- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

It’s rare - almost unprecedented, in fact - to find a boxer who can produce punchy prose as well as punches. Possibly the only such multitalented individual was Jose “Chegui” Torres, the former Olympic medalist and professional light heavyweight champion who died of a heart attack at 72 last month in his native Puerto Rico.

After his career ended in the late 1960s, Torres began a notable second life as a chronicler of life inside and outside the squared circle. He turned out columns for the New York Post as the first Hispanic sports writer at a U.S. newspaper, often commented on politics and eventually wrote acclaimed biographies of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

During his boxing days, Torres became a favorite of such renowned New York writers as Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer and Budd Schulberg. When Torres decided to beat on a typewriter instead of opponents, Hamill served as his coach and noted, “It didn’t take long before Chegui could write and write very well.”

Bert Sugar, a boxing historian who co-wrote the Ali book titled “Sting Like a Bee,” put it this way: “He was a damn good writer in two languages.”

Mailer, the famed author and do-it-yourself sportsman, did the introduction for the book and remained close friends with Torres. The two sparred as late as 1984, when Mailer was 61.

Why did Torres write? In his own words, he “wanted people to look at boxing from a more humane point of view, making them understand that, ultimately, boxing is a contest of will and character where triumphs are decided by the power of the mind, not of the flesh.”

As you might expect, Torres was not the shy sort. Looking for one last payday late in his career, the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder encountered heavyweight champ Ali at a luncheon.

“C’mon, man, you and me,” Torres said. “We’ll pack them in.”

Never one to be outdone, Ali turned to Torres’ wife, Ramonita, and said: “OK, but you have to feed him lots of rice and beans. Only then can I make money for your man.”

The two never fought, more’s the pity. Undoubtedly, Torres would have been in over his head, but he would have carried the fight to Ali as long as possible. You see, Jose never lacked for heart.

Torres was a protege of Cus D’Amato, a manager who also nursed Floyd Patterson and Tyson to fistic prominence. After watching Jose win a light middleweight silver medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, D’Amato said, “This kid will be a champion, and it won’t take that long.”

Actually, it took nine years before Torres got a title shot and stopped light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano after nine rounds in March 1965. Before the bout, Torres refused to enter the ring at Madison Square Garden unless the Puerto Rican national anthem was played along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The next day he took the championship belt to the corner of Lexington Avenue and 110th Street, climbed on a fire escape and shouted, “This is for everyone!”

Torres held the crown only 21 months before losing a decision to Dick Tiger. By that time, Jose was tired of boxing at age 29. Mailer helped him land the job at the Post, and his writing career was under way.

“You might say Jose’s interest in staying a champion was compromised by the other interests he had,” former trainer Teddy Atlas told thesweetscience.com Web site. “He was a bright guy and a good writer. As those abilities got polished… they began to draw Jose away from boxing a little bit.”

Torres’ last fight was in 1969 against Devil Green, a former sparring partner who was brought in as a last-minute substitute when a scheduled opponent withdrew. Expecting an easy night, Torres was almost knocked out in the first round but recovered to flatten Green in the second. Afterward, he told one and all that “when my sparring partner comes close to knocking me out, it’s time to quit.”

So he did, permanently, at age 33. Torres won 41 of his 45 fights, 29 by knockout, and went on to other things. He became involved in political pursuits, From 1984 to 1989, he was the first ex-fighter and first Hispanic to serve as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. And, of course, he continued to write for the Post, the Spanish-language El Diaro, the Village Voice and other publications.

In the New York Daily News, boxing writer Bill Gallo ended his tribute by describing Jose Torres this way: “A good fellow, good fighter, popular man who commanded the attention of fighters and writers alike. … S’long, my friend. You did splendidly.”

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