He was sitting on the edge of the table, staring into the doctor's eyes. His nose looked like the side of a big hill. The eyes were empty, and above each one there were jagged cuts held together by thin strips of clamped tapes. But the real hurt was visible only when he moved off the table, and then his body hung slightly to the left and his face expressed pain when he walked. Wayne Thornton had taken an unforgettable beating.
"I told you I was tough," he said. "I'm California tough."
Thornton was indeed that. For 15 rounds last Saturday night at Shea Stadium a crowd of 12,000 watched Light Heavyweight Champion Jose Torres hammer Thornton with everything but the scoreboard, watched Torres flirt with true greatness and finally witnessed a fight that for pure elemental conflict stood out like Thornton's nose. It was, if your sensibilities could stand it, a magic night for boxing.
It was also a fight that was actually over in the first round. Midway in that round Torres, a 9-to-5 favorite who was making his first title defense and first appearance in a year (in New York's first outdoor show in six years), delivered the blow that finished Thornton. He slammed a right to the back of the challenger's left kidney, and it jacked Thornton up for the eventual devastation. Then, spinning to the left, Torres dug a left hook to the other kidney and followed that with a right cross. Thornton was on his way down, and Torres kept chopping away until Thornton was draped over the ropes. He was down twice in that round, but he survived, and that was all he would do the rest of the evening. He had nothing left.
Willie Pastrano, who was at ringside, pointed to Thornton after the first-round butchery, raised his eyebrows and spread his hands by his heart. Thornton had to have all heart now, he was saying, and who should have known better than Willie? The punch that caught Thornton, the one behind the kidney, was similar to the one that Torres used to destroy Willie's heart—and career.
Still, Torres did not come out of the round undamaged. He had a cut extending the length of his right eye, where Thornton had butted him. He had difficulty seeing out of it until the eighth round, and between the second and eighth he was not the fighter he had been in the beginning. Chiefly, he appeared tired and discouraged because he had not been able to put Thornton away. He did, however, open cuts above both of Thornton's eyes in the fifth round.
Thornton was staggered again in the eighth and ninth, and at one point he caught nine straight blows to the head. After that series Torres just shook his head. If he was annoyed at Thornton's indestructibility, he was even more disturbed by his opponent's back-alley tactics. Thornton heeled, held (mainly Torres' left hand, the one that kept raking the right kidney), butted and used his shoulder. In the eighth, after a verbal exchange in a clinch, Thornton stuck his tongue out at Torres.
"Man, he ees a dirty fighter," Torres said later in the dressing room. "He uses terrible language, too. But I don't mind. I just don't like when he grab my nose and start twisting it. One time he did that and I say, 'Hey, man, let her go.' I also kept sayin' to him, 'Man, you can't fight. I can fight. You punch like a little girl.' "
Thornton did not apologize for his crudity. "Sure," he said, "I knew I was fouling him. Why not? I'd have hit him over the head with the stool if I could. This was for the title."
To be certain, the title in itself is enough to inspire any fighter, but there was a bit more at stake for Jose Torres in this one. He was searching for an identity that he had lost. A proud, intelligent man, he has always wanted to be a symbol to his people. "I only knew I owed my people," he said, telling of his thoughts before the Pastrano fight. "I could only think about my position as the champion. Important people would listen to me, people who could help improve the conditions in which most Puerto Ricans live."