BRITISH fans’ enduring memories of Jose Napoles will be of John H Stracey battering him to a six-round defeat in 1975, in what proved the Mexico-based Cuban’s last fight.
But Napoles had dominated the welterweights for six years, bar a brief spell without the title caused by a cut eye loss, and in 1972 had come to London to dismiss Ralph Charles with contemptuous ease. And rumours had it that he was several years older than his official 35 when Stracey ended his career.
What’s not in doubt is that he was a highly skilled fighter, with a sharp punch in either hand, but especially the left hook. He was also an excellent body puncher.
Hedgemon Lewis, the American twice beaten by Napoles in world title bids, called Jose the best counter-puncher in the world, who would take your head off with a right uppercut or left hook if you threw a wild right yourself.
It was for his smooth combination-punching skills, rather than his power, that Napoles earned the nickname “Mantequilla” from Mexican fans. It means “Butterball”, as in “smooth as butter”.
Jose was born in Cuba and started his pro career there. When Castro came to power and banned professional boxing, Napoles moved to Mexico, where he improved to the point that by 1963 he was in the world rankings as a lightweight.
And there he would stay, moving up to 10st in the middle of the decade, but being avoided by the champions who saw him as too big a risk for not much reward. He was 29 (officially) when he finally secured a title shot, against welter king Curtis Cokes in 1969. Cokes was a fine champion, and favoured to win, but Napoles dominated for a 13th-round stoppage.
A return later that year saw Napoles win three rounds earlier and two more successful defences followed before the shock loss of his title to Billy Backus in December 1970. But it came on a cut eye and six months later Jose was champion once more after hammering the rugged southpaw in eight rounds.
Over the next four and a half years Napoles retained 10 times, turning back the challenges of good fighters such as Lewis, Ernie Lopez and Armando Muniz. He did have one scare, against Muniz in March 1975. Armando appeared to be winning when it was ruled that Napoles’ cuts had been caused by the challenger’s head and the champion was declared a technical decision winner in round 12. It may or may not be a coincidence that Mexico was the base of the World Boxing Council, whose title was at stake (Napoles had relinquished the WBA belt).
Whatever, a rematch four months later saw Napoles drop Muniz in the ninth and win clearly on points. It confirmed Jose’s reputation for faring better in rematches. (As well as Backus, Lewis lost only on points first time but was stopped in a return against Napoles, albeit the second fight was at altitude, which Hedgemon said affected him).
In 1972 Napoles came to London and flattened Charles in seven rounds. His first real acceleration ended the Englishman’s challenge.
So complete was Jose’s domination of the welters that in February 1974 he challenged Carlos Monzon for the world middleweight crown. Looking back, it seems a crazy match: Monzon was every bit as outstanding as Napoles, but in a division almost a stone (13lbs exactly) heavier. And Carlos was a massive middleweight, while Napoles was never a big welter (scaled below 10st 5lbs for some defences).
Jose gave 6 3/4lbs and was just too small to do anything with Monzon, who dished out a pasting until the Cuban stayed on his stool at the start of round seven.
Nowadays no one would think less of Napoles for losing such an over-ambitious match, but it affected his standing at the time. A 1977 Boxing News article ranking the all-time best welters had Jose at No. 7 and admitted that he might have been as high as the top three if not for the stoppages by Monzon and Stracey.
“Jose was not the most rugged of fighters when things were going against him,” it rather cruelly declared. “Napoles would seem a little deficient in the absolute courage under adversity that is required of an all-time great champion.”
But Monzon was simply too big and Stracey got him at the right time, when Napoles was at the end of the road. He’d been a pro since 1958, had boxed 17 welter title fights, and never laced on a glove in anger again.
In retirement he fell on hard times and by the 1990s was reportedly a “Mr Bojangles” figure, dancing for change in Mexican restaurants. A sad fate for a champion who bossed a division for more than half a decade.
Born April 13, 1940 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba Wins 77 Knockouts 54 Losses 7 Best win Curtis Cokes w rtd 13 Worst loss Billy Backus l rsf 4 Pros Sharp puncher to head and body, good left hook Cons Often avoided, was made to wait for his title shot
JOSE had his last fight in Cuba on June 3, 1961 – just over a month after the Bay of Pigs.
Trainer, TV analyst and Boxing News columnist Teddy Atlas recently rated Napoles has the fourth best welterweight of all- time, behind Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong and Mickey Walker.
Napoles was a quality amateur with a record of 113-1 or 114-1 depending on your source.
NAPOLES and his team cried foul play against Carlos Monzon, claiming Jose had been thumbed in the eye.
Cornerman Phil Silver said: “Monzon sure knew how to use the thumb. The way Jose’s eye looked, there was not much else we could do.”
Napoles insisted the damage was caused in the sixth session.
“He did it with his left hand, pushing my arm aside and shoving his thumb in my eye. It blinded me for the rest of the round.”
However, the referee Raymond Baldeyrou insisted there had been no foul. “The business about Monzon sticking a thumb in his eye is completely untrue; an excuse,” he said.