Boxing is rife with misconceptions. One of the most glaring is that everyone involved in the game has the soul of a bouncer. Granted, there are plenty of cavemen in our ranks, but there are at least as many intelligent, soulful, compassionate gents in the sweet science as there are skull crackers.
Thell Torrence has made a career out of training fighters. One of his charges, former heavyweight champion heavyweight Hasim “The Rock” Rahman, tangles with Monte Barrett tonight in Chicago for the WBC Interim Heavyweight Title.
Torrance was born and raised and attended Lincoln High School in Camden, Arkansas. He played football and basketball in high school, and was voted Best All-Around Athlete when he graduated in 1955. He was awarded a college scholarship, but “I had to turn the scholarship down,” Torrance told me, “because it was money where I came from, and I went into the military.”
He enlisted in the United States Navy in August 1955 and was assigned to the Special Services Division. It was in the Navy where he first began to box.
“I just started boxing to have something to do, to stay active, and won my first fight against a guy I thought was going to kill me.”
Thell made a pact with himself when he started to fight: “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. If I lose I’ll quit.’ When I lost I had been All-Navy District Champion, and I said, ‘I can’t quit now! He beat me!’ So then I was chasing this guy for the rest of my time, and by the time I saw him again, I had won the All Navy Championship, the California Golden Gloves, the San Diego AAU. I was Amateur Fighter of the Year. And at the time I rang up the guy and looked at him, I says, ‘Man, I’d kill this guy now.’”
Armed with an honorable discharge from the Navy in August 1959, Thell Torrance gave up sailor’s whites for boxer’s satins, turned pro, and was a world-rated junior middleweight.
“Athletics came very easy to me,” recalled Torrance. “And then I was one of those guys that didn’t like to waste time and had to fill it up with something. I had to be learning all the time. So when I got into boxing it was challenging to me, once I started doing it every day as something to learn. And once you get involved with other fighters and other people in the business, it’s exciting. And I was fortunate enough to always be around good teachers; even my amateur trainer, a guy by the name of Willie Browning, one of the greatest guys in my career. And from Willie I went to Eddie Futch, and we’ve been together since that time.”
Eddie Futch was a boxing legend. He went way back and used to spar with Joe Louis at Detroit’s Brewster Gym. Louis always used to tell Futch, “If I can hit you, I know I’m sharp.”
Torrance continued: “The chance to be fortunate enough to meet a person the caliber of Eddie in this insane business of boxing was a benefit in itself. During the times when he had unfortunate things happening in his life gave me the opportunity to walk through and observe the nature in which he handled difficult situations and overcame obstacles. Eddie's insight gave me a chance to see the other side of boxing and the people within it.”
When Torrance turned pro he signed with Lee Born, a manager from LA, and Born selected Eddie Futch as the trainer … a relationship that lasted 42 years.
Torrance’s past roster of champions includes Riddick Bowe, Ken Norton, Tony Tubbs, Virgil Hill, Mike McCallum, Vassiliy Jirov, Hedgeman Lewis, Marlon Starling and Wayne McCullough.
Thell now works out of a gym Las Vegas. He is currently working with former light heavyweight champ Montel Griffin, 2000 Olympic gold medalist super heavyweight Audley Harrison, 1996 Olympic bronze medalist super heavyweight Duncan Dokiwari, 1996 Olympic silver medalist heavyweight David DeFiagabon, as well as The Rock.
Torrance is one of those men who gave his life to boxing and were lucky enough to have boxing return the favor.
“You’re fortunate to get yourself into an environment which you can learn and there’s always something new and there’s something to challenge you. So I just kept going. I was always inquisitive about things. Somebody do something to me, I want to know: How? When? Why? And it turned out real good. It kept me motivated all through this sport. And I’ve been able to apply that same attitude to other things in my life, and it worked out quite well for me,” said Torrance. “We can take some youngster that you can give some of those things that you learned, apply some of our wisdom and see the result. What you’re giving these guys, man, it’s a truly good feeling.”
As he describes it, it sounds like boxing gave Torrance a reward for the heart, as well as for the pocket.
“That’s what motivates me. It’s not the money. You know what I mean? There’s something unique about boxing. And it’s not only me. There’s other guys in the business who take something away from it other than boxing. Just the satisfaction to see guys get their lives straightened out and get back on the straight and narrow – we’ve been fortunate to help them with their like planning and things like that. You can give to others when you see them apply those things. Again, there’s another reward.”
If Thell Torrance had to do it again there’s not much he would do differently. Few men can say that.