LUIS RESTO stands on a Bronx street corner, outside the Morris Park Boxing Club where he sometimes offers valuable nuggets of advice. The ex-fighter, notorious for a single sickening moment in the sport’s chequered history, is now 63 years of age, the passage of time evident in his lined face, though not in his well-sculpted body. Our small talk involves me telling the smiley New Yorker that I’m from the same city as The Beatles and, afforded that information, a jovial Resto guides his right hand to a firm stomach before imitating a cheery guitarist. Initial conversations centred on music and accents but now, in the comfort of Resto’s favourite eatery, The Golden Eagle Diner, it’s time to talk boxing; a subject that has haunted Luis since 1983.
Throughout our long chat, Luis is intermittently disturbed by locals of all ages playfully boxing with the jolly pensioner who is trying to enjoy a basic breakfast. A popular figure in this neighbourhood, Resto is invariably addressed by his surname and has called The Bronx home all his life. He was raised there by a single mother who moved to New York’s northernmost borough from Puerto Rico.
“It’s all changed now; the kids have all changed,” opines Resto, wiping his greasy hands on a worn tracksuit top that carries his name on the chest. “Those streets right outside were chaos and crazy when I was a kid. We didn’t stay in playing phones or video games. Just outside you would have a baseball game. You would have kids getting chased everywhere after causing some trouble. Every single night in The Bronx you would have some sort of fight where kids settled their differences. There were knives and guns, but most of the time, kids just fought with fists.”
Recalling his humble East Coast beginnings as a street dweller occasionally looking for trouble, Resto reflects on his boxing beginnings. He possessed a fierce reputation inside the local Police Athletic Boxing Club, which were once the staple of every major American city. A successful amateur with numerous Golden Glove accolades attached to his growing profile, Resto dreamed of the Montreal Olympics, a path that would ultimately be traversed by grand names of the sport such as Michael Spinks and Ray Leonard. Unsuccessful at the trials despite having been considered a favourite, Resto shut the door on his Olympic fantasies, and stirred up new hopes when turning professional in 1977 during a turbulent period in New York, with the infamous electricity blackout just a few months away.
“All I wanted to do was become champion,” Resto remembers. “The world champion. I had been a good amateur. People like Aaron Pryor and Gerry Cooney were my friends and if you were ever to ask them about Resto then they would say, ‘Great fighter’. I worked so hard when I was younger to become champion. I lived clean. No drinking and no drugs. That would come later on. But early in my career I did everything they asked me to because I wanted to be a champion like Muhammad Ali.”
A decent New York attraction thanks to his vested exploits and energetic style, Resto built his ledger throughout the Empire City, turning up in various boroughs and leaving with the win. Resto’s profile grew with each victory, as did his confidence. A handsome brawler with a traditionally masculine occupation, Resto unsurprisingly attracted attention from desirable females. The popular welterweight enjoyed a social scene not conducive to discipline or focus but, like many before him, and plenty since, Resto was unable to resist the New York nightlife and his ring form inevitably began to suffer.
After an unexpected loss to former Wilfred Benitez victim, Bruce Curry, in March 1978, Resto went from hot prospect to boxing afterthought in the space of a few months. Excessive partying coalesced with Resto facing higher-level opposition in places like Venezuela and Norway, and this nightmare combination saw him fall from 4-0 to 7-4-1 within two years. The professional code, a fresh start for Resto after amateur heartbreak, was a circuit crawling with various temptations and dangers. The playful Bronx youngster, a community darling, was not mature enough to deal with any of it.
“Ask anyone when I was coming up,” he insists. “No drinking for Resto. No drugs for Resto. None of this s**t until I started boxing. I’d just go missing for days and nights at parties and nightclubs. People would be coming up saying, ‘Resto, why haven’t you been in the gym?’ Or ‘Resto, your trainers are looking for you.’ I can offer nothing why I ended up that way as I had trained so hard all my life and had a picture of what I wanted. Maybe I was just young and stupid. That sounds about right.”
