Boxing trainer Silvia Torres spars with one of her students, her gloved hands jabbing in time with her steps as she dances around the ring.
Facing her is 10-year-old Anthony Mas, one of three children training at the boxing gym and younger brother of Latin American junior welterweight champion Leonardo “Moro” Mas, who also was taught by Torres.
“Come on, come on … hit me,” the coach said to her young student. “Repeat after me, ‘I’m going to be good, a champion.’ “
Anthony finally takes a right jab and hits Torres in the gut. She doesn’t flinch - no small feat for a boxing coach who just turned 83.
“I’m going to be a champion!” the boy exclaims. Torres smiles and musses his hair. Their voices echo over the sound of feet shuffling on the ring’s cement platform, the rhythmic thuds of fists hitting punching bags and the smack of jump ropes on the plywood training floors.
Torres’ success as a boxing trainer has brought her respect in a sport dominated by men.
“She’s an institution here,” Florida State Athletic Commission inspector Joe McKinley said. “One of the professionals.”
Torres was born in Cuba and started training to be a boxer at age 7. She won the amateur world championship at 16, the Cuban professional national title at 35, then turned to wrestling when Cuba declared boxing a health risk for women. In all, Torres was a professional fighter for 25 years.
In the late 1950s, seduced by theories of social change and her liking of guns, she joined the “fidelistas”- the mountain guerrilla movement of Fidel Castro that overthrew the government and imposed communist rule in Cuba.
But Torres eventually grew disillusioned with the revolution, and fled Cuba in the late 1960s on the false pretense of attending a boxing match in the United States. She left with only her boxing gear, a bathing suit and knee-high boots.
For the past decade, Torres has been a volunteer trainer and manager at the Hialeah boxing gym of promoter Tutu Zabala. She also accompanies the fighters to Europe and South America on international bouts.
“I trust her completely. I travel a lot and need someone that can (oversee the gym),” said Zabala. “She has to be there, she knows so much about boxing and the fighters love her. They keep her going.”
Torres works six days a week in the bare gym built of concrete block.
“I am married to the boxing gym. This is my boyfriend - the glove,” she said, laughing.
“If I don’t work, I die. Alone in the house, watching TV and eating popcorn?” she asked, shaking her head.
Torres prefers to spend time with her makeshift family - the boxers.
“I have everything,” she said. “Love, consideration - and no boss, but a family.
“Besides,” she adds, smiling, “I need the exercise.”
Torres thrives in the sweltering gym. Salsa and meringue pump a steady background beat as the boxers practice their punches on four bags hung from the ceiling with heavy chains and masking tape. Posters of such greats as Larry Holmes and Roy Mercer remind the boxers why they’re training.
Clad in her trademark black - leggings, a kneelength blouse and high-top sneakers - Torres scurries all day. She hustles in and out of the small office and the tiny men’s bathroom, carrying spit buckets, water bottles, wet towels and sponges. She often massages the boxers’ tired muscles and uses shreds of old T-shirts to wrap their knuckles.
Throughout the day, Torres gives pep talks and fiercely demonstrates how to shuffle the feet, throw a left hook and maintain proper balance. Her small frame is reflected in the mirror-lined walls and is overshadowed by the taller fighters, who call her “grandma.”
“Not only do I train them, I go to the fights, go in the ring, tend their cuts and wrap their hands,” she said.
Jaime Marruyo, 35, a former boxer who has trained with Torres for 10 years, said her advice is invaluable as he attempts a comeback.
“Silvia tells me what I do wrong, she guides me in the ring and outside the ring,” Marruyo said.
Torres sees herself as a role model and wants others to benefit from her experiences. “I don’t teach only boxing,” she said.
Once a month, she visits a Florida City jail and counsels the young inmates.
With fiery eyes and her index finger drumming on her chest, Torres said she uses her success - at age 83 - as an example and tells the young prisoners: “You have to go to school. You can’t live in the street and ask people for a piece of the bread.”
Though she has been operated on 20 times for injuries and heart problems, Torres is fine today and shares health tips with other seniors at a nutrition center in Little Havana. She attributes her energy to staying active, exercising and avoiding tobacco, alcohol and drugs.
Her appearances at Miami Jai Alai, where boxing bouts are held monthly, still puzzle some.
On fight nights, she makes a grand entrance with the boxers and wears a silk, pearl-trimmed jacket, emblazoned with her name and a sequined Cuban flag.
George Andreanis, 35, a regular at the bouts and an amateur trainer, is quick to dismiss the nonbelievers.
“You can’t argue with a winner,” he said. “She picks all the good fighters and does all right for herself.”