Travel down 7th Avenue in Ybor City far enough, and eventually, you'll come to a rough-looking neighborhood by the train tracks. The warehouses in the area stand empty, and a few convenience stores pop up every couple of miles. The grass needs cutting, the bushes need trimming, and some low-slung buildings must either be demolished or rehabbed.
As the sun goes down, a converted warehouse beside the tracks still has several cars parked outside. The roar of a passing train mutes the sound of the cars traveling on the nearby highway. Stand on the loading dock, and you can wave at the train's passengers as they glide by.
Step inside the warehouse, however, and you're in an altogether different place. This is the Hurricane Boxing Gym. Down a ramp and in the back of the building, the interior has been converted to house a ring, heavy bags, speed bags, and a weight room. While rap music blares through a radio, a group of men dart in and out of a line of heavy bags, their gloves smacking the canvas with loud crashes reverberating through the room. A young boxer spars with his reflection in the mirror, and in the ring, a trainer wearing hand pads circles another fighter as he yells encouragement and advice with each punch.
On the surface, these could be the sights and sounds of any of a hundred upscale gyms that offer aerobic boxing classes. But this is a proper boxing gym, and to amateur boxer James Chittenden, that elevates it into something much more profound than your average YMCA.
"Entering boxing is like entering a religion," James Chittenden explains, leaning from left to right to loosen up. "They do it to make a life improvement, and they find themselves falling in love with it and staying for the right reasons. Fellas find out the sport offers conditioning and camaraderie, and they do quite well."
A young man walks out from behind the ring, pulling heavy gloves onto his hands. Still stretching, Chittenden calls out to him as he makes his way over.
"Hey, Biscuit!" Chittenden says. "How long have we been sparring?"
Biscuit, real name Robert Carr, chews his lip for a moment. "Two years, I think," he says, then shrugs at the thought. "You get in, you get hooked."
Boxing in Tampa has a rich and storied history. When cigar makers Vicente Martinez Ybor and Ignacio Haya first moved their cigar factories from Key West to Tampa, Italian, Cuban, and Spanish workers followed. The closeness of the cultures helped breed a passion for the sport, and before long, boxing matches became as common and popular as the local bolita number game.
Club fights soon became a weekly fixture in the city. When baseball was still America's favorite game, boxing became a second passion for many families living and working in Ybor City and West Tampa. As authors Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta pointed out in their book The Immigrant World of Ybor City, baseball often required Latins to subordinate individual values to the team's interests. Boxing, by comparison, allowed participants to achieve material success and remain rooted in their own culture and communities. As a result, boxing became a way for many new immigrants and second-generation Americans to climb toward the American Dream while maintaining their cultural roots.
Interest in boxing was more than just men, too. Tampa area resident Adella Suarez made news in 1929 by starting a boxing club for women in Hillsborough County after, as she put it, "a spat between friends culminated in a boxing match." A story from the Tampa Tribune includes a photo of Suarez, wearing boxing gloves in a fighter's pose with her hair tied up in a bun, menacing the cameraman. She claimed her most challenging fight was against her friend Nancy Lewis. Suarez knocked Lewis down six times during that fight, but she never succeeded in knocking her out.
"She always got up," Suarez said, sounding frustrated even in newsprint.
The Cuban Club stands in Ybor City, a historic landmark still in use today. Now standing next to Hillsborough Community College, the building serves as a northern gate to Ybor City. In its heyday, the club boasted a 2,000-seat boxing arena and training complex for anyone wanting to learn. The club hosted fights every Monday night from the 1920s through the 1940s. The fighters that did well had the potential to move on to Benjamin Field Arena, where fans would follow to watch their favorite fighters.
At the Cuban Club, Ferdie Pacheco, Mohammed Ali's former ring doctor and a state icon for his Renaissance Man qualities, first encountered the sport.
