Boxing Champ Willie Pastrano Dies
Dec. 09, 1997
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ He was known as Willie the Wisp. Muhammad Ali called him Sweet Willie P.
Willie Pastrano, a light heavyweight champion in the 1960s known for his fast feet and a flicking left jab in the ring and his flamboyant personality and colorful lifestyle outside of it, is dead at 62.
Pastrano compiled a record of 63-13-8 with 14 knockouts fighting light heavyweights and heavyweights in his prime. And he befriended Ali when Ali was a raw amateur still called Cassius Clay.
Ali saw Pastrano box on television and, hoping for a chance to spar with him, waited for two hours at a gym in Louisville, Ky., where Pastrano was working out.
``Willie climbed out of the ring and said he wouldn't spar Ali again,'' trainer Angelo Dundee remembered. ``He said Ali was too fast, he'd get killed. But the two of them became real good friends, and Willie taught him a lot of his technique. He showed him his dance steps.''
Pastrano had fought 77 times before winning the light heavyweight title from Harold Johnson in 1963. He lost the crown when he was stopped by Jose Torres on March 30, 1965.
Johnson was a big favorite, and Pastrano was known to love the night life, so Dundee sent him to the Catskills to train. Dundee's assistant, Lou Gross, accompanied Pastrano to make sure the fighter got in shape and stayed out of trouble.
``Willie would work all day and then Lou would tuck him in for a good night's sleep,'' Dundee said. ``But there were a lot of hotels and clubs up there. So as soon as Willie was in bed, Lou would head out. And as soon as Lou went out, Willie was right behind him.''
Pastrano was a 6-1 underdog when he beat Johnson, coming off three 10-round fights in a three-month span. He won the fight on a controversial decision.
``Look at the film, look at that jab, that footwork,'' Dundee said. ``Willie fought the fight of his life that night.''
In the days when boxers trained under spartan conditions, Pastrano did the road work, hit the bags and sparred countless rounds. However, he never subscribed to the theory that abstinence produced better boxers.
``Willie liked the high life, but that didn't slow him down in the ring,'' boxing promoter Leslie Bonano said. ``He didn't train the way most guys did in those days, but he could fight.''
Boxing was an unlikely career for Pastrano, known as ``Fat Willie'' when he was a 190-pound kid growing up in the French Quarter. He followed his friend, Ralph Dupas, who would later win the junior middleweight championship, to the gym to lose weight.
By the time Pastrano had whittled himself to a sleek 126 pounds, Dupas had taught him the footwork and flicking left jab that would be Pastrano's hallmark and his gift to Ali.
After his last fight, Pastrano began to abuse drugs and alcohol, nearly dying of a heroin overdose. He eventually straightened his life out and returned to New Orleans, where he dabbled in boxing and lived on Social Security disability checks.
``Boxing is hard,'' Pastrano said in a 1993 interview. ``It's the only one-on-one sport we've got. Just one-on-one. About as fair a shake as you can get in life. No cutting. No shooting. If you win and don't get the decision, the crowd knows.
``It's a hard game to take a pass on. If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it the same way.''
Pastrano is survived by nine children and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.