José Luis Torres, the former light-heavyweight champion of the world who forged a successful career as a journalist outside of the ring, has died in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He passed away from respiratory failure after suffering a massive heart attack. He was 72 years old.
Jose Torres was born on May 3, 1936, in the beach portion of Ponce, Puerto Rico. He joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 and learned how to box in the military. A natural, he made the U.S. Olympic team and won a silver medal in the junior middleweight division in the 1956 Olympics. After leaving the Army, José Torres moved to New York City, where he trained with the legendary Cus D’Amato, the man who trained and managed heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. (D’Amato would later rescue a delinquent named Mike Tyson from juvenile detention.)
Nicknamed “Chegui,” Jose Torres turned professional in 1958 in New York, KO’ing George Hamilton in his first pro bout. Through 1959, he had an undefeated record of 13 wins and one draw with 11 KO’s, the draw coming during his San Juan debut in a 10-rounder against the superb Cuban fighter Benny “The Kid” Paret, who would go on become world welterweight champion. He remained undefeated until 1963, when he was KO’ed by the Argentine boxer Florentino Fernandez, giving him a 26-1-1 record.
Training strenuously for his next fight, he won a decision against middleweight champ Gene Fullmer’s brother Don (a future champion himself), part of the process of positioning himself for a title shot. José Torres got his shot against light-heavy champ Willie Pastrano, on the night of March 30, 1965, at Madison Square Garden. In the ninth round, Torres KO-ed Pastrano, becoming the Light-Heavyweight Champion of the World. He was only the third Puerto Rican to win a world boxing title, and the first Latin American to win the light-heavy belt. He was touted as a likely contender for the heavyweight crown held by Muhammad Ali.
Torres made a foray into the heavyweight division against Tom McNeely, the father of future Mike Tyson rival Peter McNeeley, in a non-title match in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He won a ten round decision over McNeely, and then returned home to the light-heavy division to successfully defend his title three times. He faced the respected former middleweight champion Dick Tiger, a Nigerian who had lost his title to beefed-up welterweight champ Emile Griffith, for his fourth title defense on December 16, 1966. Torres, the sports press, and the fans considered it a routine defense, but they had not counted on Tiger’s tenacity and his will to win.
José Torres lost his crown to Dick Tiger in a close decision, and then failed to win it back in a rematch five months later, losing a split decision.
Torres fought only two more times, in 1968 against Bob Dunlop in Australia, and against Charlie “Devil” Green in New York in 1969 after a fifteen month layoff. The Devil nearly KO’ed Torres in the first round, sending him to the canvas, but he came out in second round with a burning fire in the belly, and knocked out his tormentor. Torres retired from the ring after that bout. His final record was 41 wins and 3 losses against one draw, with 29 KO’s in a total of 45 bouts.
José Torres had been befriended by the writer Norman Mailer, who often wrought about pugilism. Torres taught Mailer how to box and in return, Mailer taught the aspiring journalist how to write. In that bygone era of a generation ago, it was not always easy for a person of color to get a break in the writing game as the media was still dominated by whites.
According to his obituary in Latin American Herald Tribune, although he was an American (Puerto Rico had been won from Spain during the Spanish-American War and Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917, in time to be drafted for the First World War), at the 1956 Olympic Games, José Torres always identified himself as Puerto Rican, never as an American.
“Despite having represented the United States, Torres told everyone he was Puerto Rican, always wore the Puerto Rican colors and went around with the island’s Olympic delegation.”
That Puerto Ricans faced discrimination in the continental United States, one need look no further than the smash hit Broadway musical West Side Story, which dramatized the conflict between whites and Puerto Ricans in New York City. The show debuted the year before Torres turned pro.
Despite facing discrimination as a person of color, Torres persisted in his attempts to forge a new career outside the ring, and ultimately, he triumphed. Writing for various New York newspapers, inclding New York City’s Spanish-language newspaper El Diario La Prensa, Torres developed a humanistic style that established common ground with a wide range of constituencies, not just sports fans.
José Torres wrote two books, the boxing biographies Sting Like a Bee and Fire and Fear: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson.
on the heavyweight champs on Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, respectively. Tyson, like Torres, had been trained by Cus D’Amato, and one day, the young boxer told Torres in front of D’Amato, “Someday, I wanna be like you – what you are – champion of the world.”
In 1997, José Torres was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Torres’ fame as a light-heavy arguably is second in the history of the division only to the great Archie Moore, a perpetual contender for boxing’s heavyweight crown in the 1950s, who was voted by the Boxing Writers’ Association as the greatest light-heavyweight ever. Aside from achieving a Hall of Fame boxing career, Torres established himself as a respected journalist, lecturer, and humanitarian, and continues to be a hero to the Puerto Rican people while earning the respect of everyone. Torres served as a New York State Athletic Commissioner from 1984 to ’88.
José Torres serves as a presiding supervisor for the World Boxing Organization. In 2007, he moved back to his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico where he continued to write about sports and history and serve as a cable TV sports analyst for ESPN Deportes.
He was also a columnist for the New York Spanish-language newspaper El Diario La Prensa and was admitted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997.
The obituary for Torres carried in the Latin American Herald Tribune quoted Jose “Toto” Peñagaricano, the former president of the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission. He claimed he would always remember José Torres as a perpetually pleasant person.
“Chegui’s life was quite a story,” Peñagaricano said. “He was a tremendous champion and a person involved in the New York State Athletic Commission and much more.”
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