Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mike Lupica

Boxing's renaissance man

Jose Torres commanded

ring & respect

AP

Jose Torres gets over hard right to head of Gomeo Brennan at Miami Beach in 1964.

For the old-timers, the ones who come out of fight nights at the old Garden and out of a much older New York, it will always be 1965 for Jose Torres, when he was young. It will be the night at the old Garden when he beat Willie Pastrano, dancing and jabbing and finally body-punching his way to a TKO. He became the light-heavyweight champion of the world that night and seemed to have won the championship of the city as well. Jose Torres came from Puerto Rico, but by then he was more here than there.

The next day he made his first stop as champ at 110th and Lexington Ave., climbed up on a fire escape and addressed a crowd of thousands.

"This is for everybody," he said, and told the crowd that if he could do something like this in the city of New York, anything was possible.

But he was so much more than just a prizefighter, even if that is how the world first knew him. He became the first Latino columnist in town, at least in an English-language paper, when my old boss, the great Paul Sann, put him to work at the old New York Post. He would later become a commentator on television, and radio host, and in the 1980s even became the New York State Athletic Commissioner.

He was a friend to Norman Mailer, who was once brave enough to get into the ring with him, and Pete Hamill. He once said that Pete had given him his first book and how he now owned more than 800 of them, and was confident that "Pete's responsible for six or seven hundred." He had a good enough voice to sing a ballad one time on the Ed Sullivan Show.

"I keep telling you," he used to say to me, "I am more a lover than a fighter."

Jose Torres wrote books about Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, and spent so much time trying to save Tyson from himself and what he called the "parasites" around him. And became a friend to Robert F. Kennedy when Kennedy became the U.S. senator from New York.

Kennedy wanted to learn about the city, to know the city, and not just the avenues of power in Manhattan. So Hamill and the late Jack Newfield became guides for him in those years. So did Jose Torres. They would get in the car at night and drive the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, get out and talk to the people who lived in them. A Kennedy doing this, and the kid from Puerto Rico who had won a silver medal in the '56 Summer Olympics, won the 160-pound division of the '58 Golden Gloves, would later end up in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.

And Kennedy and Jose Torres would talk through the night. One of the things they talked about was what Robert Kennedy talked about in speeches in those days, about how within 40 years a man of color would be President. It was why Torres thrilled so much to the run Barack Obama made to the nomination and finally to today, even though he was back in Puerto Rico by last year, there to write and grow old as gracefully as he had fought once.

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