by Arne K. Lang
Thell Torrence has worn many hats – prizefighter, trainer, cut man, gym operator, booking agent, manager, promoter, you name it. Today, at age 80, Torrence, who has the look and carriage of a much younger man, is still fully engaged in the world of boxing. He’s come a long way from Camden, Arkansas, where he was introduced to the rudiments of the sweet science at Camden’s Colored Boys Club.
In Camden, Torrence starred on the hardwood and the gridiron and played trombone in the marching band at Lincoln High School. “My mother didn’t want me to play football,” recalls Torrence, “because she thought it was more important that I stay in the band. To pacify her, the football coach let me do both. At halftime, while my teammates were in the locker room, I stayed out on the field with the band.”
In the summer months, Torrence occupied his time at the Colored Boys Club. “A man named Willie Browning built that club,” Torrence told me. “He got financial help from some of the local politicians, but he basically built it himself. Browning had a boxing background and he was my first trainer.”
There is no record that Willie Browning ever boxed professionally, but the July 22, 1958 issue of the Camden News informs us that he boxed in a fund-raiser for the Colored Boys Club. His opponent was Thell Torrence, home on leave from the San Diego Naval Station.
Browning taught Torrence well. In 1959, Thell won the all-Navy light middleweight title while also capturing the California Golden Gloves middleweight title. For his efforts, he was the unanimous pick as the California amateur boxer of the year. He received his award in January of 1960 at the the Hollywood Palladium at the annual banquet of the Southern California Boxing Writers Association.
One fight into his professional career, while working out at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles, Torrence was approached by Eddie Futch who offered to become his manager. Thus began a relationship that would last more than four decades.
“There were several people after me to sign with them,” recalls Torrence. “They promised they would make me a champion in no time. Eddie didn’t promise me anything, but I felt comfortable with him. He was a straight shooter. He wouldn’t do business with the mob.”
There was a natural affinity between Torrence and Futch, both of whom came out of small towns in the segregated South. Futch, born in Hillsboro, Mississippi, earned his spurs as a boxing trainer in Detroit and then, when the Motor City boxing scene cooled off, shifted his base to Los Angeles. “When Eddie arrived in LA,” reminisced Torrence, “he had all of his worldly possessions in the trunk of his car.”
Eddie Futch would go on to become a fabled trainer and a man with considerable clout, but in those days he lacked the connections to keep a fighter in steady coin. Torrence saw the wisdom in keeping his day job at Norris Industries, a manufacturer of military equipment and automobile wheels, where he held numerous administrative posts during his 30 years of employment. He also found time to attend college, earning a degree in Business Administration from Compton Junior College and taking classes in Labor Relations and Production Management at four-year schools in the area.
“I never had more than 10 days notice for a fight,” recalls Torrence, “and I had several fights fall out when the promoter changed his mind about using me. One time Eddie and I drove all the way to San Francisco for a fight. When we got there, the promoter said ‘yes, I asked for a middleweight, but I don’t want this particular middleweight.’ We drove home empty-handed.”
The sum total of Thell Torrence’s professional career consisted of only 14 documented fights. But he has no regrets. Looking back, he wouldn’t trade his years with Eddie Futch for a dozen championship belts. But if he could go back in time, he would erase the final 10 seconds of his match with Denny Moyer so that he could begin those seconds anew.
Torrence and Moyer clashed in the featured bout at the Olympic Auditorium on Oct. 14, 1965. This was a crossroads fight for Torrence. In Irish Denny Moyer he was meeting a former 154-pound titlist who owned victories over the likes of Emile Griffith and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Entering the 10th and final round, Thell was ahead on the scorecards. Then, with only 10 seconds remaining, disaster struck. He was knocked on the seat of his pants. By dint of that one punch, Denny Moyer skirted defeat, salvaging a draw. He would go on to oppose Carlos Monzon for the world middleweight title. As for Thell Torrence, he had one more fight and then called it quits.
“I saw the punch coming,” says Torrence, sheepishly. “I can see it coming to this very day.”
Eddie Futch was loyal to the fighters he mentored. In addition to Thell, Hedgemon Lewis and Freddie Roach stayed on with him after their careers were finished. There were times when all four were in the gym at the same time. This had to be the greatest team of boxing coaches ever assembled under one roof.
One of Torrence’s first proteges was Monroe Brooks who competed unsuccessfully for the WBC 140-pound world title. Thell was later associated with such notables as Ken Norton, Marlon Starling, Mike McCallum, Virgil Hill, Wayne McCullough, Montell Griffin, and Riddick Bowe. He was Bowe’s lead trainer for his rematch with Andrew Golota. This was with the blessing of Eddie Futch.
Eddie Futch, more than anyone, was responsible for sculpting Bowe into a world heavyweight champion, but Futch wanted nothing more to do with him or his feisty manager Rock Newman after Bowe’s initial encounter with the feral Golota.
Futch spent considerable time in Eastern precincts during his years with Joe Frazier. Thell handled the West Coast operations. The two eventually settled in Las Vegas. Torrence made the move in 1990, purchasing a home in an attractive neighborhood in the southwest area of the city.
Eddie Futch died in 2001 at age ninety, but his legacy lives on in the work of such individuals as Thell Torrence and Freddie Roach. And while Roach went on to greater heights, Torrence remains a substantial cog in the machinery. He recently took Sharif Bogere under his wing. A 27-year-old lightweight, Bogere, who is part of Floyd Mayweather’s Money Team stable, boasts a 29-1 record with his lone defeat coming in a world title fight.
We recently visited Torrence in his neatly-appointed office where he spoke enthusiastically about Bogere and another fighter with whom he would be working, an undefeated (14-0) boxer from Tennessee who had come to Las Vegas to fine-tune his considerable skills in a more edifying environment. This young man is Caleb Plant, one of the hottest prospects in the super middleweight division.
Thell Torrence just keeps on keepin’ on. He has come a long way from Camden, Arkansas.