DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Jose Torres, a former boxing champion and writer, died Monday of a heart attack in his home in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He was 72. Torres took up boxing in the Army to get out of KP duty and went on to become an Olympic medalist and light world heavyweight champion, a title he successfully defended three times before losing in 1966. After he left professional fighting, Torres worked as an aide to several New York politicians and chaired the New York State Athletic Commission. But he also got to know writers like Pete Hamill and managed to get a column in the New York Post. With the help of Norman Mailer, he wrote a book about Muhammad Ali called "Sting Like a Bee."
Terry spoke to Torres in 1989, after he'd published a biography of Mike Tyson called "Fire and Fear." Both men had worked with the legendary boxing trainer and manager Cus D'Amato. Some of the exploits Tyson described in the book were so extreme that they made news at the time. He told Torres that the best punch he ever delivered was to his wife, actress Robin Givens, and he described a night when he said he had sex with 24 women. Terry asked Torres if he took the story at face value or if he had a responsibility to try and separate fact from macho exaggeration.
(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, July 28, 1989)
Mr. JOSE TORRES (Former Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion; Author, "Sting Like a Bee," "Fire and Fear"): He told me the following day when it happened. I happened to see him the day after, and he told me, and I say, uh-huh, mm-hmm, yeah, I believe you. Yeah, that's right. And that's it. You know, he was a little mad that I did not believe the story, and that happened months before I began to write the book. So, when I began to do their interviews for the book with the tape recorder, then I reminded him of that part, and then, this time he was able to call a witness, a Rory Holloway, who confirmed his story about 24 women. And it is finally because there are days some one asks me if I had reached the climax with the 24. And I said to the guy, I don't know about that, that they were a team. His fights - his orgasm last longer than his fights, I said to him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TORRES: In any event, I believe the story. I don't know if they were 24 women though, it could been, you know, it could have been 10.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TORRES: You know, Ryan O'Neal was mad. You know, he's a good friend of mine, the actor Ryan O'Neal.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Oh yeah, yeah. He was in the boxing movie that you've consulted for. Yeah.
Mr. TORRES: That's right. He was mad. I says, why? He said he broke my record. I say, how much was his record? He says, two.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TORRES: So, we're making fun of all that. Now, about hitting...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TORRES: About hitting at Robin, I felt that it was a responsibility of mine to expose that situation because I am one of the many writers who have been very concerned about the abuse of women in our society. And I felt that the heavyweight champion of the world as a symbol, you know, express the admiring in our society. And I felt it was my obligation as a professional and objective writer to do that. And I felt that Tyson told me those stories because I felt that he wanted to get them out of his system and mostly because I felt he was capable of overcoming those ills.
GROSS: Mm hmm. Well, I'm interested in hearing about your life as well. I was wondering if you learned to fight before you actually got into the ring.
Mr. TORRES: You know, it's amazing. I was from the middle class family within the sub-culture of poverty in Puerto Rico and El Ponce(ph).
GROSS: Mm hmm.
Mr. TORRES: In other words we were very, very poor. My father used to work every single day, ten hours a day, to support in his children. And at that time, when I was about 17, I decided to go into the army. When I went to the army, and as soon as I was there, I knew I had made a mistake. I knew that I could not live far from my family and my mother and father. And I become very depressed. I was dizzy, like drunk every day. I was so depressed. And then one day, I asked about what I can do to get away from KP, you know, to work in the kitchen.
GROSS: Mm hmm.
Mr. TORRES: And to stand guard. They told me, why - if you play any sports, you can do that? I say, yeah, I play baseball. So, the baseball season is over that's why I play basketball. They say that basketball season is over. So I said, what is the season now? They said boxing. I said box.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TORRES: Yeah.
GROSS: So, you box in the army then you won the silver medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
Mr. TORRES: Right.
GROSS: Then you moved to New York to train with Cus D'Amato, who was the same trainer who trained Mike Tyson.
Mr. TORRES: That's true and Floyd Patterson.
GROSS: And why? No, what makes him so special?
Mr. TORRES: He was so special because he was not in the game to make money. He was in the game to help young children, and also because of his unique way in teaching fighters. He felt that what made the difference, at the end was not the physical mechanism but the intelligence and the character of the person. And that along - I mean, that was so attractive to me because for the first time, I discover that I was a normal human being when I used to get scares, stiff before each fights. He taught me that I was normal. He said, you didn't get scare I wouldn't want you to fight for me. I want normal human beings because normally human beings can be - can be taught. I said, but if the guy comes to me fearless I feel this guy to dumb to learn how to win and become champion of the world.
GROSS: Mm hmm. You say in your biography of Mike Tyson that Cus D'Amato didn't think that sex and boxing were incompatible. He encouraged you to bring your wife to where you were training on weekends, which I guess was pretty unusual for the time. Are the two still considered incompatible?
