The calendar said it was 1964, the year of the dragon, the one that James Bond uncovered a plot to contaminate the Fort Knox gold reserve, and the one that followed Willie Pastrano’s winning of the light-heavyweight championship, and now the 175-pound titleholder was sitting at the bar in Julie’s Pad in Miami, drinking Dewar’s and milk freshly served by Johnny Malloy, one of the world’s better barkeeps, who thought God came closest to perfection when he created a shot and a beer. A wispy Irishman out of South Boston, Malloy idled through life with a narrow handsome face, wavy silver hair and a sense of humor that could be devastating, if not downright hazardous to your health.

“How can you guys drink that garbage,” Malloy growled as he slid a similar vessel of Dewar’s 12 Special Blend and milk to my front. Normally, Malloy mixed Pastrano a Bloody Mary, with one, two or three shots of Vodka, depending upon how close he was to a combat.

“Scotch?” I answered, innocently. Malloy impaled me with one of those frosty Gaelic looks.

“It’s in my contract,” Willie said.

“To drink Scotch and milk?” For himself, Malloy never mixed hard liquor with anything but air, but saw no harm in chasing it with a beer.

Willie laughed. “No, just milk. A few weeks ago, I signed a contract to be a spokesman for the South Florida Dairy something-or-other. Part of the deal is that I can only drink milk in public.”

“The other part,” I said, “is that the deal is only good while Willie is champion. He loses the title, and the South Florida Dairy something-or-others and all the other local hypocrites will dump him faster than you can say Willie-who?”

The previous summer, two days after Willie upset heavily favored Harold Johnson by split decision in Las Vegas, I was at the Miami Airport, trailing in the wake of a gaggle of North Miami politicians and other local public lowlifes looking to cash in on Willie’s newly acquired celebrity-status. Not one of those self-inflated slugs would have risked a plug nickel betting Willie to win. As a neutral observer from The Miami Herald sports toyshop, which did not mix well with my secondary role as a fiercely partisan friend, I was hoping the new champion would tell them all to stuff it. There was the mayor of North Miami, for instance, who just a few months earlier had approved the city’s plan to take Pastrano’s home after he had missed several deadlines for school and property taxes. The city attorney, the fat guy in a silk suit and a road-kill hairpiece waving a We Love Willie sign, had demanded the judge immediately toss Willie and his young family into the street.

“Is the house going anywhere?” the judge asked. The judge’s left eye, a shade darker brown that the other, followed a flight plan of its own, independent of its more stable partner to the right. Watching the wandering orb was hypnotic, making life increasingly unbearable for the lawyers that appeared before him.

“No, your honor, but…”

“Then we will wait until I have had a chance to chat with Willie. It may take some time. Next case.”

At the airport, my truculent friend folded in the face of pseudo idolatry. He greeted the fawning phonies as long lost brothers and sisters; he even hugged the mayor, a craven act for which I will never forgive him, even though he ascended to a far better place 19 days before Christmas of 1997.

“Why didn’t you kiss him on the cheek,” I said, while checking his pleasant Creole-Irish-Italian features for battle mementos from the Johnson fight. Both cheeks were bore fresh bruises, but all the dents and scars I counted were from other wars. When Chris Dundee, the Miami Beach promoter and the strategist behind Willie’s post-New Orleans career, first began talking of Pastrano challenging Harold Johnson for the 175-pound title, I thought the veteran boxing showman had taken leave of his senses. Willie thought much the same thing when Chris called him into his office in the Miami Beach Auditorium to give him “some great news.”

The following afternoon, after Dundee had publicly announced that he was negotiating with Teddy Brenner, the Madison Square Garden matchmaker and a longtime enemy of Pastrano’s, for a Johnson fight, Willie found me having a late lunch at Julie’s Pad, which meant I had to trade in my Bloody Mary for a Scotch and milk.

“Hi, Wilfred,” Malloy chirped cheerfully. “You’re late. Did you drink brunch somewhere else? Or has Dundee sicced Lou Gross on you early? What are you drinking, breakfast or lunch?”

