Willie Pastrano: “Survival of the Fleetest”

By Norman Marcus on October 31, 2012
Willie Pastrano: “Survival of the Fleetest”
For speedy Willie Pastrano, the mantra “survival of the fleetest” worked quite well for him.

He wasn’t a hard puncher. His style was to stick and run. He could take a punch but didn’t like to mix it up…

Willie Pastrano, light heavyweight champion of the world from June 1, 1963 to March 30, 1965, was born Wilfred Raleigh Pastrano in New Orleans on November 27, 1935. He seemed at first glance unsuited for a career in boxing. Why? Well, to be politically incorrect, Willie was a fat kid who was teased mercilessly about his weight by everyone in the neighborhood. At the age of twelve Willie weighed in at around 185 pounds. Not too bad for a big boy, but Pastrano was only five feet tall at the time! Kids picked on him not only because of his weight, but because he always walked away from a fight. Finally his father gave him an ultimatum. “Alright,” he said, “me or him son.” Not wanting to face his father and his leather belt, Willie was left with no choice. He would have to turn things around and somehow learn how to beat the crap out of these bullies.

Pastrano went to the local gym to work out and drop some extra weight, but even the boxers gave him a hard time. “Hey, big fat Willie Spaghetti, this is a fighter’s gym, not a wrestler’s gym.” It got so bad that the gym’s owner gave Pastrano and his best friend Ralph Dupas (also a pro boxer in the 1950s) a key of their own to the gym. They would train after everyone else was gone for the day. A year later he had grown a foot, Willie was now almost six feet tall, and had turned the extra fat into muscle. He loved the work ethic and discipline. He now looked and acted like a fighter.

Willie Pastrano turned pro at sixteen and fought all of his early fights in New Orleans or Miami. Between 1951 and 1954 he won 28, lost four and drew three times. He started out as a welterweight and later boxed middleweight as he continued to fill out. He wasn’t a hard puncher. His style was to stick and run. He could take a punch but didn’t like to mix it up. He would have only 14 KOs in his entire career.

On June 28, 1955, Willie beat former light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim (81-22-4 at the time) via a UD10 at Municipal Stadium in New Orleans. Maxim was trained by Doc Kearns, Jack Dempsey’s wily old trainer/manager. Willie’s manager was Whitey Esneault and his trainer was Angelo Dundee, who would later guide Muhammad Ali to heavyweight glory. Pastrano beat Maxim that night but Joey was near the end of his career; he didn’t have much left in the tank. After Pastrano, Maxim lost six of his next seven fights and retired. But the win over an ex- champion like Maxim still looked good on Pastrano’s record.

During the 1950s Willie fought most of his fights as a heavyweight but occasionally moved down to fight at light heavy. In 1955 he fought eight times, with seven wins and one draw. 1956 was a bit slower with four wins and another draw. Pastrano finally lost one on June 11, 1957, a decision to undefeated heavyweight Roy Harris in Houston. Willie’s opponents so far were journeymen. But Pastrano was building up his record, biding his time, paying his dues, waiting to step up to the big time.

1958 found Willie fighting five times. He had four wins that year including a split with Brian London, a British heavyweight who was 21-3 and a notorious bleeder. The first fight was a win on points for Willie on February 25th at the Harringay Arena in London, England. Six months later on September 30th at the same venue, London got a TKO5 over Pastrano. The fight was stopped, ironically, because of a bad bleed to Willie’s eye.

In the next three years Pastrano’s career was nothing to write home about. In 1959 he had four fights, splitting two and two. 1960 was a bit better with six fights and four wins. He only fought once in 1961, taking on 10-1-2 Lennart Risberg on August 6 at the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden. Willie lost the decision.

Things started to heat up for Willie in the new decade. On May 28, 1962, Pastrano took on the “Old Mongoose” Archie Moore at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. At the start of the fight Willie said to Angelo Dundee, “I can’t hit this guy. He looks like Methuselah. Look at the gray hair. He’s old enough to be my daddy.” Archie Moore was forty-six years old, his record was 184-22-9, and he gave Pastrano a real boxing lesson. The bout ended in a MD10. He finished the year with three wins and the draw with Moore.

