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TUTO ZABALA: THE GREAT PROMOTER
By Enrique Encinosa
For four decades he was a promoter and manager of fighters. He handled world champions, contenders and four round pugs, traveled the world and knew the fight game as few others ever did.
The story begins in 1960, at a time when Felix Zabala, known to his friends by the nickname "Tuto," was a young bank executive in Havana. The former university basketball player had an easy manner and warm smile that hid his dangerous double life.
Havana in 1960 was a dangerous place to live. Fidel Castroís new dictatorship had tightened the screws of repression, the firing squads executing over a thousand resistance fighters in little over a year since the revolution had gained power. In the cities, resistance fighters bombed electrical plants and oil refineries, torched government warehouses and gunned down informants and Castroís police officers. In the countryside, anti-Castro guerrillas fought militia forces, burned down crops and blocked highways. The nation was involved in a civil war while the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the October Missile Crisis loomed in the near future.
Tuto Zabala, smiling bank clerk and former basketball star at the University of Havana, was a member of the anti-Castro resistance, processing paperwork by day and transporting weapons or hunted resistance fighters by night. Suspected of links with the resistance cells, Tuto was detained and interrogated by the feared State Security agents.
Realizing that his days as a secret conspirator were ending, Tuto Zabala left Cuba before the State Security interrogators caught up with him once more. Without an exit visa or passport he devised a clever escape plan, assisted by underground contacts. Dressed as a KLM Airline employee, clipboard in hand, Tuto walked down the runway, stood stiffly while passengers for a flight walked past him, then nonchalantly followed them, boarding the outbound plane to freedom.
Once in the United States, Zabala settled in Puerto Rico where he became a charter member of Alpha 66, an anti-Castro paramilitary organization that launched commando raids and infiltration teams into Cuba.
Residing in San Juan, the former bank executive turned revolutionary was flat broke, with a young wife and children recently arrived from Cuba that needed feeding, so Tuto became a boxing promoter, nailing posters to telephone poles, hawking tickets, matching fights and cutting deals.
It did not take Zabala long to out hustle the competition. The six-foot three promoter learned the trade quickly, giving the fans what they desired, which happened to be middleweight Florentino Fernandez.
Florentino was a Cuban middleweight who compiled a career 50-16-1 record with 43 knockouts facing champions such as Jose Torres, Gene Fullmer, Emile Griffith and Dick Tiger. Fernandez had a left hook that crushed jawbones and Zabala matched him against other sluggers in ten round wars. Hiram Bithorn Stadium was packed when Fernandez knocked out Dulio NuŮez and future champ Jose Torres, while winning and losing with tough Argentine brawler Rocky Rivero.
Fernandez and Rivero fought four wars, two in New York and two in Puerto Rico. Each man won two and each stopped the other once. Both middleweights were sluggers with vicious left hooks, a no retreat strategy and a marked disdain for defense. They locked onto each otherís body as targets and dropped their bombs without much concern for exploding flack coming their way. There was little footwork and zero jabbing. Hooks were lead weapons, followed by nasty uppercuts and looping, clubbing rights.
Rivero, billed as the South American middleweight champion, had a habit of holding up promoters for more money. Zabala had a signed contract for Rivero to fight Fernandez for five thousand dollars, which was a very fair purse in 1963, a thousand more than the standard fees for network television shows.
The day Rivero was due to arrive in San Juan, Zabala received a phone call from Buenos Aires. With less than a week to go for the highly publicized fight, the Argentine refused to fight unless the fee was doubled.
"Very well," Tuto answered, "You got me in a bad position. Come in tomorrow and Iíll give you half at the airport."
Rivero thought he had hustled Zabala, but after the fight, when the Argentine asked for the second payment, Tuto shook his head.
"The receipt you signed at the airport for five thousand is an acknowledgement of full payment as stipulated in the original contract," Zabala answered, "I suggest you go back to Buenos Aires."
"Those fights between Floro and Rocky were some of my best promotions, big packed houses," he once told me, "and the profit all went to Alpha 66."
