Name: Willie Pastrano
Birth Name: Wilfred Raleigh Pastrano
Nationality: US American
Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Age at Death: 62
Height: 6′ 0″
Trainers: Angelo Dundee & Whitey Esneault
Manager: Whitey Esneault
Wilfred Raleigh Pastrano was born in the Vieux Carrê district of New Orleans, Louisiana, on 27 November 1935. Wilfred Raleigh Pastrano was born in the Vieux Carrê district of New Orleans, Louisiana, on 27 November 1935. He had a hard upbringing, under the gaze of a strict father who threatened him with the belt if he caught him backing off from a confrontation. 'I used to run from fights,' he told American writer Peter Heller in 1970. 'And papa would see it from the steps. He'd take his belt, he'd say "All right, me or him?" and I'd go beat the kid:
His father worked wherever and whenever he could, in shipyards and factories, sometimes as a welder, sometimes as a carpenter. 'I remember nine dollars a week paychecks,' the youngster recalled. 'Me, my mother, my step-brother, and my father and whatever hangers-on there were...there were always floaters in the family.'Pastrano was an overweight child but, like millions of youngsters at the time, he wanted to be a sports star like baseball's Babe Ruth. However, he was so embarrassed by his size that he joined a gym to lose weight. Even then, the other boys would laugh and taunt him: 'Hey, big fat Willie Spaghetti, this is a fighter's gym, not a wrestler's gym.'
Encouraged to stick with it by boyhood friend Ralph Dupas (who went on to hold the world light-middleweight title), Pastrano borrowed a key and took to working out alone, or with Dupas, late at night. Within 18 months the puppy fat had gone and he had taken his first steps as an amateur boxer. The spaghetti boy's destiny was set.
WILLIE GETS THE TASTE
Originally, Pastrano had no intention of becoming a pro, associating the paid side of the sport with punch-drunk fighters, but in no time at all he was in love with the art. The bug had bitten deep and he won 13 of his 16 amateur bouts. 'I got the taste of it,' he said. 'The taste of the applause, the taste of being in condition the last round while the other guy is getting tired, and knowing you're looking good and doing a beautiful job.'
He was still only 15 when he forgot his early worries about the professional ranks. He lied about his age and won a four-round decision over a local bantamweight, Domingo Rivera, in New Orleans, in 1951. After four fights, all wins as a featherweight, his manager was fined and Pastrano was banned until he turned 16.
In the summer of 1952, he and Dupas – who had actually turned pro as a 14-year-old – were on holiday in Miami, where the age limit was 18, when they lied about their ages again and had some more fights. Pastrano fought six times, Dupas five. before they returned home.
He returned to Miami the following two summers and linked up with Angelo Dundee. who remembered him as a charismatic, glamorous youngster. He had black, wavy hair, a smile like Errol Flynn and a personality to match.
The young Pastrano had put on weight fairly quickly. When he drew a four-rounder with Alvin Pellegrini, in his sixth pro fight. in April 1952, he was 141 ¾ 1b, a light-welter by today's standards. Three months later, when he stopped Buzz Brown in two rounds on his Miami debut, he was 147 ½ 1b, a fully blown welterweight.
GETTING AN EDUCATION
By early 1953, Pastrano was beating experienced pros like Emerson Butcher, from Rock Island, Illinois, and New Hampshire welterweight Chic Boucher, a fighter who had mixed in world championship-class. Then a points defeat by Johnny Cesario, in May 1953, started a run of bad luck which lasted to the end of the year, during which he won only once in five fights. Nevertheless, losing decisions to men like Del Flanagan, a good welter from Minnesota, and Italian light-middleweight Italo Scortichini, provided him with a vital education.
He won seven fights in a row in 1954, beginning with a 10-round main event at the New Orleans Coliseum, in which he shrugged off a few months of ring rust before unanimously outpointing Jimmy Martinez. It was a solid performance, which underlined his potential. Martinez had been knocked out in his two previous fights with Ellsworth `Spider' Webb, but before that had won 48 of 56 outings.
He also narrowly outpointed tough middleweight Jackie La Bua, who was a promising 21-year-old at the time, in September 1954. At first it was called a draw, but the discovery of an error on referee Jimmy Peerless's card meant Pastrano was given a split verdict. He ended the year with another impressive win over Bobby Dykes, a seasoned campaigner who would later work as one of Pastrano's cornermen.
Pastrano was now firmly established, but out of the ring he was Dundee's biggest headache. The youngster hated roadwork, loved women, and once or twice he even laced the milk that Dundee gave him with whisky.
BUILDING A REPUTATION
The biggest name on his record in 1955 was that of former world light-heavyweight champion Joey Maxim, whom he outpointed in a 10-rounder in New Orleans. By then, the 33-year-old Maxim was sliding, but he had still managed to outbox rising star Floyd Patterson the previous year, and only Carl 'Bobo' Olson had beaten him since his most recent world title fight.