Willie was now at the top of his game. He fought seven times in 1963, winning four, losing two, with one draw. His big win that year was the WBC/WBA light heavyweight title fight with 69-8 Harold Johnson on May 28, 1962 at the Convention Center in Las Vegas. Pastrano was the third choice to challenge Johnson. The first choice, Mauro Mina, hurt his hand. The second choice, Henry Hank, broke a cheekbone in training camp. Desperately, the matchmakers turned to Pastrano. The fight was set, they needed somebody, anybody, who was ranked to fill in. These little guys with the big cigars said of Willie, “Well, he runs all night. He stinks the joint up.” They had no choice, however, but to grudgingly give him the $21,000 he demanded to show up and save the day.

It was a very boring fight—the great defensive-minded Harold Johnson versus the guy on the bicycle Willie Pastrano—but a win is a win. Willie won it and the title in a SD15.

The next year was to be the last in the ring for Willie. He defended his new title three times. On April 10, 1964 he met Gregorio Peralta, 39-3-4, at Municipal Stadium in New Orleans. Peralta decisioned Pastrano five months earlier in a non-title fight, so the new champ was very cautious. Willie won the fight via TKO in round five. On November 30, 1964 at King’s Hall in Manchester, England, the champion met 35-8 Terry Downes. This fight was not going too well for Pastrano. He was behind on the scorecards after eleven rounds. Angelo Dundee told him him at the end of the tenth, “You’re blowing your goddam title.” Willie shouted back “F—k you!” Never at a loss for words, Angelo replied, “F—k me? F—k him! He’s taking your title.” Pastrano bolted out of his corner like a wild man and dropped Downes to the canvas. The Brit managed to get to his feet. The champion knocked him down again. This time, Downes didn’t beat referee Andrew Smyth’s count. It was a TKO11 for Pastrano. He retained his WBC and WBA belts once again.

In his third and final defense of his titles on March 30, 1965, Pastrano took on 34-1-1 Jose Torres of Puerto Rico at the Madison Square Garden. Willie was knocked down in the sixth round but got to his feet to finish the round. In round nine Torres got in close and then whipped around to land a left hook to Pastrano’s right kidney. The champ went down but was up at the count of six. Torres came at him again and landed another left hook to the right kidney. Pastrano went into a clinch and again managed to last out the round. Referee Johnny LoBianco wanted to stop the bout between the ninth and tenth round.  Willie pleaded with the referee to let him continue. LoBianco decided he knew better than Pastrano. It was a TKO9 for the new champion Jose Torres, who later said, “I hit him with everything I got.”

That was Willie’s last fight. He retired that night with a record of 62 wins, 13 losses and 8 draws, with 14 wins coming by KO. He was just twenty-nine years old.

Pastrano went on to make some biker movies in Hollywood. He later sold cars, and later still insurance. He did some public speaking and even worked construction. He had no regrets and always credited boxing with getting him out of poverty. For Willie Pastrano, the mantra “survival of the fleetest” worked quite well for him.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Willie Pastrano Footwork

Harold Johnson vs Willie Pastrano Part 1

Harold Johnson vs Willie Pastrano Part 2

Harold Johnson vs Willie Pastrano Part 3

Harold Johnson vs Willie Pastrano Part 4

Harold Johnson vs Willie Pastrano Part 5

Harold Johnson vs Willie Pastrano Part 6

Gregorio "Goyo" Peralta W 10 Willie Pastrano I, round 6

Jose Torres vs Willie Pastrano

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  1. NYIrish 06:10am, 11/01/2012

    I’m with you Norm on the value of shining the light on the lesser known. Your article on Willie is a gem. His fight with Torres was broadcast on the Friday night fights. I was a kid but it struck me how he suffered murderous body shots, vomited in the bucket between rounds and calmly came out to try and turn it around. Willie was a true pro with a big heart and a sense of humor. That quote was in print. Maybe Peter Heller’s In This Corner. Keep up the good work.

  2. peter 02:41pm, 10/31/2012

    If you can appreciate Willie Pep’s boxing ability, check out Nicolino Locche, the champ from Argentina. I think you’ll be impressed.

  3. Norm Marcus 02:35pm, 10/31/2012

    NYIrish: that is a great quote if true. I wish I had used it in my story. Every fan knows the stories of the famous champs. It’s the obscure champs and contenders that need to be remembered too. They are a big part of the history of boxing.

  4. NYIrish 12:59pm, 10/31/2012

    I read somewhere that between one of the rounds after the sixth Willie was asked by the referee who and where he was. ” I’m Willie Pastrano, getting my ass kicked in Madison Square Garden.”  He was allowed to continue.

  5. the thresher 09:19am, 10/31/2012

    Torres’s body shots on Willie were some of the most brutal in boxing history.

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