Willie Pastrano, who was "world" light-heavyweight champion for 21 months in the 1960s, was one of the most skilful boxers of the modern era. He had quick hands, a sharp boxing brain and dazzling footwork.
Yet as a poor boy in the Vieux Carre district of New Orleans, Pastrano was just another fat kid trying to reconcile himself to the fact that his body would not allow him to live out him dreams. He wanted to be another Babe Ruth, but was so blubbery he was afraid to take off his shirt.
When he joined a gym to lose weight, the other boys laughed so cruelly at his efforts that he borrowed a key and took to working out alone at night. Within 18 months the puppy fat had gone and he had taken his first steps as an amateur boxer. His life had taken shape. "I got the taste of it, the taste of the applause, the taste of being in condition," he said to the writer Pete Heller in 1970.
He needed the kind of cash amateur boxing could never provide, and at 15 lied about his age to earn in four-round professional contests in New Orleans. The truth was soon discovered and he was fined and suspended by the Louisiana Commission until he was old enough. Six months later he returned and drifted across to Miami to hook up with the Italian-American trainer Angelo Dundee. The partnership lasted for the rest of his career, and their friendship to the end of Pastrano's life.
Dundee remembers: "He had black, wavy hair, a smile like Errol Flynn and a personality to match." Pastrano hated the hard slog of training, loved women, and was not above lacing the milk his trainer gave him with whisky. He was also, in spite of his admitted indiscretions, in love with his wife Faye. Before each bout, he tied his wedding ring to the laces of his left boot.
When Pastrano and Dundee were in Louisville, they were visited at their hotel by a 15-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay. Two years later, Pastrano and Clay sparred together - and eventually Dundee and Clay, later of course Muhammad Ali, formed their own, far greater trainer-boxer partnership.
Pastrano, for all his skills, lacked Ali's venom. In 1962, he drew with the 48-year-old legend Archie Moore, easing up on the veteran champion. In the corner he told Dundee: "I can't hit this guy. He looks like Methuselah. He's old enough to be my daddy!"
Eventually, as the formidable Sonny Liston rose to prominence, Pastrano dropped down to light-heavyweight and won the world title with a masterly defensive performance against the reigning champion Harold Johnson in Las Vegas in June 1963.
Some criticised the decision, but he retained his title by stopping Gregorio Peralta of Argentina and Britain's Terry Downes in Manchester. Downes was beating him for 10 rounds, but then Dundee lost his temper, gave Pastrano a fearful tongue-lashing and slapped him. Pastrano shaped up to hit him, but was turned around and told to take it out on Downes. The unfortunate Englishman was knocked out in the next round.
Not regarded as a heavy hitter - only 14 of his 63 wins were knockouts - he put the powerful punching he showed in his two defences down to a request he made at the grave of a witch in Louisiana. "She was burned at the stake," he said. "I says, `Give me a right hand.' Man, she gave me one."
When he lost the title to Jose Torres in New York in March 1965, Pastrano was still only 31, but retired. He had worked for 12 years to become champion, and his time at the top had been relatively short. "It was a two-year blur in my life," he said. "All I can remember is training hard and playing hard. Hectic . . . like a rat in a mirror maze."
His life, shorn of its goal, emptied and became frightening. He worried about what to do next, and how to provide for his steadily increasing family. (He eventually had nine children.)
He struggled to handle the Miami hoodlums who gathered around him towards the end of his career. He lost his way, and more than once rang Dundee in a panic when he was hallucinating during a drug trip.
He trained for a comeback that didn't happen, did some bit-part acting, anything to get by. He might have become one of boxing's all-too familiar tragedies. Eventually, the same inner strength which had transformed Willie Pastrano from a fat boy into a quality athlete enabled him to walk away from the Miami streets and return to New Orleans. There, he found contentment in youth work and with his family, in a quieter, though never tame life.Reuse content