Bithorn Stadium. And if he appeared a trifle uninterested before his third title defense and threw more pap than usual at the voracious Puerto Rican press, it was understandable. Calderwood, personally and artistically, could not sell tickets to a free beer party in a Glasgow pub.
Torres had to do all the selling of the fight—ringside seats were ludicrously overpriced at $50—but he did not have to work too hard. His countrymen, thousands of whom watched his sparring sessions, always turn out for a Torres light, mainly because they want to make sure they are there when Torres finally decides to make a good fight, decides to be the symbol the Puerto Rican people used to carry with them when they landed at Kennedy Airport and began from scratch in Spanish Harlem.
Unfortunately, Torres had tampered with Puerto Rican emotions in his previous fights in San Juan. He knocked out Gene Hamilton and Duilio Nunez but he gave them a disappointing draw with Benny Paret and a wrestling match with Tom McNeeley, and he was humiliated by Florentino Fernandez. But against Calderwood, who is the British Empire champion—though the British do not seem aware of him or his title—it would be different. So they came hoping, marching to the dissonant, high-pitched croaking of the croqui around the stadium, and they left not quite certain as to what they had seen.
It was all so dramatically quick. It looked good, too, but had their passion for physical destruction been fed, had their suspicions of Torres been removed? "Torres," said an observer before the fight, "is in a tough spot. If he knocks the Scot out in the first round, they will say the Scot was a stiff anyway. If he takes the Scot all the way, they will say Torres doesn't have any guns. Torres can't win with his people. They don't care about the art of the sport here. All they want to see is two guys messing each other up. All Torres can do is collect $60,000 for the easiest fight of his life."
It was, even Torres had to admit, a pleasant way to make money. In fact, he seemed to anticipate the pleasantness. Climbing into the ring to a hesitant roar—the fans seemed unwilling to cut loose—he was smiling, and he smiled broadly at Calderwood when the latter entered the ring through his corner. Calderwood, in a plaid robe, moved his pale, old English fighter body across to his own corner, and then sat motionless. When the Puerto Rican anthem was played, Torres sang a soft duet in his corner with his bow-tied trainer.
Moving out of his corner somewhat reluctantly, Calderwood, erect, wearing frayed black shoes, circled Torres and threw a jab every half minute. Torres, usually volcanic in the first round, cooperated, and threw only a minimum of light punches. But early in the second round Calderwood flicked out a jab, and Torres rammed a right hand over it. The right, a perfect punch, crashed into Calderwood's chin, and the tall Scot went down. After he was counted out he got up and, still dazed, started crawling out between the ropes. By this time Torres was leaping high in the air. Surely, he seemed to be saying, they must believe in me now.
"The press here has put all those thoughts in the heads of my people," said Torres. "I was just glad that I could show my people tonight that I am a great fighter."
The Puerto Rican press may or may not be responsible for Torres' situation in his homeland, but it certainly was the most obvious character in the most interesting, comic and absurdly stupid part of the Torres-Calderwood fight. The weigh-in, usually a soporific ritual, overflowed with conflict, much of which centered around Calderwood's manager, Tom Gilmour, some Puerto Rican reporters and Nat Fleischer, the 78-year-old editor of boxing's Ring Magazine. It began when Torres was being weighed.
Calderwood weighed in first at 175 pounds, but Torres was half an hour late for his appearance. In every weigh-in in the history of the world both fighters were present and were weighed one after the other—but not in Puerto Rico. Torres, it seems, had appeared an hour before the official ceremony, got on the scales and found that he was one pound over the 175-pound limit. He then put on a heavy sweater, and went running in the hot sun. When he finally did appear for the weigh-in he stood on the scale, and the boxing commission official shouted that Torres was 175.
Everyone seemed relieved and started walking away, when a Reuters reporter turned to Tom Gilmour and said, with typical English detachment: "Tom, old boy, I think he weighed 176." Enraged, Gilmour demanded that Torres be weighed again. Nobody was listening to him, but soon his demand was crashing over the room.
"Bring him back! Bring him back!" Gilmour screamed in a thick Scottish accent.
"We cannot do that," said a Puerto Rican official. "If we do that we will be saying that we are stupid."
"You are!" shouted Gilmour.
"We are not," said a Puerto Rican reporter.
"You're not only stupid," bellowed Gilmour over somebody's shoulder, "you're all a bunch of crooks."
"Nat Fleischer," a reporter said, pointing to Fleischer standing meekly behind the scale. "Nat Fleischer, there is a recognized authority. Tell him, Mr. Fleischer, what was it? Wasn't it 175?" Nat extended his hands omnipotently, and then wagged his head in a manner which could be taken for a yes or a no.
"What's he know?" said Gilmour. "I don't even like the idea of him being a judge for this fight. He's so old he can't even see."
The argument continued for an hour, and the room was filled with the Scottish and Puerto Rican tongues colliding. Finally Gilmour relented, went back to the hotel with Calderwood and brewed their char (tea) and solemnly ate English biscuits. Inadvertently, Gilmour was the star of this fight, but that hardly appeased him. All he wanted to do after the fight was to get back to civilization, away from this island, where life seems like an Arthur Murray dance party.
As for Torres, who can estimate his special problem? He was quite proud of himself in the dressing room, and correctly so. When he wants to be, he is the most exciting and entertaining fighter in boxing today. He just didn't have a chance to prove that fact against Calderwood, and a week from now his countrymen will be just as uncertain of his skills as ever. But Torres is a long way from the time only a few years ago when he told a writer: "I have wasted so much of my life as a fighter. I don't have a penny."
Now, although being the light heavyweight champion is like being the Vice-President of the United States, he is making money from his title. He will get $80,000 to defend it against Dick Tiger in Madison Square Garden in December, and his career as a singer is moving along, he says.
"I have four records out," he says.
"What are they about?" he is asked.
"Romance," he says. "I am a romantic. I like to sing about love. Love is a beautiful thing. I love my fans, and I want them to love me, but if they don't, what can I do? What do my countrymen want from me? I am the champion."