"We lost touch. He moved. I moved," Minuto says. "Then I met his half sister, Rafaela, in my mother's store. 'Where you been?' I asked. She said, 'My mother passed away. Willie's not like he used to be.' I went to see him that evening. It wasn't the same Willie Classen I had known. The bums that were outside on the street, he was part of them. He used to say, 'Look at those bums,' but he was one of them in a sense—he had become one of them. I saw needle marks, but I never saw him take drugs. I said, 'Willie, we'll go like the old days.' He told me that he had a problem when his mother died. She was the one who gave him strength."
With Minuto back as his friend, Classen won three fights by knockouts in the winter and spring of 1977. "That September I spoke to Al LaCava about my managing the fighter," Minuto says. "Actually I wanted to be a partner in managing, but that didn't work out. Al was like all other managers. A fighter is like a wife. You don't mess with my fighter or my wife. You want my fighter, you buy him. Al says, 'The kid owes me $1,200 or $1,300 personally. I never made any money. Give me $2,500 and you take the fighter.' I did."
Minuto applied for a manager's license, got it and signed to have Classen meet Roy Edmonds on Nov. 30, 1977 in White Plains. "A tremendously hard puncher, Edmonds," Minuto says. "Willie was knocked down for the first time in a professional bout. It was in the second round, and Willie said, 'I see six guys.' But I knew Willie was in tremendous shape. He started to come back, and he knocked out Edmonds in the sixth round." Three more wins and a draw followed.
"Willie fought Bob Payton. He won the decision," Minuto continued. "Then there was the Tumbler Davis rematch in the Garden. Willie had beaten him before, but he had sprained both hands and broke the knuckle on the ring finger of his left hand in the first fight. Teddy Brenner [then the Garden matchmaker] always wanted blood on the floor. He says, 'You got a beast. You bought a lot of aggravation. No one will fight him.' Then Brenner says, 'I don't need the fight. I'll give you six rounds.' But I said, 'Teddy, Willie's a 10-round fighter.' Brenner says, 'I'll give you a thousand dollars for six. You beat Tumbler, and I'll bring you back.' It was an easy fight."
In February 1978, Classen married for the first and only time. Minuto attended the wedding reception. "Willie told me, 'I've finally met the right woman,' " Minuto says. Marilyn Classen, who is the mother of two of Willie's children—Isaac and Destiny—will not talk to interviewers, on her lawyer's instructions. (Her lawyer is Mike Capriano Jr., who is also the lawyer for his father, Mike Capriano Sr., a veteran fight manager, and Al LaCava, both of whom were in the corner with Minuto in the fatal fight against Scypion. By odd coincidence, Capriano Jr. was also the lawyer for the late Benny Paret, who died after being knocked out by Clancy's fighter Emile Griffith in Madison Square Garden in 1962. "It's $500 to speak to Marilyn," Capriano Jr. says. "It's for Marilyn, not me. Somebody's got to get up a donation. Five hundred dollars. Short numbers.")
On Aug. 25, 1978, Willie Classen got his big break—a fight in Madison Square Garden against Vito Antuofermo. Minuto recalls Teddy Brenner saying. "You beat Antuofermo, you're made."
Minuto says, "Teddy knew how to give the public their money's worth. I signed for $2,500. I asked for more money, and Teddy said, 'I've got tremendous overhead.' My intentions were to upset Antuofermo and get world recognition for Willie. The first five rounds, Antuofermo makes you fight like you never fought in your life. He was taking energy from Willie he never knew he had. When Willie lost, he's as much affected as it affected me. It upset Willie a lot."
It was a close decision, and Willie's fans were upset, too. There was bedlam when Minuto re-entered the ring carrying Classen on his shoulders, and they waved to the crowd. Chairs were heaved into the ring, the riot squad had to be called. The commission suspended Minuto and Classen for two months.
Minuto attempted to console Classen for the defeat. "I said, 'Willie, you can always bounce back.' He said, 'Titles are not made for guys like me. Let's make some money.' He started to get very, very bitter. I got him a small club fight in the Audubon Grand Ballroom on 116th Street." Classen not only lost but was also knocked down several times.
The defeat added to Minuto's suspicion that his fighter "just wasn't the old Willie Classen, that his whole way of thinking was lost. He was very negative. I said to him. 'You've got to get tuned in, otherwise you'll get hurt.' I sent him to Europe to fight Jose Duran. Ben Greene was the booking agent. They needed a middleweight in Sicily. He stopped Duran in three [on Dec. 2, 1978]. Christmas is coming now, and Willie says, 'I want to take time off from the gym.' But afterward he didn't return to the gym. In February, my heavyweight, Tarasewich the Russian, fought in the Felt Forum."