The local boxing scene of the early 1980s underwent a vibrant shift and Felix “Tuto” Zabala played a leading role in the transformation.
Zabala, the Hall of Fame promoter who helped South Florida land multiple world title fights and kept the area busy with frequent local cards during a 20-year span, died Thursday of respiratory failure at his Westchester home, son Felix Jr. said. Zabala was 83.
“My father suffered from poor health too long,” the younger Zabala said. “He put up a tremendous battle, but it just became too much for him. He has left us but his memory and legacy will live forever.
“When I was a child, I thought of him as Superman. Eventually I realized that a man like that couldn’t exist. But now with his passing, you can’t overlook the odds he beat because of the health obstacles he encountered.”
South Florida had a boxing presence since the 1950s thanks to promoter Chris Dundee’s Tuesday night shows at the Miami Beach Auditorium. Zabala maintained the sport’s imprint on the local sports calendar after he moved to Miami from Puerto Rico in 1980.
But Zabala also expanded boxing’s appeal because of the changing demographics in Miami Dade County. Fighters from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Colombia became headliners in Zabala-promoted shows. Zabala’s promotional acumen was exemplified on Aug. 6, 1985, when a packed Tamiami Fairgrounds Auditorium cheered Colombian native Miguel “Happy” Lora to his world bantamweight championship win over defending champion Daniel Zaragoza.
The Tamiami Fairgrounds was just one of several local venues Zabala used to promote fights. Zabala also presented cards at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Miami Jai Alai Fronton, Flagler Dog Track and Mahi Temple Auditorium.
“When you went to a Tuto Zabala card you didn’t see mismatches, you didn’t see a promoter trying to build the records of his fighters,” said Ed Kaplan, who hosted sports talk shows on WQAM and WINZ for 25 years. “He told me that once because it was good for the fans but also, more importantly, he wanted to know if his fighters could fight. His cards were delightful from the four-round preliminaries to the main event.”
In addition to Lora, other world champions under Zabala’s promotional tutelage included Teo Cruz, Vicente Rondon, Sugar Baby Rojas, Edwin Rosario and Wilfredo Vazquez Sr. Soon after Zabala became his promoter, contender Vazquez won world titles in three weight divisions.
Zabala was born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba. During his youth, Zabala played basketball and baseball. After graduating high school, Zabala attended the University of Havana.
In 1959, the communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro came to power in the island nation and Zabala quickly joined the anti-government movement. He participated in clandestine activities but with the continued suppression of civil liberties, Zabala left Cuba for Jamaica in 1960.
After a short stay in Jamaica, Zabala settled in Puerto Rico, where he quickly began his career as a promoter. For the next two decades, Zabala’s shows were well received by fans and media alike and his status in the sport expanded beyond Puerto Rico.
Although he no longer lived in Cuba, Zabala remained a fervent anti-communist in his quest for his homeland’s freedom from Castro’s grip. Zabala’s cards in Puerto Rico often were fundraisers for anti-Castro organizations.
“He was a simple and humble human being who gave whatever he could,” his son said. “The word no didn’t exist in his vocabulary. Perhaps a ‘let’s see’ or perhaps ‘maybe’ but never no.”
Zabala’s connections with the sport’s powerful promoters also attracted additional world championship bouts to South Florida.
“Tuto was the greatest Cuban promoter ever,” said boxing historian Enrique Encinosa. “He could never promote in Cuba but in Puerto Rico he helped fill Hiram Bithorn Stadium many times and he continued to bring elite fights and attract crowds when he moved to Miami.”
When Don King moved his operations to Florida in the mid-1990s, he counted on Zabala to help him promote world title fights here.
“Tuto was a great man as far as I’m concerned because he was loyal,” King said. “His word meant everything. He said what he meant and meant what he said. I certainly appreciated that. He stood out.” because of it.”
Zabala continued promoting through the 1990s and 2000. Moreover, Zabala secured deals with Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo to televise fights from his South Florida promoted shows.
In January 2001, Zabala suffered a debilitating stroke that forced him to retire. Zabala’s career accomplishments were recognized in 2009, when he was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.
Zabala Jr. was early in his tenure as general manager of the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe at the time of his father’s stroke. He resigned and followed the elder Zabala’s promotional footsteps. In 2002, Zabala Jr. founded All Star Boxing Inc., which continues to present shows through Telemundo. The company’s staff also includes Zabala Jr.’s son, Felix III.
On Friday, Zabala drove to Kissimmee, where All-Star Boxing presented a card later that evening. While son was by his father’s side during his final hours, Felix III and All-Star Boxing matchmaker Ruben De Jesus oversaw the company’s last details before its Friday night show.
“Three generations in this sport is not easy to accomplish,” Zabala Jr. said. “With my son also carrying the family name in our profession, it now requires me to assume my father’s role as protector of our company and family.”
In addition to his son and grandson, Zabala is survived by daughters Betty and Susana and eight grandchildren. Zabala’s wife Carmen died in 2014.
Services will be private.