Utah heavyweight Rex Layne had been one of the glamour boys of the division in the early 1950s, but defeats by Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles had thwarted his world title ambitions. However, like Maxim, he was still a good name to have on your record and Pastrano, scaling 1851b, outboxed him in a 10-rounder, in New Orleans, in December 1955.
A month after his 20th birthday, Ring magazine rated Pastrano as the number two challenger to the light-heavy champion Archie Moore.
The victory over Layne persuaded Pastrano that his future lay in the heavyweight division. When the unbeaten champion Rocky Marciano announced his retirement, in April 1956, his title was up for grabs. But by then Pastrano had demonstrated his habit of blowing hot and cold.
In January he had scraped a draw with a late rally against Chuck Spieser, a light-heavyweight from Michigan whom he had outpointed six months earlier. And then, in April, Pastrano gave a masterclass in ring artistry as he outscored Johnny Arthur of South Africa by a landslide margin over 10 rounds. Pastrano was paid $4,000, but he had slipped from fifth to seventh in the rankings, and was out in the wilderness as far as world titles were concerned.
Pastrano set his record straight by trouncing Spieser in May 1956. The fight drew 9,200 fans to the Municipal Auditorium, New Orleans, and was televised nationally. Strangely, it was a split decision, but Spieser accepted defeat sportingly. 'I've never seen Willie in such superb form,' he said. 'I wouldn't hesitate to say that he can whip a lot of the bigger boys in the division.'
However, in November 1956, 21-year-old Floyd Patterson knocked out veteran Archie Moore to set a new record for the youngest heavyweight title holder. And his manager, Cus D'Amato, spent the next two and a half years steering him clear of the major contenders.
Pastrano's long unbeaten run ended in June 1957 when Roy Harris, a teacher from the small town of Cut And Shoot. Texas. outpointed him over 10 rounds in Houston. It was one of the biggest fights in Texan history with a then state record gate of $46.962. In an enormous upset, Harris outpunched a disappointing opponent and finished strongly to have Pastrano hanging on to last the course.
Pastrano was gracious in defeat, saying: 'He's got a style all his own. like nobody I've ever fought. 1 couldn't seem to get to him.' Privately, he put the defeat down to something more personal. 'I did everything wrong that night: he said. 'And for the first time since my marriage 1 forgot to tie my wedding ring to the laces of my left boot.'
But his words could not mask the fact that he was now even further away from a shot at Patterson. Harris did get his opportunity, in August 1958, but Patterson stopped him in the 12th round.
It was during a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, that Pastrano came closest to the heavyweight world title, even if he didn't know it at the time. Pastrano and Dundee were approached by a bright-eyed teenager named Cassius Marcellus Clay who asked to spend time with them in their hotel. Bored with hanging around, they agreed, and Cassius and his brother Rudolph chatted to them for a couple of hours. Two years later they sparred and eventually Clay – later to become Muhammad Ali. of course – and Dundee formed one of the greatest boxer-trainer partnerships of all time.
In October 1957, Pastrano travelled to Britain and beat Dick Richardson, but it was becoming plain to see that Pastrano was going to struggle to get a shot at the world heavyweight title. The point was not lost on former world champ Jack Dempsey. 'Willie is a good boxer,' he said. 'I'd pick him as a sure thing to win the heavyweight title. But he'll never make it without power.'
Pastrano was a huge hit with boxing fans in Britain and promoter Jack Solomons hired him to fight Brian London. at Harringay Arena, in February 1958, on a show which also included future champions Terry Downes and Dick Tiger. Solomons's programme writers described the American in glowing terms: 'He is the fastest heavyweight afoot...he can travel, bounce, dance, slide and glide. Nimbleness and grace are his preoccupations.'
But even they talked up his lack of a punch: .Pastrano can jab prettily – he has quick hands – but is, at best, a mediocre puncher.
The point was further proven when he had trouble in outpointing Brian London, who was cynically selected as an opponent for Patterson the following year. London pressed Pastrano hard, and some felt he had done enough. Two months later, in Leicester, Pastrano outboxed Jamaican Joe Bygraves, and then travelled to Italy to outscore Franco Cavicchi, who was the sixth-rated European heavyweight, in Bologna.
He returned to England for a rematch with London, in September 1958, and for the first time suffered a stoppage defeat. Referee Mark Hart waved the fight off in round five because of a two-inch cut on Pastrano's left eyelid.
Angelo Dundee was furious, but worse followed in 1959, when points defeats by Joe Erskine and Alonzo Johnson pushed Pastrano even further down the rankings. Erskine, the former British champion from Cardiff, was perhaps the only man in Pastrano's entire career who out-boxed him. Erskine was brilliant and, for once, Pastrano was made to look ordinary.
When he dropped out of the world top 10. Pastrano decided the answer was to drop down to light-heavy. It was to prove a wise move, as rapidly bearing down on the world heavyweight title was one Charles Sonny' Liston. Life among the giants would never be the same again.