Lou Gross was Pastrano’s minder, a Chris Dundee employee but a Pastrano loyalist, a small roundish man who took his task of keeping Willie out of trouble most seriously. On Gross’s business cards, which he handed out by the hundreds, mostly to young ladies in the faint hope he might get lucky, he listed himself as Willie’s trainer. More correctly, he was Pastrano’s watchdog. Dundee said Lou was better than a ball and chain.

“The only way I’d feel more secure with Willie was if I rented him a room at the dog pound,” said Dundee. “Willie could get in trouble during a visit to an old ladies home.”

“Lou has two idols,” Pastrano claimed. “Me and Al Capone. Now how could I not like a guy that puts me up on a pedestal beside Capone. But I truly hate those big fat cigars that he always has stuck in his pudgy face.”

When Willie was in training, whenever he went out to eat, Gross would be there. His first move would be to flip cigar ashes in Willie’s water. Or, he’d just dip his cigar in Willie’s glass.

“Damn him,” Pastrano would snarl, “I know water puts on weight; I just hate the way he chooses to remind me. I could die of dehydonation. Some day I am gonna take that cigar…”

Among his other duties, Gross was in charge of seeing that Willie ran in the morning. Willie hated to run at any time, dawn or dusk, day or night. And, Lou was charged with seeing that Willie made it to training: at Dundee’s 5th St. Gym in Miami Beach if they were at home; or, at whatever gym was handy if they were on the road. Willie hated to train, at home or away, but especially at home. His dream was to make enough money to buy the 5th St. Gym and have it dynamited.

Religiously, after Pastrano had signed for a fight but had not yet started training, Gross would wait until Willie and his family were away and then slip into his house and paste notes on the refrigerator. Willie’s wife, Faye, a sweet Irish girl with a plethora of patience, thought Gross was a certified lunatic, but then, she said: “Most of the people Willie knows are crazy.”

The swaggering little watchdog’s notes would say things such as:

I poisoned your water.

(The opponent) has a huge rear end.

Stay out of the refridgrator (sic).

Think pure thoughts.

Do not make any new friends and stay away from the old ones.

The notes would stay up one day, two at the most, before Faye tossed them.

Meanwhile at Julie’s Pad, warmed not at all by Malloy’s cheery greeting, Pastrano growled. “Bloody Mary, one vodka.”

Reaching for a chimney glass, Malloy said: “You fighting or not”? He freely poured his generous equivalent of one shot of Vodka into his own prepared Bloody Mary mix, a barbaric blend of tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, celery seed, horseradish, minced onion and fire.

“No, I am not!” Willie said, half shouting. “You know Chris is always claiming he is looking out for me. Well, this time he is looking out by trying to make a fight with Harold Johnson.”

“Harold Johnson? The light heavyweight champion Johnson?” said Malloy, adding a second oversized helping of Russian potato moonshine to Willie’s Bloody Mary.

“You might get lucky,” I said, before ducking the wadded cocktail napkin Willie threw at me.

“Right, Harold Johnson should be easy for you, Laddie,” Malloy mused, uncapping a Bud for himself. There was devilment in his light blue eyes, a watery mischief. “You better call Chris and take the fight. Goodness, just think of it, Willie Pastrano, the light-heavyweight champion of the world. And why not? Johnson is getting old. He only fights hard enough to win. If you don’t hurt him, he won’t hurt you. And you never hit anybody hard enough to make them angry.”

Willie drained his drink, slid the empty across the bar. “You know what you can do, Malloy. And after that, you can build me another one, but just one shot. Chris is still asking Brenner for more money. If he calls, I want to be sober enough to tell him to drop dead.”

“What did he offer?” I asked, suddenly remembering that I was a working boxing writer. Sometimes I tended to forget, usually in a bar.