"My first experience with boxing was at the Cuban Club," Pacheco, a Ybor native, said. "That was my first time seeing a boxer up close. Watching them skip rope, get their hands taped up was heaven." Pacheco's history with boxing extends for most of the 20th century. His stories include working with Ali in Miami and watching Tampa boxer Danny Nardico bulldoze Jake "Raging Bull" LaMotta.
One of his best stories involves himself, Tampa's Columbia Restaurant, and Jack Dempsey. When he was 10, Pacheco's father came home from work early, dressed his son in a suit, and took him to the restaurant where he met the champion boxer who visited Tampa. When Pacheco first saw Dempsey, the champ had just finished his meal at the Columbia. Dempsey smiled, shook Pacheco's hand, then picked him up and set the boy in his lap for the remainder of his visit.
"Talking to the athletes was a thrill," Pacheco said of the memory.
The sports section of the Tampa Times covered the fights with the same enthusiasm that modern papers use when covering football in the fall. A cartoon of two fighters, one slugging the other with a comical uppercut, stood at the top of the page with the box results of the previous night's fights.
The Tampa Times hyped big matches with front-page stories about the featured fighters. In the first match at Benjamin Field Arena, the front page for the March 5th edition of the paper features a large photo of two fighters, Rocky Kansas and Freddie Jacks, as they prepare for the following night's match. Another one shows undercard fighters Frankie Gardini and Jakie Mellman preparing for their fight.
"Both these lads are very clever with the mitts and carry the sleep producer in either hand," the article states.
Other fights got full press coverage for events other than the boxing match. A fight between Tony Leto and Eddie Flynn boiled over when Flynn beat Leto on a decision by a foul. The fans, unhappy with the referee's call, acted out their frustration by starting a riot that overflowed from the arena and spilled onto streets and the fighters' respective dressing rooms before peace could be restored.
Flynn, a Tampa fighter from New Orleans, later faced Albert Leon. At the time, their fight drew much attention from the local press as many reporters had already called it a shoo-in for Leon after news spread that Flynn was severely out of shape. Flynn responded by training so intensely that a reporter noted he had never seen him look better. Having won over the press, Flynn stepped into the ring the night of the fight, ready to prove everybody wrong.
Flynn flew at Leon as the bell sounded and began pummeling the man. Leon, cherubic and shorter than his opponent, went staggering back from Flynn's onslaught but recovered in the second round and began to wear Flynn down with a series of well-aimed body blows. Leon slowly turned the color of Flynn's skin from pink to a blood-red smear, but Flynn would not go down.
Finally, in the seventh round, with Flynn still absorbing the body blows, Leon hit him with a right uppercut that catapulted Flynn to the canvas, ending the match. Even as they celebrated Leon's victory, the press praised Flynn for his effort, noting that the man who had gone into the ring to face Leon had been "the greatest edition of Flynn that ever came in the American ring."
Tampa also boasted a family that became synonymous with boxing–called Tampa's "Boxing Family," the Leto brothers made headlines as boxers and trainers. Tony and Jimmy both fought, Tony as a flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight, while Jimmy competed first as a featherweight before switching to lightweight.
Jimmy's boxing career was the most colorful of the three. Ranked by the National Boxing Association in 1933 as a lightweight, Jimmy traveled the globe to participate in fights. He spent a fair amount of time in Australia, traveling twice for fights, and recounted his experiences to the press years later.
"The fight I remember best was with Australian champion Jack Carroll, although I lost," Jimmy wrote in the July 4, 1962, edition of the Tampa Times. "I liked Australia, and evidently, they liked how I fought, although their boxing style was strange. We were no sooner back in the United States after the first trip when we got a telegram making us a good offer to return. We were fighting as part of one of Australia's anniversary celebrations, and there was a huge crowd. Carroll was so tall the only thing I could do was go underneath him. I knocked him down with a left hook. I would go under and then step to one side. That is when I would hit him. It seems that I had to jump to get him. It surprised both of us. They gave him the decision after I had him down a couple of times. Carroll was down in the 14th and 15th rounds. He went to the hospital but still got the decision."
