The old fighter is talking.
"I look at ordinary people in their suits, them with no scars on their face, and I'm defferent from these people."
Willie pastrano is the old fighter, a world champion, the light heavyweight champ for two years in the early '60s. Though lit by the thin winter sun of a late New Orleans afternoon, the old fighter's face belongs to darkness.
"I don't fit in with them people. I'm where everybody's got scar tissue on their eyes and got noses like saddles. I go to these old-timers' conventions, old fighters like me, and I see the scar tissue and all them flat noses. They're beautiful. Galento, may he rest iin peace. Giardello, LaMotta, Carmen Basilio. What a sweetheart Basilio is. They talk like me, like they got rocks in their throats. Beautiful."
This is Willie Pastrano, who once sat at tea with the Queen of England, who later ran with a buddy who sawed people into peices for disposal. . . . Willie Pastrano, who made $100,000 in his last fight and a year later robbed houses and yachts, "sneaking in like a . . . . dog," to buy of gin and vodka.
"I was the living dead."
Willie Pastrano quits talking.
The old fighter makes the sign of the cross.
In a deserted firehouse with a ring gone to seed, Willie Pastrano works as the boxing coach of the New Orleans Recreation Department. At the Superdome, a $4.80 cab ride away, Sugar Ray Leonard gets $7 million this week dand Roberto Duran $10 million. Willie Pastrano will clear $69.50.
He is happy.
Broke, but happy. Happy to be alive. He is 45, and it was 8-5 against Willie Pastrano ever being 45.
"Just saying 'heroin' makes me feel like a taste it in the back of my mouth.
I go to the doctor's office and see a syringe, it makes me sick to my stomach. iYou never really kick it. You always got the yen. You always got to fight. yI'm the champ at fighting the junk."
At 190 Willie Pastrano is only 15 pounds over the light-heavy limit. There is a spring in his step. A weightlifter now, his is in good shape. The son of an Italian father and Cajun mother, Pastrano has a square-cut face of mottled browns and blacks. Thin lines of scars wiggle through his eyebrows, and long-healed wounds are marked by tiny craters on his cheekbones.Doctors twice have done surgery on his left eye, and now he wears sunglasses because the eye is always red.
And if the eye is red, people think they know.
They think Willie is on the horse again. Heroin.
He goes to churches now to tell the people without scars on their faces that he was a heroin addict.
The junk put him in three mental institutions and three hospitals. They wanted to tape wires to his forehead and shoot electricity through his brain. He said no electroshock. Not for a world champion. He would beat the stuff on his own.
Toughest fight of his life. He is winning.
He lost the light heavyweight championship the third time he risked it, losing to Jose Torres in March, 1965.Fighting was the only thing Pastrano ever did right. A fat little kid, shamed by his father, who beat him with a belt for not striking back at neighborhood bullies who taunted him as "jelly shaking on a plate," Pastrano went to a boxing gym to lose weight. He found talent.
Never a puncher, always a clever stylist, Pastrano fought 18 years before winning the world championship from Harold Johnson. On the way up, he had tea with the queen and Prince Philip; he moved with good fighters such as Kid Gavilan, Benny Paret, Jimmy Ellis and Ralph Dupas, and he had $30,000 in the bank after he lost the title to Torres.
"When I lost the title, I got down on myself," Pastrano said. "I was lonely, I had nobody, I had nothing. So I opened my doors to the wrong people around. For three years after I lost my title, I didn't know who the hell I was."
The wrong people: "Killers, dope dealers, people who sawed up bodies. I didn't know it at the time. I thought one guy owned a gas station and another guy was a salesman. Then one day I went to visit this one guy. I walked through his house and out to the back, to hs utility shed, and I say him through a crack in the door."
What he saw: "He had on rubber gloves and an apron, he had a hacksaw, and his hands were full of blood. I started to say, 'hi,' and that's when I saw the foot cut off. I puked."
For three years, Pastrano used heroin daily.
"It wasn't the heroin I wanted," he said. "It was the boxing thing. Boxers should be rehabilitated like Vietnam veterans. Boxers have been to war and are psychologically scarred. You got fighters acting like they're punch-drunk when they're not, just to get attention. Like Beau Jack shining shoes in front of the Fountainbleau in Miami. He ain't punch-drunk. He just misses the applause. With the applause, you come to life."
Without the applause, without that affirmation of existence, Pastrano needed big money for the substitute high of heroin.
"I didn't have nothing left from my $30,000, so I was always looking to get money. You needed money because you needed heroin to feel normal. Your body gets to need it like food. I had gin and vodka for breakfast. And heroin. I did 'b and e's for the money. Breaking and entering. I robbed places across the street from police stations. I robbed houses, I robbed yachts. I never used a weapon, not once. I was sneaking in like a . . . . dog."
He went cold turkey in 1969, Pastrano said, and there followed 10 years of wandering. Vegas, Oklahoma City, Miami. Worked as a bouncer. Dupas dragged his right leg and became a hermit. Ellis and Gavilan are blind in one eye. Paret is dead, killed in the ring, And Willie Pastrano, a champion of the world, was bouncing in strip joints, 2 in the afternoon 'til 2 in the morning, six days a week. Worked some as a chip runner in Vegas, did some greeting at a greasy spoon in Reno.
Back in his hometown of New Orleans, Pastrano has worked the last year with the city recreation department down in the Magazine Street gym with the yellowing newspaper clippings stuck to the wall. History is on those dirty walls: Cassius Clay at 13, Tony Galento falling through the ropes against Jack Dempsey, Willie Pastrano in with Archie Moore.
Sitting at the back of the gum, Pastano watches a handful of plainly pitiable fighters. They should be pumping gas somewhere. They are in Pastrano's gym dreaming. Because another manager dumped the kid, Pastrano has taken over managing his first fighter, Chubby Johnson, 22, who will make his fourth pro fight on the undercard of the Leonbard-Duran feature in the Superdome. "Green," Pastrano says of Johnson.
"They say old boxers ought to get away from boxing," Pastrano said. "I don't want to be a manager. But a guy backed out on Chubby and now I got him. Okay, I'm a manager. So all right. Boxing is what I am. You know what Duran did the other day during a workout?"
"Duran did this: He looked into the crowd and raised his gloves fist in salute.
"I looked around to see who he was waving to," Pastrano said.
Sunshine lit the darkness of Willie's face. It was for me."