“Can you believe: Brenner started at ten thousand, went to twelve-five and was at fifteen big ones when I walked out of Dundee’s office. Dundee keeps demanding more and sooner or later Brenner is going to walk away. He only hates me so much. I’ve fought every animal Chris has thrown at me, but I am not fighting any animal that fights like Johnson. Just looking at his picture makes my head hurt.”

The bell of the telephone sounded louder than usual. “Julie’s Pad,” Malloy said. “Oh, hi, Chris. Willie? Yeah, he just came in. I was just pouring him a cup of coffee. Hold on.”

He held the phone out to Pastrano, who refused to take it. Malloy shook the phone receiver hard. Sighing, Willie took it. “What”? He listened for a moment; handed the phone to Malloy; finished his fresh drink without pause; and left without saying another word.

Malloy grinned at me.

That night, I called Willie at home. He did not sound happy. He told me that the drive from the bar to Dundee’s office took him nearly an hour; normally, the trip should have taken no more than 10 minutes, 15 if the traffic was heavier than usual. When he arrived, Dundee said Brenner had fattened his offer to $20,000.

“Oh, God,” Willie said.

Dundee laughed. “I told Angelo to tell him that he was getting close, but not close enough.”

Angelo, of course, was Chris’s younger and more famous brother, and Pastrano’s manager/trainer-of-record. Angelo also handled the reins for (then) Cassius Clay, Luis Rodriguez, Florentino Fernandez, Gomeo Brennan, and a wide assortment of slightly lesser known pugilistic thugs, muggers and assassins. More importantly, at least for Willie, Angelo had been the strategist in his corner for his last 45 fights, which in a close battle usually was enough to give Pastrano the edge. “When Angelo talked to me in the corner, I listened,” Pastrano said. “I can’t tell you how many times, he talked me into winning fights I did not think I could win.”

Chris Dundee glanced at his watch, a Timex given him by his teenage son and daughter for Christmas 1960, and said: “I’ll give him five more minutes. I don’t know what you did to make Brenner dislike you so much, but if he could get it past a boxing commission, he’d pay us a fortune to match you against the First Marine Division.”

“Why me”? Pastrano said. “The last time I looked, I was only the number six contender. And I thought Johnson was going to fight Mauro Mina, the number one?”

“Nobody knows Mina. All his fights have been in Lima, Peru,” said Chris. “And he’s got a medical problem.”

“He’s got a detached retina,” said Angelo.

“What about Rinaldi? He’s No.2?”

“He’s Italian,” said Angelo, an Italian-American. Then he laughed. “It was going to be Rinaldi but he turned an ankle or something sparring. Henry Hank was supposed to be the substitute but he tore up a shoulder in training camp. Looks like you’re it, Willie.”

“Eddie Cotton. Gustav Scholz,” Pastrano said. “What about Bobo Olson? He’s a former middleweight champion and he’s a ranked light-heavy. That would be a helluva fight.”

One or the other Dundee brother reminded their No. 6 contender that Johnson had defeated Cotton and Scholz in the past year or so, and that Olson was now a fattened middleweight intent on building a retirement fund.

“Besides,” said Angelo, grinning, “Brenner wants you.”

“Yeah, well Brenner can—-never mind, to tell you guys the truth, I don’t think I deserve to be number six,” Pastrano said. “Maybe eight or nine. Nine, I guess; nine, right? Even ten on a bad night. Brenner is out to get me.”

Chris’s private phone rang. It was Brenner, who told Angelo that he would go to twenty two-five ($22,500) and not a penny more. That’s the abridged version; I’ve left out some of Brenner’s more acerbic words. Placing one hand over the receiver, Angelo said: “Chris, Teddy wants to talk to you. Now.”

The elder Dundee took the phone. “Hi, Teddy. This is Chris. What’s happening? Yeah, I heard. I was out of the office but Angelo filled me in. Teddy, that’s not nice; I never talk about you that way. Yeah, yeah, twenty two-five. It’s a good number, I love it, but we’ve got to have another fifteen hundred for expenses. Say yes and we’ve got a fight.”

