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Willie never went to school past the third grade. "Everything Willie learned, he learned in the street," says Gloria Beniquez, the first woman Willie lived with. Even so, Willie doted on his mother. "He knew she was trying her best," says Minuto. Willie's mother sent him to learn boxing at boys clubs in Harlem, and she saw to it that he kept himself clean and neat. Yet to punish him, she would occasionally beat him on the top of the head with the heel of her shoe. "He had the marks on his head from his mother's heel," Minuto says.
When Willie was 15, the family moved to the Bronx. In 1967, when he was 16, he had the first of his numerous encounters with the police, being arrested for assault and robbery. The case never came to trial. A year later he went to work at the Consolidated Laundry in Manhattan as a "tumbler man," removing sheets and towels from the dryer. There, in 1968, he met Gloria, who was in the pressing department and who had emigrated from Puerto Rico two years earlier. That year, when he was 17 and she was 26, they began living together. "He always liked older women," says Gloria.
Gloria speaks mostly Spanish. She is sitting in the living room of her Bronx apartment near Yankee Stadium. Standing by her are two shy but curious girls, Brenda, 10, her daughter by Willie, and Wanda, 5, her daughter by another man. Gloria lives on welfare.
"When we began living together, his family didn't like it," she says. Willie kept up his boxing, training at St. Mary's, a local gym, and in 1970, the year that Brenda was born, he won the Daily News' Golden Gloves championship in the 160-pound sub-novice class. "After Brenda was born, Willie's family began to help in all sorts of things," Gloria says. "They did everything for me. Willie cleaned, he did everything around the house. When Brenda was 22 days old. I remember my uncle came up from Puerto Rico and found Willie doing the diapers. This is something you don't see a Puerto Rican man doing, but Willie told my uncle, 'I had to learn someday.' My uncle went back to Puerto Rico and told my mother, 'Your daughter has found a good man.' "
Unfortunately, soon afterward Classen was arrested for pulling a knife on a man during a fight at a dance hall, and, Gloria recalls, he was sent to a detention center for six months. When he got out, he resumed boxing. Gloria says, "Willie always told me, 'I'm going to be like my grandfather and be in the sport of boxing.' Willie wanted to be in the same light as Muhammad Ali. He was always talking about boxing. I didn't like boxing. I told him it was not a fit sport, and he told me, 'The woman who tells me that boxing is not my sport, I will no longer look at her. I will die in this sport.' I got tired of it, so I reconciled myself to it and made his boxing robes and his boxing trunks. I was always taking care of him. Although I never went to a fight, I was like his manager in the house. When a fight was scheduled for him, I would not let him smoke or drink."
In 1972 Willie and Gloria separated. "Personal differences," says Gloria. Even so, Willie would always show up on Saturday to take Brenda out for the day. Willie then began living with another woman, Lou, and had a son by her, Willie Jr.
It is a chilly, sunny winter's day. Marco Minuto is sitting in the pizza parlor on Burnside off Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, his back to the pinball machines, dragging on a cigarette. Minuto is 30. He is now a sales manager for a company that makes Jamaican patties (a meat pie) and he is revisiting the old neighborhood. It is a rough area. The cancer of arson and burnt-out buildings that stunned Jimmy Carter in the South Bronx has crept into the West Bronx. Across the street are gutted apartment houses. Two blocks away is 2101 Harrison Avenue where Willie once lived. The building is a shell. The wind whistles in and out the windows of Willie's old apartment. The brass numbers marking the street address were ripped off long ago. The address is now marked on the side of the building with spray paint.
Minuto takes a drag on his cigarette. He has his hat on the back of his head, and he is running to fat. He's out of the Bronx himself by way of Sicily. He moved here when he was eight because his mother wanted him and his brother to have the advantages, as he puts it, of being "brought up American." Minuto dropped out of James Monroe High School six months before graduation to work in a pizza parlor. He opened up his own parlor on 183rd Street, then sold it to his brother when he opened another on Burnside, which is where he met Willie Classen in September 1971.
That day, Minuto recalls, "Willie said he wanted a slice of Sicilian pizza, so I gave him a slice. I saw his boxing gear. I could see that he was well dressed, neat, and, comparing him to the other guys on Burnside, you could see that he was different. I started running with him. Our relationship got closer. He was a lonely guy. He was having a problem with Gloria. Between 1971 and 1974, we were very good friends. This is a dangerous area. There were some late-night scuffles in the pizza store, and Willie helped me out."
In the fall of 1972, Classen, then 22, decided to turn pro. "He asked me to manage him," says Minuto, who was the same age as Willie. "I said I had no experience. He was working with me in the store then, and he offered to let me have a piece of the contract. I said no." Al La-Cava, a Bronx businessman who had been active in boxing for a number of years, became Classen's manager. His first fight was in Bayonne on Dec. 7, where he fought a four-round draw with Willie Taylor. Classen fought Taylor in a rematch and lost, but then won his next six straight. His best purse was $150. On April 8, 1974, he lost a split decision to Eddie Gregory, and, Minuto says, his manager kept him out for almost three years, except for one fight in 1975.