Photos: Alessandro Zuck Simonetti
Periodically articles get written and the events of June 16, 1983, find their way back onto the pages. Those who were there or came into contact at some point with the protagonists have been profoundly affected, unable to forget what happened. Others came across the sad history later, wrote about it, made their own contribution to passing it on and then found that something of it remained inside them.
Susan Sacks, who came across the story in the sports supplement of a newspaper, went down to meet the Collins family and wrote a screenplay about it in 1990. She says, “I got so involved with the story, I felt like it was my reason for being. It just keeps coming back in my life.”
Jeff Pearlman wrote a fine article about the fight and its aftermath for Sports Illustrated. He remembers: “I wrote for a newspaper in Nashville, my first job out of college. They sent me to cover a local fight at the National Coliseum or wherever it was. They introduced the referee for the night as Billy Collins Snr and the guy next to me says, ‘Do you know anything about him?’, and he told me this whole story and I never forgot it.”
Randy Gordon was covering boxing at the time and later became chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and has written about it sporadically up until the present day. He admits, “It was a very big part of my life.”
Meanwhile, down in Antioch, Tennessee, the Collins family still bristle with grief and anger. Court cases, vain attempts on the part of those nursing their loss at some kind of compensation, have cropped up periodically, had some publicity in the press, dragged on and then been dismissed. Court cases or no, the family’s loss remains.
Luis Resto lives in the Bronx, as he has done – apart from a two-and-a-half-year stint in prison – since he came to New York as an 11-year-old to join his mother, sisters and brother. He remembers how much he cried; he didn’t want to leave his stepfather and home in Puerto Rico. When he arrived in the Big Apple he was amazed by “the tall buildings and the pizza,” so much so that he ate pizza every day until he couldn’t take it anymore.
A shy man, once he opens up he’s full of interesting stories: from the fun he had working with the incredible Saoul Mamby prior to his win over Esteban De Jesus for the WBC belt, to his foreign jaunts in Italy sparring Vito Antuofermo before his title-winning bout against Hugo Corro, and in France in 1990 doing the same job with Christophe Tiozzo ahead of his fight with In-Chul Baek. Then there were the numerous times sparring with a prime Roberto Duran, not least before the first Leonard fight: “He liked me because I wasn’t scared of him. He hit me, but I hit him, too.”
But everything Luis Resto has done or will do is secondary – and always will be secondary – to the part he played on that night almost 32 years ago.
If his name comes up, it’s not in connection with his Golden Gloves wins, the respectable victories on his record or who he knew or sparred with. As Steve Farhood put it back in 2000: “We enjoyed shooting the bull about the good old days, but it was just prelim chatter. This interview wasn’t going to be that easy for either one of us. That’s because we both knew we had to talk about the gloves.”
The night of June 16, 1983, Billy Ray Collins and Luis Resto met in the ring of Madison Square Garden as the co-feature to Roberto Duran-Davey Moore.
Collins was a pale kid from Tennessee, promoted by Bob Arum and 14-0. He was trained by his father, also named Billy. This was his first fight on the big stage. Luis Resto was 20-8-2, the underdog but no pushover. In his corner was Panama Lewis, one of the era’s big-name trainers. Collins was expected to win but some boxing insiders thought Resto was capable of an upset.
Resto walked into the ring with approximately one ounce of padding removed from each of his gloves and plaster was also allegedly put on his wraps.
“Resto walked into the ring that night with a loaded gun,” says Sacks.
What, in normal circumstances, would have been classed as a very good, brisk undercard fight becomes a spectacle in brutality when watched with the knowledge of what was really going on. For 10 rounds the fighters traded. Collins’s eyes slowly started to swell. And it was no ordinary swelling: by the last rounds not only were the eyes puffy and closing, but the whole area around the eyes, cheekbones and forehead, was grossly swollen. The height of gameness, Collins was still swinging that left hook until the final bell.
There had been no hint of mercy from Resto, no relenting. With the doctored gloves he had stayed as close to Collins as he could, round after round, and had tried to hit him as hard and as often as he could.
Then, as Resto went to congratulate Collins, he shook hands with Billy Senior – who immediately noticed that the glove was missing padding and called for the Commissioner. In the aftermath Resto and Lewis were suspended indefinitely by the New York State Athletic Commission. Collins was told he could never box again due to his eye damage (see main image at top of article). He began to struggle with drink and depression. Less than a year Collins – son, brother, husband, father and promising fighter – was dead, crashing his car into a creek near his house after drinking. Resto and Lewis were both subsequently sent to jail, serving two-and-a-half and one-year sentences respectively.
There are those who would go so far as to say that Luis Resto and Panama Lewis ‘killed’ Billy Collins, their actions putting in motion the train of events that finished in the creek. Others believe that such a claim is too tendentious, that Resto and Lewis did not make Collins take to drink, that they did not drive the car into the creek. Whatever, Collins’s life changed that night in Madison Square Garden thanks to Resto and Lewis, and certainly not for the better.
For years – a quarter of a century to be precise – Resto denied any wrongdoing. He claimed ignorance, he didn’t know anything about the gloves, Panama Lewis must have done it.