As New York continued its drastic slide from cultural playground to real-life Gotham, Resto’s irrelevance lingered as he traded wins and losses without ever threatening to concern any contenders near the business end of the sport. Luis toiled on New York events with his hard work earning just enough dollars to impress a certain brand of woman. An undercard dweller with the rest of his career seemingly mapped out, earning small purses while attempting to quench expensive thirsts, Resto knew just enough to stay afloat. A keep-busy fight against an enthusiastic Irish-American contender named Billy Collins shouldn’t have been significant for Resto. Instead, it changed his, and so many lives forever.
‘I’ve said so sorry so many times, but nothing is going to change what happened that night’
For those not familiar with this tale, Resto and Collins exchanged many punches inside Madison Square Garden, while headliners Roberto Duran and Davey Moore warmed up inside the New York Knicks dressing room for their imminent battle. After 10 rounds had been completed, Collins was unrecognisable from the cherub-faced fighter who had entered the ring 45 minutes earlier and, adding insult to injury, was handed his maiden loss as a professional.
Billy’s father, also his trainer, shook Resto’s gloved hand to congratulate him, but what he found was a mitt without padding. It later transpired that the cushioning had been removed by Panama Lewis, Resto’s notorious cornerman. One of boxing’s darkest days had been exposed and, within months, Collins’ injuries led to a premature retirement and, shortly after, he died driving his car into a culvert whilst intoxicated. Thirty-six years on, Resto, taking the occasional pause when offering his thoughts on the sensitive subject, tries – and largely fails – to recount the events of June 16, 1983.
“I’ve said so sorry so many times, but nothing is going to change what happened that night,” he muses. “I listened to the wrong people and I was still young in my head. You know I see him [Panama Lewis] in Florida one time a few years back and I should’ve punched him in the face. I heard it was all to do with betting. A bet had gone on me and I had to win the fight no matter what. So much changed that night. I hurt so many people and all I can do is try and live with what I’ve done. I’ve said sorry pretty much every day since it happened. I don’t know what else I can do.”
The crimes of Resto and Lewis received mainstream negative attention and were handled by the highest authorities in New York State. Permanently punished by boxing’s athletic commissions, both perpetrators also felt the wrath of criminal prosecutions, with Lewis receiving a year for his part in that fateful night at MSG. Resto was handed a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence and, even in jail, remained desperate to repay his debt to Collins and the stricken fighter’s family, but the perpetrator could not escape from the crime he had committed.
“The Irish guards in the prisons made my life s**t,” he tells me. “I’d walk past with my tray of food and they’d knock it out my hand then go, ‘Resto, clear away your rubbish.’ Any job that no one wanted to do or refused to do they would be like, ‘Resto, we’ve got a job for you to do.’ The time I did in prison was the worst time of my life and it was made even harder by people who couldn’t get over what had happened between me and Billy.”
After leaving me today, Resto will return to his modest apartment where friends may visit him from time to time. His days in 2019 are spent taking long walks and helping out in Aaron Davis’ gym. The dreams possessed by Resto as a swashbuckling teenager were stalled by typical vices throughout his career, and they were forever destroyed when he decided to enter the ring holding a brutal advantage over his opponent, over three decades ago. As well as halting his fighting days, Resto’s actions that night have also suffocated any chances he had of going in the corner to lend the next generation his wealth of experience. It was an understandable decision by the NYSAC and Resto, who pleaded with the commission on an annual basis, has given up on any hope of becoming a trainer.
‘The time I did in prison was the worst time of my life and it was made even harder by people who couldn’t get over what had happened between me and Billy’
“I’ve asked them so many times,” he laments. “What’s the point anymore? I can’t even be in the corner as a number two. There’s nothing I can do to be involved in the sport even though I’ve said sorry so many times and served my time inside. I’ve had three world champions that have asked me to train them; all from this area. They know I’m a good trainer and they always listen to the advice I try to give them when I’m with them in the gym. I could make good fighters even better, but the commission won’t allow that.”
With the restaurant becoming more congested, the privacy Luis and I so recently experienced is diminishing by the minute. The growing crowd and increasing sensitivity of our subject matter brings his voice to a whisper and it makes sense to let Resto have closure on a story that he must think about every day. For one final question, I ask him if Collins were to take a seat in our comfortable booth at that very moment, what would he say to him? Resto thinks, his head in his hands, and, after wiping both eyes, he stares straight at me and with a nod states, “I don’t know.”