Mr. TORRES: Well, you know, what happened with Cus was that he knew that there was no medical explanation to justify the suspicion of many athletes who said that sex weakens the legs or weakens your arms and makes you weak. And Cus never believe that. Cus feels that in order for any young boy to become champion of the world, he has to master the fear and master his emotions. He cannot allow any emotion to get the best of him. He feels - he felt that since boxers are young, healthy and in tremendous condition that the need of sex is a natural thing for them. He feels that by depriving them from sex that would develop anxiety, and anxiety is an emotion out of control. And he said the only and best way to relieve that boxer from that uncontrolled emotion is to have sex. So, he felt that sex then work on behalf of the fighter.
GROSS: Mm hmm, after you won a few middle weight bouts. D'Amato held you back. He didn't give you any significant fights for I think about a year. Why was he holding you back like that?
Mr. TORRES: OK. At the time, Cus D'Amato was engaged in a big fight against the boxing establishment that was being controlled by unscrupulous men at that time, all over the country. He began to fight them, to buck them. He used the heavyweight champion of the world Floyd Patterson to do that and he used me. In the process, I was hurt a lot but I was aware that I was hurt. But I had an interest beyond my own personal won. I felt that Cus convinced me that we together could help boxing in general and that every young kid coming up today and after, they would be help by this struggle against the boxing establishment at the time. So, I suffer a lot. I became champion at age 28 instead of an age 22 or 23, and I was ready then. But the establishment wouldn't give me a chance to fight in retaliation for what Cus was doing to them. And of course - and you know, in the final - at the end, Cus had destroyed the boxing establishment. They - I mean, they put like people in jail for that after Cus finished with them. And it was a lot of bad people at that time.
GROSS: During that period when you weren't fighting, people thought that you had disappeared maybe because you are a coward. Was that hard to take?
Mr. TORRES: No, because they were only few people who thoughts the boxing community knew what was going on. They knew that Cus was on this fight and there was backing Cus. And even though we have arguments, you know, they were points in which I thought Cus that I was being hurt to bad, that I might never become champion. And Cus says that age doesn't make champions. That old age had not been established in boxing and all that stuff. And I thought that - as a matter of principle and integrity and honestly, Cus was right.
GROSS: Mm hmm.
Mr. TORRES: And I felt that I had to back him up now.
GROSS: My guest is Jose Torres. You're also the former head of the New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing. When you were in that position, were there any trends that you saw that especially disturbed you, that you thought were having a bad effect on the sport?
Mr. TORRES: Well, the only thing that I was very careful about was conflict of interest in terms of Tyson. I was too close to Tyson, and I was afraid that my emotion will get the best of me because I didn't care. I used to root for Tyson when he was fighting. But not in New York. In New York, I would be very, very objective. And also, I would put the best officials who work because I knew they will not be influenced by my friendship with Tyson. But going to Atlantic City and Las Vegas and other places where Tyson boxed, I used to, you know, I used to go to the dressing room, I used to give him advice. And that was not, you know, completely kosher, as they say here in New York. He was, you know, one thing I want to make sure, and that is that if Tyson boxed in New York, I'll use to wish that the fight would end by KO because if Tyson was engaged in a close fight and he got the close fight, I would've been on that incredible criticism because of my friendship. So I was always hoping for Tyson will knock the guy out, so we wouldn't have to have that conflict. But he was - also, bureaucracy bothered me, it was fun at the beginning. At the end he became too bitter cry and I quit to write a book, and I'm very happy.
DAVIES: Writer and former light heavyweight boxing champ Jose Torres speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. More after break. This is Fresh Air.
Today, we're listening to Terry's interview with writer and former light-heavyweight boxing champ Jose Torres who died on Monday. Torres was a friend of Norman Mailer, whom he regularly sparred with on Saturdays. When Terry interviewed Mailer in 1991, he talked about his relationship with Torres.
(Soundbite of interview with Norman Mailer, 1991)
Mr. NORMAN MAILER (Novelist): I've had a great friendship with Jose Torres over the years and have boxed with him a great deal. He was - at one time he was the light heavyweight champion of the world. And of course, boxing with someone who is good as that is relatively safe because, you know, he can handle you with no pain, and therefore he has no particular interest in hurting you. So - but I did learn an awful lot about defense while boxing with him because he - if he'd tapped me once, and then if I didn't make the proper move the next time, he'll tap me a little harder. So after a while, he put a great many instinctive defensive moves into me.
DAVIES: Terry spoke with Jose Torres in 1989.
(Soundbite of interview with Jose Torres, 1989)
GROSS: I know that - when you started boxing professionally, you were friends with the writers Pete Hamel and Norman Mailer. Were they influential on your early writing and on what you were reading at the time?