Tutoís first champion was Dominican Republic native Carlos Teo Cruz, a busy lightweight with a good chin and a light punch. The shrewd Zabala knew how to match Cruz and the fighter obliged, beating Frankie Taylor, Grady Ponder, Frankie Narvaez, Vicente Derado, Chico Veliz and a score of top guns of the time. Cruz was champion in 1968-1969, beating Carlos Ortiz and losing to Mando Ramos. Teo Cruz had a 42-13-2 record in a career that stretched from 1959-1970.
Tragically, Teo Cruz and his family died in an airplane accident in 1970. Zabala always referred to the accident with sadness.
"It was such a waste," he once said, "Carlos bought a farm with his ring earnings. He had bananas and different kinds of fruit trees, hogs, chickens and milking cows. He had a nice wife and two beautiful kids and they all died in that accident. It was one of the saddest days of my life, to see a young family vanish. Teo was a very nice man. He deserved better."
The next Zabala champion was Vicente Paul Rondon, a competent Venezuelan fighter who was WBA Light-heavyweight Champion from 1971-1972. Rondon, a fighter who enjoyed nightlife and alcohol, compiled a 40-15-2 record, making and spending a small fortune before heading back to a life of poverty in Caracas.
"Rondon was a good fighter," he remarked about the Venezuelan, "but he would not listen. As soon as he had a couple of dollars heíd go partying."
From the early sixties to the late seventies, Zabala promoted several hundred pro cards in San Juan, booked Puerto Rican fighters to fight in Europe and the United States, traveled the world, trained fighters, worked corners and was involved in a dozen world title fights. Besides Florentino Fernandez, Teo Cruz and Vicente Rondon, Tuto Zabala promoted Alfredo Escalera, Angel Espada, Jose Gonzalez, Pedro Miranda, Sammy Serrano and a bushel of main event fighters and prelim club fighters.
By late seventies the seasoned promoter moved to Miami. He began by signing up a dozen Mariel boatlift refugees with amateur experience in Cuba. All of the prospects fizzled, quit or were relegated to prelim status within a couple of years, but Zabala became established in Florida during the elimination process.
I met Tuto in the early eighties. At first our relationship was limited to a few nods or pleasantries. After a few years as an amateur light heavyweight I stayed active in boxing writing for almost all of the trade magazines. My knowledge of the sport and the hours spent hanging out at Caronís or at the Fifth Street Gym led me to book a few fighters and manage others. I did occasional matchmaking and was involved in public relations work with three promoters, including the famous Chris Dundee. My hobby had turned into a full time job while I worked at a free lance writing career.
"How come you work with every promoter except me?" Zabala asked me, point blank when I attended one of his fight cards.
"Because you never asked me," I answered and he laughed in response.
I became Tutoís matchmaker and was involved in twelve world title fights and some eighty local shows over a six year period. Sometimes the money was good and sometimes there was no money, but it was never boring.
Once, as I sat on a stool in his kitchen, sipping the extremely powerful concoction we Cubans call coffee, I heard Tuto complain about his finances, bemoaning that the last cards had dented his reserves at the bank.
"In fact," he said, "Iím flat broke right now."
I did not know what to say. I was doing fine but Iím not a believer in lending money to friends because money between buddies leads to complications.
"So," Tuto went on, "what we need is a title fight to generate some money. Letís make a few phone calls."
He got his title fight and enough cash flowed in to bankroll a couple of more shows and build up future contenders.
In the eighties and nineties in Miami, Zabala promoted Wilfredo Vazquez, Miguel "Happy" Lora, Baby Rojas and dozens of other top fighters, most of them in the lower weight classes.
Competition in promotions was tough, so very tough that a competitor set up Zabala with a false arrest on drug charges.
Willie Martinez, a stereotype drug dealer with all the trappings of the trade (sleek limousine, gold chains, trophy babes, bodyguards) entered the boxing game and locked horns with Zabala. Willie Martinez admitted in court that he hired two corrupt Metro Dade Police officers to stop Tuto and arrest him for a planted bag of cocaine.