Chris laughed and handed the phone back to Angelo. “He hung up.” Less than 10 minutes later Brenner called back and OK’d the $1,500 for expenses. Just before he slammed down the phone, Brenner told Chris: “You are fighting the first of July in Vegas and I hope Johnson kills your big-butt fighter.”

“Sure, Teddy, whatever.”

With both sides in financial agreement, the following morning Gross drove Pastrano to the Fifth St. Gym, a second-story loft that had once served as a modestly successful Chinese restaurant run by a Cuban and a Greek. Under the gym, a short block west from where the Atlantic surf pounded the South Miami beachfront, was a drug store where a nasty-tempered waitress served bad coffee and complained constantly about her stingy boss and the cheap customers that never left a tip.

After plodding up the 14 badly scuffed steps from the street, Pastrano entered the gym and found Chris seated on a straight-backed chair just inside the door waiting for him. The old man who usually sat in the chair extorting fifty cents from gym visitors stood off to one side glaring at his boss. Beside Dundee’s chair was a small desk holding a telephone with an anti-long distance lock jutting from the dial. Not far to the left was an old fashion telephone booth, where fighters could make all the long distance calls they could pay for.

(One of the stories that went with the gym was that Chris Dundee  answered the telephone in his office one day to hear an operator say: “Mr. Dundee, will you accept a collect call from” – and she named one of the promoter’s former fighters.

“From who?”

The operator repeated the name.

“Did he say what he wanted?”

Dundee could hear the ex-fighter telling the operator he wanted to borrow three hundred dollars.

“He needs a loan,” said the operator.

“Can you hear him?”

“Of course.”

“Well,” Dundee said, “then you loan him the three hundred dollars.” Click.)

“Work out and then go home and pack,” Dundee said. “Brenner wants you and Angelo in Vegas for a press conference tomorrow morning. Your plane leaves at 7:30 tonight.”

Boxers hate press conferences, boring affairs designed solely for the benefit of the promoter, who tries to make every fight sound like World War III while introducing his latest financial backers. The boxers only show up because it is in their contracts. The boxing writers show up because they have been promised free food and booze, not necessarily in the order, because little worth writing ever comes out of one of the pleonastic dog-and-pony shows. The TV suits are there, armed with their store bought million-dollar smiles and 10-cent questions, and the next intelligent thing one of them asks a fighter will be the first.

When Pastrano discovered that the National flight out of Las Vegas, the one returning him and Angelo to Miami, would make a pit stop in New Orleans at a little past three in the afternoon, he stopped grousing about having to attend Brenner’s press conference. When the plane landed in New Orleans, Pastrano got off, telling Angelo he would be in Miami the following day.

“Where you going?” said Angelo. “Chris will kill you.”

“Tell him I went to see The Tomb.”

That morning, Willie had worked out at Johnny Tocco’s gym in Vegas. He weighed 182 pounds and he still had four weeks to shed seven pounds. Before the plane landed in New Orleans, he had decided not to go home, where his mama would stuff him with a mountain of macaroni and several loaves of homemade bread. Instead, he checked into the Marie Antoinette Hotel a few steps off Bourbon St. in The French Quarter. That night he never left the tiny hotel, where he ate cheese and crackers for dinner. He went to bed at 9 p.m.

The following morning, he took a cab to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. On the way, he had the cabbie stop at a floral shop, where he bought two passion flowers. When they reached the ancient cemetery, he told the cabbie to return in an hour. A 10-minute walk took him to the tomb of Marie Laveau, a nineteenth century witch who had been burned at the stake. Willie’s mother had introduced him to the witch, figuratively speaking, when he was in the third grade. He had found a drawing of her in an old book about witchcraft in the public library downtown. According to the drawing, Marie Laveau had been very beautiful, with large, dark eyes and raven hair that hung to her waist. According to one legend, she had lived in a swamp in a hollow log with a one-eyed snake and a three-legged dog. Willie knew that was nonsense. What was real was that she predicted futures for people that they did not like what they heard. She made them afraid; they torched her.

