To say light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano was not the most enthusiastic or Spartan-like of athletes is a bit of an understatement. According to his trainer, Angelo Dundee, Pastrano’s habitual words as he headed in for his workout were, “I’m on my way to hell,” and his stated career objective was to earn enough money to “dynamite the gym.”
Away from training camp and the ring he indulged himself, feasting on Italian food and, despite his being married with five children, partying it up with every willing young woman he could find. A reporter once remarked to Willie that with his excellent footwork he must be a great dancer. “What’s your favourite dance?” asked the scribe. “The horizontal tango,” replied the pugilist.
Thus, keeping Willie Pastrano in condition and out of trouble was a full-time job. His weight fluctuated to such a degree that this former featherweight even campaigned for a while as a heavyweight but, as he put it years later to Peter Heller, “When I saw Sonny Liston come on the scene, I said ‘I’m going back down where I belong.’”
In 1963 a shot at the light heavyweight championship fell in Pastrano’s lap when two slated opponents backed out and the organizers of Harold Johnson’s title defense were looking under rocks for someone to fight him. Willie capitalized on his golden opportunity, boxing Johnson in his smooth, stick-and-move style and taking a close and somewhat controversial 15 round decision.
Pastrano’s people were aware that with the new champion’s aversion to gym work and interest in the ladies it was important to keep him busy. Less than two months after his big victory he was back in the ring with a non-title win over journeyman Ollie Wilson, and just three weeks after that he met Argentine contender Gregorio Peralta in another non-title scrap. But something didn’t go according to plan in those three weeks as Pastrano looked stale and timid and the judges gave the decision to the Argentine. “I took him too lightly,” admitted Willie.
Now it was time for the rematch, with the championship belt on the line, and a win was imperative. Pastrano’s people arranged for the bout to be in his home city of New Orleans and they got their man in shape. Meanwhile, Willie, who was never known for his punching power, was anxious enough to go prowling around at night, not in the city’s brothels or dance clubs, but in old churches and graveyards, looking for an edge that was supernatural.
“I went to the grave of an old famous witch,” he recounted later. “Got them passion plant flowers, birds of paradise, put it on her grave. I says, ‘Give me a right hand.’ My buddy that took me thought I was crazy.”
But his buddy maybe didn’t think so come fight night. Peralta was a dedicated body puncher and Pastrano’s strategy was to counter with hard shots to the face, mindful of the fact that Gregorio had a tendency to cut. As Dundee stated before the bout, “We got Willie hitting flat-footed, because this guy busts up easy.” Ringsiders would later comment that they had never seen Pastrano punch with such force. For three rounds they traded at a furious pace, Peralta landing to the body, Pastrano connecting upstairs, and in the fourth a right hand opened up a gruesome cut, almost two inches long, over Peralta’s left eye. “All that blood,” said Pastrano afterwards, “gave me a beautiful target.”
Knowing the fight would likely be stopped, Peralta attacked with fury in the fifth, trying for the knockout, but Pastrano countered with sharp jabs and rights and by the end of the round the Argentine was a gory mess. The referee declared Peralta unfit to continue and stopped the match before the start of round six. Reporters asked Pastrano why the outcome was so different the second time around. “Tonight,” said Willie, “I cared.” He didn’t mention flowers on a witch’s grave.
With his impressive win Pastrano had earned a break from “hell” and he took it, not fighting again until seven months later when he traveled to England and stopped Terry Downes in 11 rounds. But next he defended against Jose Torres in New York City. The Puerto Rican put Pastrano down with vicious body punches in the sixth and this time it was Pastrano who was deemed unfit to continue after the ninth.
That was it. No more trips to hell for Willie Pastrano. He never did dynamite the gym, but he walked away from it when he was only 30 and never set foot in it ever again.
— Michael Carbert