Willie Pastrano made his professional boxing debut in 1951 after lying about his age to secure a license.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” This quote is most often associated with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, but Ali borrowed it from his trainer Angelo Dundee, who used it to describe the first boxer he trained to win a world championship: New Orleanian Willie Pastrano.
Pastrano was born into crushing poverty on November 27, 1935. By the age of fourteen, he was an overweight kid working the streets of the French Quarter by shining shoes with his best friend, Ralph Dupas. An altercation with some neighborhood toughs convinced Pastrano he needed to learn how to defend himself against the relentless ribbing about his size. On the advice of Dupas, he joined St. Mary’s Gym on Chartres Street and began working out as a boxer.
It wasn’t long before Pastrano dropped more than eighty pounds and grew another seven inches. But it was his speed, not his rudimentary boxing skills, that drew the attention of trainer Whitey Esneault. After several months of intense training, the fifteen-year-old Pastrano lied about his age in order to secure a boxing license. He made his professional debut on September 10, 1951, against Domingo Rivera at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, a fight he won on points in four rounds.
During a bout against Alvin Boudreaux in April 1952 at the Coliseum Arena, Pastrano’s speed and agility caught the eye of Angelo Dundee, a Miami-based trainer. Dundee approached Pastrano and Dupas, by then also a promising young boxer, about having them train in Miami. Esneault and Dundee worked out a management contract that allowed the teenage friends to train in New Orleans while attending Warren Easton High School and then train with Dundee at his Fifth Street Gym in Miami during the summer. That summer, Pastrano won his first six fights in Miami.
Having married his high school sweetheart, Pastrano was able to support his growing family with the ever-increasing prize money from frequent matches. He fought, on average, more than seven times a year between 1952 and 1959. His big break came on June 1, 1963, in Las Vegas, Nevada, against World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association Light Heavyweight champion Harold Johnson. In a story reminiscent of the movie Rocky, the fifth-ranked Pastrano was given a title shot against Johnson after two other fighters had backed out. The underdog Pastrano won a fifteen-round split decision and became the World Light Heavyweight Champion.
Through Dundee, Pastrano became friends with Ali. The two boxers worked out together at Dundee’s Miami gym, and Ali referred to him as “Sweet Willie P.” Pastrano successfully defended his title twice but retired after losing to Jose Torres at Madison Square Garden in New York City in March 1965. Pastrano compiled a record of sixty-two wins, thirteen losses, and eight draws, for a .746 winning percentage. After leaving the ring, he struggled with financial difficulties and a heroin addiction. He held jobs from nightclub bouncer to casino greeter, to trainer and manager for young boxers.
Pastrano was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (1965), the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame (1973), and the World Boxing Hall of Fame (1988).
Pastrano died of cancer in New Orleans on December 6, 1997, at the age of sixty-two.