Boxing was sidelined during World War II. Tony, who had already stopped fighting and had worked as a butcher, merchant seaman, and pipefitter, went to work in the shipyards while Jimmy served as a gunner's mate on the cruiser Vicksburg. Both would later start families.
Joe Leto managed and had a hand in developing some of the best fighters in the area, including Chino Alvarez, Carl Guggino, and Tommy Gomez, who fought more than 80 matches in his time. Billed at first as the "Battling Bellboy" because of his day job at a local hotel, Gomez petitioned Joe for months to be his trainer before Joe agreed. Later, after both men had retired, Joe admitted that he initially had doubts about working with Gomez but thinking on it only made it seem stranger in hindsight.
"I figure one of the greatest achievements, as far as ability was concerned, was when Gomez downed Tony Musto in the first round of a fight here in Tampa," Joe told a Tampa Times reporter in 1962. "Musto had fought Joe Louis not long before the fight with Gomez. Louis did not knock him down, and Tommy belted him out in one round. They had a referee down here to protect their fighter, and he didn't even get to work. It didn't do them any good because Tommy knocked him out quickly."
"With a puncher like Gomez, you only had to remind him to be careful and take his shot when he saw the opportunity. The pay for going one round is as much as for going 10."
The drive for professional boxing in Tampa has become a hit-or-miss proposition in recent years. While the passion for the sport remains, professional boxing never became synonymous with Tampa as it did with Las Vegas and New York City.
"This is a boxing town," said Phil Alessi, owner of Alessi Bakeries and a fight promoter. "You have to give them a reason to cheer. Incentive makes all the difference."
Working with Pacheco, a boxing commentator with NBC, Alessi helped bring boxing to Tampa. "Our peak was probably in the early 90s," Alessi recalled. "A lot of people were looking at us back then. It brought a lot of exposure to the area, and we kept growing. Everybody wanted to be a part of it."
Interest in professional boxing appeared to die down after that, but in March of 2004, St. Petersburg fighter Ronald "Winky" Wright beat "Sugar" Shane Mosley to claim the WBC and WBA titles. Wright's win and the rise in popularity of Antonio Tarver and Jeff Lacy suddenly brought professional boxing back to Tampa's forefront.
"I shocked a lot of people who didn't believe in me," Wright told the St. Petersburg Times in 2004, seven months after his first fight with Mosley. "Don't down us just because we're from Tampa or St. Petersburg."
"When Winky fought, the arena was packed," Will Velez, owner of the Hurricane Gym, said. "It looked like a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game in there."
Velez stands in his office at the Hurricane Gym, remembering the fight. Behind his desk, a framed poster of Al Pacino from the film Scarface with a plaque that reads “I'm the Boss” hangs from the wall. While he used to promote fights, Velez now runs the gym as a 501(c)3 organization to serve the local community.
“Some of the kids look to us as mentors,” Velez said. The ones with real boxing talent have to be properly developed if they want to fight professionally. However, roadblocks like personal problems and the politics of amateur management make that difficult.”
“This is the second most active state with boxing, but no one is really creating any new fighters,” Velez said. “The city has had some great local talent that wasn't developed properly.”
“A big problem for the fighters is separating the personal life from the ring life,” Alessi said. “They can be exposed to negative situations, and that's a serious problem. A lot of them can overcome it through hard work and discipline.”
Still, Alessi believes that Tampa's support for boxing will continue. “As long as you create interest, boxing will always be here.”
Chittenden speaks from experience. When he was in ninth grade, he was in the habit of getting into fights at his boarding school. To control his anger, he enrolled in a boxing club when he was 15. He got into shape, went 5-3 as an amateur fighter, and found himself hooked into the sport. Today, he’s a Senior Banker and Vice President at Colonial Bank.
“I still occasionally fight,” Chittenden says, finishing his stretches and heading for the bags. “You never really shake it off.”
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2009
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Joe is a freelance writer based in Tampa. While his work has appeared in several international trade magazines, his recent work has focused on the people and places in the bay area.
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