In TV interviews Zabala had accused Martinez of being a drug dealer and the gold bejeweled Willie did not take kindly to the adequate adjective. After several death threats and the fake drug bust, Zabala survived as Martinez traded his silk threads for prison denim.
Tuto did land in the joint, for a two-year stretch starting in 1989. The promoter who was always strapped for cash accepted a promotional partnership with a California jeweler named Robert Alcaino, who turned out to be a laundering link for the Medellin cartel. One promotion later, Zabala paid the price and learned his lesson. In 1991 he returned to boxing, his promotional company still active thanks to his son, who had continued to promote Caribbean heroes and local prospects.
Tuto was a real promoter, not to be confused with the network executives or the closed circuit super promotion types.
Zabala hustled tickets to taverns, barbershops and restaurants. He distributed posters and leaflets, attended radio talk shows, delivered his own press releases and argued dollars with managers over the phone. In between promotions of his cards in Miami and Puerto Rico, Tuto booked fighters, shipping them off to Las Vegas or Europe.
Every club fight show was taped, with journalist Carlos Fournier and I doing the color commentary. Copies of the tapes were sold to local TV in Puerto Rico, Colombia or any other country at rates that ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
During our tenure together we survived all the conceivable horrors that could occur in boxing promotions.
The Happy Lora-Wilfredo Vazquez weigh-in was a shambles in which all the under card disintegrated as some fighters did not attend up because they were sick or in jail while those that showed flunked physicals for high blood pressure or their fights were scratched when they came in overweight.
In the afternoon of the title bout the only fight holding up was the main event, I called every gym in South Florida leaving the message that any unattached fighter should show up at the arena door, ready to fight. Minutes before the doors opened Tuto showed up at the arena with a bag containing an assortment of spare trunks, used boxing shoes and protective cups. We stood by the arena door as the crowd trickled in, convincing any prelim fighter that showed up to go a few rounds with another local boy.
The show was a success and the prelims were exciting. The tension of the moment did not compare to our trip to Barranquilla, Colombia to co-promote the Happy Lora-Albert Davila title bout. Lora was mobbed like a rock star and a naked woman, a fan with few inhibitions, was arrested as she knocked on the championís door, begging to be allowed to show her gratitude towards "el campeon."
Everywhere we went, soldiers with automatic rifles protected us from possible kidnapers (an entrepreneurial fad in the country) or Marxist narco-guerrillas (a permanent national sore) and being pointed out as member of the Lora team guaranteed free refreshments at any local pub.
Zabala was an extremely clever promoter, a man who knew how to gain psychological edges. Tuto would not fix a fight but he knew how to carry out a war of nerves on the opponent of his own house fighter.
I worked a dozen title bouts with Zabala and a particular one will be memorable. The champion was coming to Miami to defend his crown and travel arrangements made by Tuto were somehow jumbled up and the champ had to come on a flight the following day with a lay over of a couple of hours in Atlanta, arriving late at night. His accommodations were on the first floor of the hotel, near a noisy nightclub in the lobby area and the champ and entourage were unable to get a good nightís sleep. This was followed by an early morning press conference in which a beat up club fighter whispered to the champ that Zabala was short on money and might not be able to pay the full purse, which made the champ extremely upset -- you get the picture. Three days later he was the ex champ and Zabala controlled another top gun.
Am I excusing this behavior? No. In a perfect world it would be different, but Zabalaís actions were no different than those of thousands of corporate heads of American enterprise. He loved boxing but it was also his livelihood and he was better than most at the fight game.
Promoters are supposed to be cold and unfeeling, yet Zabala was always good for a touch. When he had money he picked up the tab and when he was broke he also picked up the tab. He was generous with money but ruthless when he believed someone was attempting to take a slice of his pie.
A stroke ended his career and the once big and loud promoter is now a sick man who sits in silence and has little speech or movement. It is sad to see him that way, for I much prefer to remember him hoisting Wilfredo Vazquez off the canvas, picking him up as though he were a child, or arguing with a member of the boxing commission at a weigh-in, trying to convince him that a last minute substitute was qualified to fight a six round bout.
Thatís the Tuto I remember.