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First Puerto Rican to fight a heavyweight champ gets a West Tampa mural

Jose “King” Roman fought George Foreman for the title in 1973.
Jose “King” Roman, 75, poses for a portrait near a mural depicting Ferdie Pacheco, who was Muhammad Ali's doctor and cornerman, and himself, the first Puerto Rican heavyweight boxer to fight for the heavyweight title, at MacFarlane Park in Tampa.
Jose “King” Roman, 75, poses for a portrait near a mural depicting Ferdie Pacheco, who was Muhammad Ali's doctor and cornerman, and himself, the first Puerto Rican heavyweight boxer to fight for the heavyweight title, at MacFarlane Park in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 1|Updated Feb. 12

TAMPA — Jose “King” Roman’s fight against George Foreman in 1973 was one of firsts.

It took place on Sept. 1.

Roman was the first Puerto Rican to fight for a heavyweight boxing championship.

He was the first to challenge the new champion, Foreman, for the title.

And their contest was the first heavyweight title fight held in Tokyo.

Unfortunately for Roman, his day ended with a first round knockout.

“He outmatched me,” said Roman, a 75-year-old Tampa resident. “He was 240 pounds. I was 190.”

Still, that one fight did not define a career that included victories over several renowned boxers.

“In my mind, Dad was always 13 feet tall,” daughter Selina Roman, 43, said. “Now, everyone will see him that way.”

Now, Roman is painted at that size as the centerpiece of a new mural on a racquetball court wall in West Tampa’s MacFarlane Park.

The mural also features Tampa’s Ferdie Pacheco, who died in 2017 and was known as “The Fight Doctor” due to being the physician and cornerman for Muhammad Ali.

Selina Roman, 43, and her father, Jose “King” Roman, 75, pose for a portrait in front of a mural depicting Ferdie Pacheco, who was Muhammad Ali's doctor and cornerman, and the “King” himself, who was the first Puerto Rican heavyweight boxer to fight for the heavyweight title, at MacFarlane Park in Tampa.
Selina Roman, 43, and her father, Jose “King” Roman, 75, pose for a portrait in front of a mural depicting Ferdie Pacheco, who was Muhammad Ali's doctor and cornerman, and the “King” himself, who was the first Puerto Rican heavyweight boxer to fight for the heavyweight title, at MacFarlane Park in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Commissioned by the city of Tampa and titled Measured, it was painted by Edgar Sanchez Cumbas and Jay Giroux.

They wanted the mural honor Tampa’s boxing history.

Including Pacheco was an easy choice. He’s one of the most famous boxing personalities in Tampa history, Cumbas said. Featuring Roman was a way to tell his lesser-known story to the city.

“I know his daughter Selina,” who is also an artist, Cumbas said. “And she is always telling me these great stories about her dad’s career and how he fought Foreman. He lost, but that is not the measure of a man.”

Roman was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Harlem where, according to news archives, he was part of a gang called “The Kings.” The toughest of the bunch, he became known as “The King of The Kings.”

“My manager then used that name for boxing,” Roman said.

He won his first professional fight in 1966 and went on to defeat Chuck Wepner, known as the inspiration for the Rocky character, and Jack O’Halloran, who later had an acting career that included portraying bad guy Non in two Superman movies.

Roman was a champion at promoting fights due to his movie star looks and colorful personality, his daughter said.

In 1972, he fought on the undercard for Ali’s bout against Bob Foster.

“He tried to take over the press conference,” Selina Roman laughed.

A portion of that press conference is on YouTube. Roman and Ali playfully pretend to box one another. Roman lands a faux shot and says, “Pop, pop,” like he is knocking out the heavyweight icon.

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A year later, Roman was ranked in the top 10 in the heavyweight division and selected as Foreman’s first challenger for the title.

“After I destroy him, he will call me Mr. Roman,” he told the press a few weeks before the fight.

It went differently than he predicted.

“Foreman put me to sleep,” Roman said. “He was too big.”

But Roman bounced back in 1974 with a victory over Jose Manuel Urtain, the former European heavyweight champion.

“That was my biggest win,” he said.

Jose “King” Roman, 75, looks at a mural depicting Ferdie Pacheco, who was Muhammad Ali's doctor and cornerman, and himself, the first Puerto Rican heavyweight boxer to fight for the heavyweight title, at MacFarlane Park in Tampa.
Jose “King” Roman, 75, looks at a mural depicting Ferdie Pacheco, who was Muhammad Ali's doctor and cornerman, and himself, the first Puerto Rican heavyweight boxer to fight for the heavyweight title, at MacFarlane Park in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

He fought several times in Tampa and loved the city, he said, so he moved here full time in the late 1970s.

Roman retired from boxing in 1981 and then opened a food truck called Jose “King” Roman’s Knockout Sandwiches.

“He became a hardworking, blue-collar man who supported his family,” Cumbas said. “That makes him a champion.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of King’s food truck and the name of the childhood gang.

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