In the movies, Rocky Balboa trained for his fights by punching sides of beef in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse.
Vidal Flores didn’t do that at the various meat packing plants where he worked in the 1950s and ‘60s, but a fight he had in one of them was responsible for the boxing career in which Flores won the Wisconsin state middleweight championship and became one of Milwaukee’s most exciting and popular fighters.
A native of Floresville, Texas, Flores came to Milwaukee in 1953 and started working at the Plankinton Packing House in the city's Menomonee Valley. One day he and a co-worker got into a dispute, and Flores picked up a butcher knife. “I couldn’t fight, and I knew I couldn’t beat him with my hands,” he recalled in an interview 10 years ago.
Friends intervened before things got out of hand, and Flores decided to go to the Urban League boxing gym run by the legendary Baby Joe Gans to learn how to handle himself in a fight. He went from 208 pounds down to 147, and won state Golden Gloves championships in 1957 and ‘58.
As a professional, he won 17 fights, lost six, and in the words of a 1967 Milwaukee Journal article, “won his way into the hearts of the fight fans with his aggressive battling.”
Floresdied on February 6 at the age of 72 after being ganged up on by diabetes, liver problems and myriad other medical conditions.
Known and admired as much for his decency and compassion outside the ropes as for his relentless style between them, Flores was a devout Catholic who didn’t train on Sundays, and when he wasn’t fighting and working to support his wife, Garnetta, and their 14 children, regularly visited people in hospitals and counseled fellow Catholics struggling with their faith.
“That’s the kind of person Vidal is,” said Garnetta Flores in a 1969 newspaper interview about her husband. “He’ll do anything to help his fellow man.”
Except in the ring, of course. “He’s strong and aggressive. He stays on top of you all the time, so you better be ready for an all-out battle or he’ll run you out of the ring,” said Billy Braggs, the classy Milwaukee middleweight who lost two of three fights to Flores, including a rousing match for the state 160-pound title in 1967.
Just 5’7” tall, Flores had to bore in against his usually taller opponents. “I got to stay on top of them,” he once said, and the result was always pleasing to fight fans.
Milwaukee Sentinel boxing writer Ray Grody called the October 23, 1967 Flores-Braggs fight “one of the most exciting scraps seen here in a long while, much to the delight of the fans who gave the battlers a thumping ovation at fight’s end.”
Floresturned pro in 1959 and won his first three fights. Then he was knocked out in the first round by the more experienced Doug MacLeod at the Milwaukee Auditorium on June 25, 1962, and quit the ring in disgust with his manager, whom he accused of overmatching him.
Four years later, he started training again under Teddy “Cyclone” Porter, who told him that his mistake against MacLeod was not keeping his hands up. “He had me in his basement for six months, teaching me how to keep them up.” Flores recalled in a later interview.
Under Porter's management, Flores won 10 comeback fights, and on December 9, 1968, got revenge against MacLeod by winning an eight-round decision over the Michigan fighter in Milwaukee.
In his next fight, on February 2, 1969, the 34-year-old Flores met top 10 middleweight contender Art Hernandez. It was the Milwaukee fighter’s first 10-round match, and Hernandez, 27, from Omaha, Nebraska, had over 40 fights to just 17 for Flores. Hernandez had drawn with Sugar Ray Robinson, and fought world champion Nino Benvenuti.
But it took a big rally in the last round for him to pull out a decision victory over Flores. “The bull-shouldered Milwaukeean won the hearts of the fans with his never ending challenge,” wrote Grody. “He was in relentless pursuit of his more experienced foe, but just failed by a round to pull out the triumph.”
Hernandez won the final round and the decision after he knocked Flores’ mouthpiece out with a right uppercut in the final minute and then scored with another hard right that split the local fighter’s mouth open.
In an interview several years ago from Omaha, Hernandez recalled that Flores “made me fight my hardest to win the decision,” and that “he could really take a punch.” In fact, Hernandez said, that second right uppercut that split Flores' lip also split open his right boxing glove.
“After the fight, my dad hung up that pair of gloves, and when they dried out two of Vidal's teeth fell out of the split glove,” Hernandez said. “That gives you an idea of how hard a hit he could take.”
Flores himself denied losing any teeth, but said the 11 stitches he needed in his mouth after the fight left him with a scar. “I remember Hernandez every time I look in the mirror,” he said with a laugh in 1997.
Floreslost his state middleweight title by decision to Braggs in 1969, and in his next fight dropped a verdict to undefeated Mike Quarry, who would fight Bob Foster for the 175-pound title later on. After losing three of his next four bouts – two of them on cuts – he retired from boxing in 1970.
In addition to his jobs at local slaughterhouses, over the years Flores, a high school dropout, also did construction work, was a carpenter’s helper, sewage mucker and a grinder at the Ladish Co. The jobs were hard grunt work and there were layoffs and injuries, but he always relied on God to work things out.
“I have always had a lot of faith,” he said in a 1982 newspaper interview, “and it works because if I didn’t have none they would have found me down in the lake floating on the water.”
It was faith and what Art Hernandez remembers most about the Milwaukee fighter:
“He was super-tough.”