Pastrano always found that somewhat amusing. “If she lived today, she would be just another pretty lady dabbling in ESP, a little crazy maybe,” he said, “but if you burned everybody who was a little crazy, the world would be nothing but smoke and ashes, and who would be left to light the last match?”

Willie had grown up believing in witchcraft. One of his great aunts, the sister of his mother’s mother, Aunt Leala, lived in Bayou Country and made soup out of whole frogs and Spanish moss and ground cat bones, and, said Pastrano: “God only know what else, and I was told that if you drank it while it was steaming hot, it gave you great powers. Unfortunately, she passed away when I was two and I never got any of her soup.”

“Would you have drunk it?”

“Damn right.”

He had better luck with Uncle Antoine, Leala’s younger brother, who did not die until he was 103 and Willie was 19. Pastrano described his great uncle as being a bony 6’8”, with long, thin fingers, a knee-length grayish beard, a handlebar mustache, and five teeth, two up, three down.

“He was scary looking,” said Willie. “The purple veins on the backs of his hands seem to be trying to be pushed through parchment skin. When he was doing an incantation over you, his hands trembled something fierce. But I never went to him without a problem that he did not solve.”

Once, early in his pro career, Pastrano pulled a back muscle in training. Nothing helped. When he went to Uncle Antoine, the old man told him to lie flat on the floor. While muttering an incantation, he rubbed Willie’s back with an odorous ointment.

“When he  finished, my back hurt worse than ever,” said Pastrano.

The old man told him to stand up. For a moment, the pain in his back increased until he could hardly stand it. Then, it was gone: one moment agony; the next incredible bliss.

“I’ve never had back pain since,” said Pastrano. “Stuff like that makes you believe. Perhaps, it was nothing more than hypnotic suggestion. But to me, Aunt Leala and Uncle Antoine had special gifts. I never doubted that. And you sure don’t want to make people like that angry at you.”

As a boy, Pastrano visited Marie Laveau’s tomb often, always with an arrow and a pair of passion flowers. Those were placed on the tomb: the arrowhead pointing toward the headstone, one flower to each side of the arrow.

“Mama told me that if you placed the arrow with the head pointing in the wrong direction,” Pastrano said, “you will die within a month. Other people believe their wishes will come through if they walked around the tomb three times. But Mama told me that the only thing that works is the arrow and the passion flowers.”

After correctly positioning the arrow, which he had bought in Las Vegas, and the passion flowers, Pastrano allowed himself to think of Harold Johnson. “I was alone,” he said, “but I felt that Marie Leveau was standing beside me. And when I thought of Johnson, I no longer was afraid. I felt the same secure warmth as when Mama wrapped me in her arms when I was a small boy. I knew Johnson could not beat me.”

The day of the fight, it rained. Pastrano, Ralph Dupas, who had flown in the day before from Miami, where he was training for his first defense of the WBC/WBA junior middleweight title, and an out-of-town newspaper writer sat in Willie’s room at Caesars Palace sharing a light brunch. Pastrano and Dupas, the older of the two by 30 days, had grown up a few houses apart on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, a long block from the Mississippi River; they had been best friends as far back as either could remember.

“I don’t know why Ralph put up with me,” Pastrano once told me. “He was a hard-nosed street fighter from the day he was born and I was a fat little coward who ran from even the suggestion of a fight. If it wasn’t for Ralph, I’d still be running.”

One afternoon, after watching his best friend cowering under an assault by a skinny little kid half his size, Dupas took Fat Meat, as Pastrano was known, by the neck and dragged him to Whitey Esneault’s Gym in St. Mary’s Italian Church, three blocks from where they went to school, occasionally. A one-legged Great War veteran, Esneault turned out outstanding boxers at St. Mary’s from the 1930s until his death in 1968. Brilliant footwork was the trademark of a successful Esneault boxer.

Seven Dupas brothers—Al, Anthony, Bert, Claude, Eddie, Mike and Ralph—followed the well-traveled French Quarter path to the Academique of Esneault. Most of them were told to go home and not come back until they were strong enough to hold up their hands. Ralph’s rejection came when he was 11; he kept going back until he made it when he was 13. He was 14 when, on Aug. 7, 1950, after cleaning up all the amateurs his weight in the area, he used a doctored birth certificate to turn pro. Fancying himself a puncher, he was knocked out by South African named Kid Centello in his eighth pro fight.

“Now, Ralph,” the patient old man said to him, “maybe you will listen.” That’s when Dupas traded in his ineffective war club for a set of Fred Astaire dancing shoes and would, before his career ended, win 106 of 125 bouts, with only 19 knockouts. As his record climbed, they began to call him Native Dancer after one of the greatest racehorses of all time with a record of 21 wins in 22 starts.

For weeks, Pastrano had listened to Chris and Angelo and Lou Gross blow confidence-building smoke in his ear; he wanted Dupas with him, someone he could trust to tell him the truth, good or bad; more importantly, he wanted to talk with someone who had gone 15 rounds, an unnatural distance for someone that had only gone 12 rounds, and that just once. Johnson scared him, but that was natural; all opponents scared him until the first punch. The thought of fighting an additional 15 championship minutes terrified him.

“Scared,” Dupas asked him, grinning.

“Damn right,” said Pastrano. “I’m a sprinter and now I have to run a marathon.”

“That’s good, that you are scared,” Dupas said, losing the grin. “That means you won’t do something stupid. It’s a tough fight and anybody that tells you different is lying. You stand there and trade with Johnson and he will take your head off. You gotta get in, get off, and get out. I mean in a hurry. In and out. You stop moving and he will really will stop your moving.”

Pastrano nodded, but that is not what he had to hear. He had already figured out how to fight Johnson. A few days earlier he had said: “If I move in on this guy and I stay inside too long, he’ll put my head in the nickel seats. Against him, a good three-punch combination can get you killed. Three shots: bam, bam, bam. But not against Johnson. Just as you are getting off the third bam, he’s banging you goodbye. And I don’t want to hurt him. Lord, I do not want to hurt him. You hurt him and he hurts you, and he carries the bigger hurt. He has a hook that won’t quit until it is sticking out of the other side of your body.”

Pastrano told Dupas it was not Johnson that worried him, it was the championship distance, 15 rounds, 45 minutes, the four-minute mile for a boxer.

“Fifteen stinking rounds,” Willie said. “Man, that’s forever. I’d rather fight Johnson in three 10-round fights, than in one for 15-rounds. I don’t know if I can go that far.”

“Nobody does, until they do it,” said Dupas, who had already gone 12 rounds six times and 15 rounds twice. “Willie, you have to set a different pace. Johnson won’t pressure you; he’s not that kind of fighter. Get outside, way outside, and take a walk. Take your time. Don’t worry; he will be happy to let you. He’ll want a breather, too. When you see him coasting, you coast. When he moves in, you move away. The difference between 15 rounds and 10 rounds is mental. Don’t sweat it. Don’t think about it. Let it happen. Are you going to eat the rest of your salad?”

Just before the opening bell rang, Gross told Willie: “Take this bum out. Bust him up.”

Angelo said: “Stick and move. Take the angles. Don’t give him nothing to hit.”

Pastrano looked at Dupas, who grinned and said: “Run, Willie. Use the left hand and run. In an out. Smoke and mirrors.”

For five rounds, Johnson could not find Pastrano, who fought in ever-changing spurts, mixing stinging jabs with whistling rights, using every move Whitey Esneault had taught him plus a few he had picked up fighting hard heavyweights looking for a soft touch. They called him “Willie the Wisp,” and that nom-de-guerre never fit him more snugly than the night he fought Johnson. He was there, he was gone, a puff of smoke that Johnson followed inside a square of canvas and never caught; or, almost never caught.

For 75 fights, eight rounds, and two minutes and 54 seconds, Pastrano had never been off his feet. Near the end of the ninth round, the boxers became tangled in a clinch. Anticipating the end of the round, Pastrano relaxed and Johnson almost tore his head off with a left hook that traveled less than five inches.

Later, Pastrano said: “That hook hit me dead on the jaw just as the bell sounded. I thought I was going down. I staggered back a few feet; my head spun but my legs held. I could hear an alarm ringing inside my head and for a silly moment I thought I had to get up and do road work. I started toward my corner but I kept veering to the left. I knew where to go; I just couldn’t get there.”

Jimmy Olivos, the referee out of Reno, said: “Your corner is over there, Willie. The right corner is that way, son.”

Pastrano said: “I know. I’m trying to get there.”

Olivos grabbed Pastrano’s left arm and guided him to the corner. Then he peered into Willie’s eyes. “You know where you are?” he said.

“I’m fighting Harold Johnson in Las Vegas and you just let that big SOB hit me in the head with an axe,” Pastrano said.

Olivos laughed, but he held up three fingers. “How many?”

“You’re missing two.”

The referee nodded at Angelo. “He’s OK.”

Pastrano came out for the 10th round riding a motorbike. In the 13th round, he stayed in one place an instant too long and a Johnson right hand rocketed off his head. The champion stepped back, expecting Pastrano to fall. Willie smacked him in the mouth with his own right hand.

“I was in the middle of a side-to-side and he caught me with a sledgehammer right hand,” Pastrano said, looking back. “The punch caught me in midair and drove me back on my heels. He was looking for me to fall and I came back with my own right. It was the greatest right hand I had ever thrown. A monster, a punch born out of fear. Marie Leveau had kissed my fist. When Harold stepped back, I pinged him with four light jabs and moved away. The crowd went wild. The people suddenly were for me. My God, I thought: ‘I can win this. I really can win it.’”

After 14 rounds, it was anybody’s fight. The crowd of less than 2,500 inside the Las Vegas Convention Center was stirring angrily. The fans had come to see an execution. Most of them had bet on the 5-1 favored champion. More than a few appreciated the beauty of Pastrano’s skills, but the majority roared their disapproval of Johnson’s ineffective efforts.

In the corner, Angelo gave Pastrano his final marching orders. The little trainer had a funny squeaky voice, but when he uses it in the corner, it packed two tons of authority. Angelo was a master at retooling a tired fighter’s mind. He was in command; he was the boss; and the guy on the milking stool had damn-well better listen.

“You need this round,” Angelo said. “You win this one and you are the champion. Right now it is up for grabs and it is gonna go to the guy that wants this round the most. These are the three biggest minutes of your life, Willie. Don’t blow it, son. In and out, but get those points. Jab the stuffin’ out of him, keep him off balance, don’t let him get off nothing. Win with the left hand; it is the most beautiful left hand in the world. Look at him over there, he is so tired he doesn’t know if he can stand up.”

The last round was all hammers and feathers. Johnson missed with his desperation hammers; Willie piled up the points with his quick feathers. It was pure Sweet Science, the art of self-defense. The Marquis of Queensberry would have loved it.

At the final bell, Johnson wrapped Pastrano inside a pair of huge muscular arms. “Oh, there you are, Willie,” he said, grinning. “And all this time I thought I was in here alone. I kept looking to see who was hitting me. You SOB, you fought a sweet fight. You earned the title.”

Pastrano studied Johnson’s face. His left eye was nearly closed. His face was covered with tiny nicks, as though he had run through a blizzard of razor blades. Willie grinned at him. “Thank you, Harold,” he said.

The scoring was based on a five-point must system. Olivos scored it for Pastrano, 69-68. Judge John Romero of Las Vegas gave it to Johnson, 69-68. And Judge Harry Krause of Las Vegas scored it, 69-67 “for the new … light-heavyweight … champion … of … the … world …”

Willie Pastrano died in New Orleans on Dec. 12, 1997. He gave much more than he ever received. OK, Willie, I forgive you for hugging the mayor.