The boxing world—the Miami scene, in particular—lost an icon.
Veteran promoter Felix ‘Tuto’ Zabala Sr. passed away Thursday evening, on the eve of the spring season premiere of the long-running Boxeo Telemundo series he helped create in 1989. The legendary boxing figure and founder of All Star Boxing, Inc. was 84 years old at the time of his death, which came after a 20-year-long battle with various health issues.
“My best friend, idol, mentor and the person with the biggest heart I have known,” Felix ‘Tutico’ Zabala Jr., owner and president of All Star Boxing said of his father’s passing. “RIP you fought well over 20 years and 4 months very proud of your heart, a true fighter.”
The elder Zabala was born October 18, 1937 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, though his impact on the sport would come after fleeing to Puerto Rico in 1960 to escape communist rule and later relocating to Miami where he forever left his imprint. A 22-year old Zabala hit the ground running in promoting shows in San Juan throughout the 1960s and 1970s which included the formation of a three-decade long working relationship with Hall of Fame promoter Don King.
The Zabala family also spent most of the past three decades working with Top Rank and Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum.
Zabala represented a variety of world champions, the first being Dominican Republic’s Carlos Teo Cruz who interestingly lost on Zabala’s first promoted show in San Juan. Cruz would go on to become the lineal lightweight champion, scoring a 15-round split decision win over legendary Hall of Famer and long reigning champ Carlos Ortiz in 1968.
Among the other world champions represented by Zabala include Miguel ‘Happy’ Lora, Alfredo Escalera, Angel Espada, Sammy Serrano and the father-son tandem of Wilfredo Vazquez Sr. and Jr.
Zabala forever left his imprint on the sport once setting up shop in Miami in 1980. His promotional efforts led to landing a surplus of world title fights to the region, including Colombia’s Lora’s 12-round decision win over Daniel Zaragoza to capture the WBC bantamweight crown in August 1985. Lora accomplished the feat in front of a pro-Colombian crowd at Tamiami Fairgrounds Auditorium in Miami, with the region hosting five of his seven successful title defenses.
Zabala’s All Star Boxing helped launch Boxeo Telemundo in 1989, which remains the longest running active boxing series now in its 33rd year. The series became an integral part of the family business while showcasing title fights and hundreds of title challengers over the years.
It also coincided with the re-emergence of Wlfredo Vazquez Sr., who would recover from a rough run at bantamweight to become a three-division world champion. Vazquez rallied to knockout Eloy Rojas in the 11th round of their May 1998 to become the lineal and WBA featherweight champion. The ugly side of the sport’s politics would see Vazquez’s WBA title reign come to an end in 1998, as well as dissolving the business relationship between Zabala and King.
Vazquez would remain lineal champion, though losing the crown to Naseem Hamed in April 1998 while collecting a career-best payday.
The elder Zabala was forced away from the day-to-day operations after suffering a massive stroke in 2001. Despite remaining bedridden, Zabala’s influence still remained even after Felix Jr. took over the family business for good after leaving his executive-level career with the NFL.
Zabala Sr. was hailed by many in the industry as the best promoter ever in Miami, and honored by the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame with his enshrinement in 2009. He was joined by his son who was honored in 2014, though a bittersweet year which also saw the passing of Felix Sr’s wife, Carmen.
The elder Zabala is survived by three children—Felix Jr., Betty and Susana—and grandchildren Felix III, Soroya, Carlos, Susy, Alex, Alejandro, Betty, Carolina and Fernando.
His legacy will be honored during Friday’s presentation of Boxeo Telemundo which airs live from Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox