The story of how Willie Pastrano ended up in a boxing gym is an odd one. Born on November 27, 1935 in New Orleans, Pastrano probably liked the po’ boys and jambalaya too much, because as a teenager he tipped the scales at 250 lbs. Pastrano’s friend Ralph Dupas (who later became a 154 lbs. world champion) took up boxing, and after following his pal to the gym, Pastrano caught the bug and took up the sweet science as well.
Pastrano’s weight steadily dropped, but he never quite got over being glove shy. Simply put, Pastrano didn’t like being hit, and he never developed much of a punch himself. As a result, the future six-foot light heavyweight developed a style as a mover and a jabber. Pastrano’s opponents were confronted with a perpetually moving target who stuck the jab in their face all night, a frustrating combination that piled on the points for Pastrano. In some respects, Pastrano was like a taller, 1960s version of Paulie Malignaggi.
In need of money, Pastrano lied about his age turned pro as a featherweight (having dropped literally half his original body weigh in the process!) in 1951 at the age of 15. He was soon in Miami, where he hooked up with trainer Angelo Dundee. By the time Pastrano was a legal adult, he was boxing as a middleweight with a 20-3-3 record. Even by the standards of the day, it was an unusual beginning for a professional boxer.
After turning 18, Pastrano really began to hit his stride. He ran up a three year, 22-fight streak that saw him grow into a full 175-pound boxer. That streak saw a few Draws, but it also saw a win over a faded Joey Maxim and a win over heavyweight contender Rex Layne, who outweighed Pastrano by 23 pounds.
1957 was an interesting year for Pastrano. First, he lost his first fight in ages to Roy Harris, another heavyweight contender who would enjoy a good career, only seriously marred by losses to Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Second, he met up with a 15 year old Cassius Clay. Clay later became the most famous charge of Pastrano’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, and the two boxers sparred often in those days. When one watches Pastrano, it becomes obvious just how much the young “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” fighter learned from the former fat boy from New Orleans.
Pastrano was young and had a strong record, but he could not get reigning champion Archie Moore into the ring with him. Discouraged, Pastrano moved up to heavyweight himself. He often tipped the scales at about 190 lbs, which still meant most of his opponents outweighed him by 10 to 15 lbs. During this time, he went 1-1 with contender Brian London, losing the second fight due to a cut over his left eye. He traveled to Italy and out-pointed their heavyweight contender, Franco Cavicchi. Pastrano was eventually ranked as the #5 heavyweight in the world. However, Pastrano was never really a true big man, and he also lost to British contender Joe Erskine and Alonzo Johnson.
By 1959, Willie Pastrano had dropped back down to light heavyweight. He had a bad run in 1960 and 1961 with two losses and a Draw, but bounced back in 1962. In that year, Pastrano beat heavyweight contender Tom McNeely and Drew with the man who had eluded him for so long, Archie “The Old Mongoose Moore” Pastrano maintains that he could have knocked Moore out, but chose to let his aged opponent off the hook. In the corner, he told Dundee “He looks like Methusalah! He’s old enough to be my Daddy.”
That was followed by a classic trilogy with a rising 175-pound contender in Wayne “Irish” Thorton. Thorton was one of those fighters for whom the crown was always just out of reach, and against Pastrano he went 1-1-1 in back to back fights in 1963. Pastrano first lost to Thorton, then Drew him, and finally beat him. The result of finishing the trilogy on a win was that Pastrano went on to finally achieve his goal of challenging for the light heavyweight championship.
By the time Pastrano challenged for the 175 lbs title in 1963, he was 57-11-8, but still only 28 years old. Nonetheless, he had been a ranked fighter for several years. Ironically, the champion was Harold Johnson, who was older and had been frustrated out of a title shot for even longer. Pastrano was a late substitute, but his stick-and-move game gave Johnson fits for the first five rounds. After that, Johnson found his range and started landing solid body shots, and a spirited contest broke out from that point forward. Johnson almost had Pastrano on the canvas in the 13th, but Pastrano recovered and took control back for the 15th and final round. The result was a close Split Decision victory. Although Johnson later claimed of the result “I never heard of a fighter running and still winning the fight,” Pastrano was now the World Light Heavyweight Champion.
As soon as he had the crown, Pastrano almost lost it, and his reign was not to be very illustrious. Pastrano had a lot of boxing miles on his body, despite his young age. He also liked the party life far too much, drinking heavily and dabbling in drugs. Later that same year, he lost to Argentine contender Gregorio Peralta in a non-title bout. Pastrano gave Peralta a rematch in a 1964 title fight, and managed to stop Peralta on cuts in the 6th. He then went Britain and met contender Terry Downes, who was beating Pastrano for 10 rounds when a tongue-lashing from Dundee sent Pastrano out in a rage, producing an 11th round knockout of the Briton.
Then in 1964, Pastrano defended his title against Jose Torres at Madison Square Garden, who dominated Pastrano. Torres smashed Pastrano’s nose in the 1st, and then landed a double left hook to Pastrano’s body in the 6th, putting him down for the first time in his career (an amazing record, considering how many heavyweights Pastrano fought). By the 7th, Pastrano’s left eye was closing, and the referee stopped the fight between the 9th and 10th Rounds.
Willie Pastrano retired immediately after the Torres fight, with a record of 62-13-8 with 14 KOs. After boxing, he became a spokesperson and actor, and sometimes a boxing referee as well. Pastrano died of liver cancer in 1997.
Sources: independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-willie-pastrano-1287941.html; The Ring; IBHOF; old fight footage.