Mr. TORRES: Well, not only they became influential. I mean, they were the total - the reason for me. I mean, Pete Hamel gave me every single book. I mean, Pete Hamel gave the first book I ever had in my life. And he gave me the second book and the third book (laughing). I mean, he gave me like 200 or 300 books. And I was reading all the time. I have never read a book other than a text, you know, book from school. Never really a novel, never read anything until I met Pete. And that was when I was 20. And Pete got me to read, and then he got me to write. I mean, Pete was the guy - the person who was responsible for me to read and to write, you know. But he was the one. And then of course, Norman Mailer came later because Pete introduced to Norman Mailer. And Pete introduced me to Bart Schubert(ph). And they began to help me, you know. At one point, when I was - I wrote another that book called "Sting like A Bee," the biography of Muhammad Ali in 1971. Well, I went to Vermont to live a mile away from Norman Mailer, who, I'm sure gave up two million bucks just to help me with this book. And we exchanged, I pay him by teaching him how to box, and he was editing my book, you know, and we worked together for two and a half months. And I finished my book there with him, change the book around, and he didn't - he went there for a project that he ignore. And it cost him maybe, I don't know, minimum of two million bucks - maybe five million or so.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what it's like in the ring. Is learning to take pain part of the art of boxing?
Mr. TORRES: That's automatic. You know, we don't think our pain, the punch that knocks you out, you don't feel the punch. Pain, usually you feel it when you are hit in the body, you know, like in the stomach, something like that. But you trained so hard that pain is beyond recognition. You don't recognize pain. You know, you are so full of determination and will that you don't think of a pain.
The pain that you suffer in boxing is not physical pain but mental pain, you know. When you are so afraid of losing, afraid of humiliation - being humiliated, you know, and more than anything else, you know. That's why in the gymnasium, you don't care about getting hit. Fighters get hurt much more in gymnasiums than they do in actual fights because, first of all, actual fights are very few, and the gymnasiums you box every single day, you know, training. And also, there is no pressure of humiliation in the gym. So you don't care about getting hit. You take more chances in the gym. In the fight, because of the public pressure, you are afraid to be humiliated and you know, psychologically, you become - it becomes very painful.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned humiliation. I wonder what it feels like when you're hit hard and your opponent's fans are cheering.
Mr. TORRES: Also, when you - I think that fighters know before it happens when they're going to lose. I think they have a feeling, you know, fighters that loses their will to win in the midst of the fight. You know, that's why Muhammad Ali was such a great fighter. Muhammad Ali was one of the few who won fights and perhaps most of his fights, before he went to the ring. He used to discourage his opponent and then the opponent would go into the ring thinking that he was going to lose. And that was a magic that super great champions have, you know.
GROSS: What's the worst punch you ever took?
Mr. TORRES: The best punch that I took, it had to be - you know, I was hit very hard maybe, maybe four times in my whole career. Very hard. And I was never really hurt but I was stunned those four times. And usually, they happened with fighters who could not punch, you know, who were not recognized as good punchers. And subconsciously, you take more chances with guys of them punch. So I got hit by them because they took more chances. The punchers never hit me with exception, when I was coming up, of Florentino Fernandez, who knocked me down with one punch, and that was the only punch he hit me with. I was not stunned because I was like unconscious for about one to two seconds. And I don't remember going to the floor but I remember when I hit the floor. And I turned toward my family, you know, my mother - I mean my father was there. And my wife was there. I looked at them just to tell them I was OK. And then I got up, and I was beating him and then something happened that I could not throw punches, you know. I was like a - a delayed reaction, eventually, you know, four rounds later. And the referee stopped the fight. But I learned at lot that time. I think that was the best punch I have ever been hit with because I went down. It was no pain though and I didn't feel - I describe being stunned with getting a million ants into your body and then coming out. And I didn't feel that in the fight. I felt that three times with other fighters, but not big time that I got knock down.
GROSS: What was it like begin knocked down, hearing the referee's count while struggling to get back on your feet?
Mr. TORRES: Well, I say I was not struggling because I was OK.
GROSS: I see. OK. OK.
Mr. TORRES: But I can imagine, though that I used - what I mean - later on that happened to me.
GROSS: It did?
Mr. TORRES: Forgot, I forgot that part. My last fight, I was hit not with a good punch, I was hit with the bell. You know, the bell and the punch at the same time. And I went down, I got up, and the referee was counting. And I was conscious but I had no control over my legs. And that's when - at that moment, I knew I would never fight again. And I went to the corner and I came back in the second round and I knocked the other guy out. And I then say it, I will never box again. But that was humiliating, that was very embarrassing. I didn't want to look at the crowd, I didn't want to look at one of my brothers who were there and my father, I was so embarrassed to be down. And I felt that no one would ever get that chance again. And that was my last fight.
GROSS: What year was that?
Mr. TORRES: 1969. It's amazing.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us about your life. Thank you.
Mr. TORRES: My pleasure.
DAVIES: Writer and former light heavyweight boxing champ Jose Torres speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Torres died Monday of a heart attack. He was 72. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.