Then in 2009 Eric Drath made a documentary about the fight, based around Resto and entitled Assault In The Ring. In the documentary Resto finally admitted that he knew about the doctored gloves and claimed that, furthermore, Lewis applied plaster to his handwraps to harden them and gave him a ‘magic potion’ during the fight – water mixed with ground-up asthma medication – in order to open the lungs and give him a second wind.
During the film he met Collins’s widow to ask for forgiveness and admitted to his own estranged wife and sons that, yes, he had cheated.
Resto says the weight of what he and Lewis did still bears heavily on him. “People tell me to let go. I tried but it’s always on my mind.” Though he claims he walks “with [his] head up” now after coming clean in the documentary, it’s clear that this is not the case. The days his head is often bowed, he has difficulty making eye contact and his only companion is the rubber ball that never leaves his hand. There’s a discernible pall around him, a permanent shroud of dejection and sadness. Only rarely does any sign of pride break through – such as when he claims that he was better than Collins and would have beaten him in a briefly mooted rematch.
“I could beat him with big gloves, little gloves, anything. I knew too much for him. He lost in New York, he was gonna lose in Tennessee – I was gonna beat him down there, too.”
Resto lived for years in the basement of a gym and is now the guest at the house of a fellow ex-boxer, former world champion Aaron Davis. He trains young kids in Davis’s gym and a few blocks away in the Morris Park Gym. His dream would be to be able to work in the corners of fighters, to be a licensed second.
When Randy Gordon was Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC), Resto came to him each year, for seven years, to ask for his licence back. Each time Gordon turned him down. The last time was in 1995.
Late last year Resto applied to NYSAC for a second’s licence, which would allow him to enter the arena, the dressing rooms and the corner as a fighter’s second. It would also mean he would be entitled to the trainer’s cut of a fighter’s purse.
He took the written test and passed with a score of 90 per cent.
Almost five months after making his application, Resto received a response from NYSAC. The concluding paragraph of that letter states: “A licensed boxing second is expected to assist in a boxer’s corner and may be called upon to assist with a fighter’s gloving and wraps. Failure to properly perform these tasks may lead to the harming of an opponent. Due to the direct relationship between your prior illegal actions, which also violated Commission rules, and the duties of a licensed boxing second, the Commission finds that you lack the general fitness and character required for licensure and granting your application would not be in the best interest of boxing.
“Accordingly, the Commission hereby denies your application for a license as a boxing second and is returning your license fee.”
It is surely questionable that Resto would try to commit any kind of infringement of boxing rules. He would certainly be more aware than anyone of the price the guilty party pays. He would also be more closely watched than other trainers.
There is also the wider question of consistency. Resto committed a crime as a boxer and was refused a licence as a second 29 years after committing that crime – because according to NYSAC he could still be a risk. Antonio Margarito committed a similar crime as a boxer (though he was caught before he could do any damage) at the beginning of 2009; by the end of 2011 he was licensed, as a boxer, and fighting in New York State in the rematch against Miguel Cotto, under the jurisdiction of NYSAC. Various articles in the media estimate that Margarito’s purse was from $2.5 to 2.75 million.
There is the argument that he has served his time, he’s been punished long enough, has suffered enough and that Panama Lewis was the real malignant force at work that night.
Eric Drath, who after the documentary helped Resto with his second’s application, says, “Ultimately, I think once you’ve been punished there should be a time when you are forgiven – if you show some kind of remorse and understanding of the nature of your crime. I think he’s demonstrated both of those.”
Ron Scott Stevens is a former Chairman of NYSAC and was present at the fight. Though he admits he would have had to look long and hard at the question if it had been posed to him during his tenure, he notes that, “Boxing is the sport of the underdog. If there’s any sport that should help people and give them a second chance, it’s boxing. That’s sort of what the sport is based on: people fighting their way out of terrible circumstances.”
On the other hand, there is the counter-argument that what Resto did was beyond the pale. At the heart of boxing there is a violent energy, the darkest of intentions: to do as much physical damage to another human being as possible. The sport has taken years – through years of reforms and improvements, blunders and tragedies – to harness that darkness, to make it as acceptable as possible. Resto and Lewis rode roughshod over all of that. It could be argued that they should be banned for life as testimony to the gravity of what they did and as a message to others.
It’s a difficult question that depends much on a person’s personal perspective. Randy Gordon acknowledged the difficulty of the dilemma when posed the question of whether he would grant Resto a licence if he were still Chairman of NYSAC.
“I’m writing a chapter in my autobiography on this and I’ve left the ending because I don’t know how I’m going to end it. What would I do? As I talk to you now I really don’t have an answer for that and I’m really going to sit with myself and think about it.”
Billy Collins is gone. Panama Lewis is down in Miami. He still trains high-profile fighters. He’ll never be able to enter the ring with them but he manages to get by with what they pay him for his gym work. Luis Resto is 57 years old now and still in the same situation as he was 15 years ago, training young fighters in the Bronx, doing a lot of roadwork and living as a guest on someone else’s property.
Whether he gets a licence before his time is up is unclear. What we do know is – forgiven or not – boxing will never forget the terrible act he committed in 1983.