UPS AND DOWNS
When he outpointed Charley Pavlis. in December 1959. Pastrano had trimmed his weight down to 177 ¾ 1b. almost 10 pounds lighter than when he lost to Johnson and his lowest for four years.
For a while, things went well. lie beat Johnson in a rematch, in Louisville, and was on a run of six wins before he risked too much in fighting the unbeaten Scot. Chic Calderwood. in Glasgow, in September 1960. The decision was close...but, almost inevitably, Calderwood got it.
It was a bitter blow. but Pastrano was still selected as one of four boxers to take part in an elimination contest for the vacant NBA light-heavyweight title, Archie Moore having been stripped of it. Nevertheless, he could not raise himself against an inspired Jesse Bowdry, who was trained by the legendary Henry Armstrong, in December 1960. Bowdry won on points in the main event of a show that featured Cassius Clay in the chief support.
A disillusioned Pastrano boxed only once in 1961, a 12-round draw in Stockholm with local hopeful Lennart Risberg, in front of a 20,000 crowd in a stadium that had been built for the 1912 Olympic Games. Frankly, it was a robbery. Risberg was floored in the first, cut and outboxed, and only his strength kept it competitive.
At 26, there seemed nowhere for Pastrano to go after that, but with a wife and growing family to support, he still needed a lot more paydays.
BACK ON COURSE
Heavyweight Tom McNeeley – whose son Peter was to fight Mike Tyson – had been outclassed by Floyd Patterson in 1961, but was still a popular attraction in his home town of Boston. So, in order to keep the money coming in. Pastrano accepted a fight with him in May 1962. It could so easily have gone wrong, but Pastrano boxed beautifully and won so convincingly that McNeeley temporarily announced his retirement afterwards.
Four weeks later, in Los Angeles, Pastrano fought `Ancient' Archie Moore, the deposed light-heavyweight champion who was now 48 years old. The younger man could have won by a stretch. but eased up, admitting to a frustrated Dundee: 1 can't hit this guy. He looks like Methuselah. He's old enough to be my daddy!'
At last, the path was starting to open up for Pastrano. In a celebrated series of fights with crowd-pleaser Wayne Thornton in early 1963, all of which were on national TV, he lost the first. drew the second and won the decider. It was enough to earn a shot at world champion Harold Johnson – although only as a second substitute. following withdrawals by Mauro Mina of Peru and Henry Hank.
IN IT FOR THE MONEY
At last, at long last, in his 78th professional fight after a dozen years in the business, and at the age of 27, Pastrano became world champion by outpointing Johnson. Pastrano later admitted he had not been keen on the idea of boxing Johnson. even with the title on the line. 'They had to pay me a lot of money to fight that animal,' he said. 'Nothing pushed me into it except money.'
Pastrano also earned well in three non-title fights, but he did lose one of them, on points, to aggressive Argentine Gregorio Peralta, in Miami Beach, in September 1963. The pair met in a return with the championship at stake, in New Orleans, in April 1964, and Pastrano had to overcome some solid attacks before winning at the end of round five. Peralta, who had lost only once in 43 fights, was too badly cut over the left eye to come out for the sixth.
Pastrano revealed a bizarre story about how he suddenly found some weight in his punches once he became champion. At the grave of a witch in Louisiana, he asked for a right hand. 'Man, she gave me one,' he said, with a twinkle in his eye. But, just as he was at the peak of his career, and after so much heartbreak on the way up, Pastrano was beginning to crack.
When a defence against Carl 'Bobo' Olson was cancelled, Pastrano agreed on a sixth fight in Britain, against Terry Downes.
He was behind on points until he opened up to salvage the title with an 11th-round stoppage. The warning signs were there, but Pastrano's decline, when it came, was sudden and complete. In March 1965, still only 29. but in his 84th fight, the years, or more accurately the rounds. caught up with him. He had no spark and a 19.000 crowd in Madison Square Garden, consisting largely of Puerto Ricans, cheered Jose Torres to a stoppage win.
In the sixth round, Pastrano had been put down for the first time in his life. Although he beat the count. he had nothing left after the ninth and he plodded to his corner. where the fight was called off. He never boxed again.
THE TOUGHEST FIGHT OF ALL
Without boxing, Pastrano's life lost focus. In the late 1960s, he experimented with drugs. and more than once rang Angelo Dundee in a panic because he was hallucinating. He trained for a comeback that didn't happen, did some bit-part acting, sold cars and tried after-dinner speaking. Basically, he was doing anything to earn a living, but by the 1970s he had sunk into drug addiction. He was horribly close to self-destructing.
'Some people say my toughest fight was against Torres,' he said in 1977. 'But they don't know. The toughest fight of my life was against Old Lady Heroin.'
That same extraordinary determination that had transformed Pastrano from a fat kid into a world-class boxer eventually enabled him to kick the habit. He later moved back to New Orleans and worked as a boxing instructor with the city's Police Athletic League gym, before dying of cancer, on 8 December 1997, aged 62.