“THE phone rang one morning and it was Terry Lawless. He said: ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is you’re fighting Nápoles on 06 December. The bad news is it’s in Mexico…’” Almost half a century ago a young boxer from Bethnal Green named John H. Stracey took a plane across the Atlantic on a mission improbable. In order to complete the assignment in question, Stracey would be placing his chin within touching distance of the most devastating puncher in the welterweight division. A man who had not lost a fight at that weight for over five years and had knocked out 54 of the 87 men who had faced him. If this were not daunting enough, Stracey would also have to meet the WBC and linear champion José Nápoles in his own backyard.
A couple of days after John H blew out the candles on his 70th birthday cake, Boxing News had the great honour of reliving one of the most celebrated muggings in British sporting history. Via the admittedly flaky magic of Zoom and YouTube, we watched together as Stracey’s younger self ended the career of the Mexican all-time great in six attritional rounds.
You’re looking remarkably fit for a 70-year-old. You’d never guess that you used to be a boxer.
Yes, I’ve not been affected at all. I feel good. Memory’s still OK. I’ve not been hurt. I’m compos mentis. I feel fantastic. I still train. I still run. About three miles every couple of days. I was sparring up until about a year and a half ago. And I had the best part of 180 fights.
OK. It’s the 1970s. A pint of beer is under 30p. You’re fighting regularly. How did it all start?
Terry Lawless signed me up in 1969. I’d just won the ABA welterweight title. We were nine years together and that’s a lot of time to spend together. But I did what I did and he was very much part of it obviously. And it was fantastic. I was his first world champion and we did a lot of good things together but in the end it just broke down and I went my way and he went his way. I sailed in and sailed out again is the best way of putting it.
Those were the days of the cartel? Although you probably didn’t know there was a cartel.
Nobody had a clue. You had Mickey Duff, Terry Lawless, Jarvis Astaire, Mike Barrett, Harry Levine. No-one in those days knew what was going on. All a boxer wants to do is get in there, fight, try and win what you can and hopefully you get out without hurting yourself.
And make a living if you possibly can?
If you can, yes. But in those days you didn’t get great money. My first fight was 175 quid. And by the time I paid all my training fees I think I got about £95. All I got for the Nápoles fight was 15 grand. And I had to pay Lawless a third of that. By the time I’d paid out everything and my tax I think I got about 2,600 quid. But the whole point is I can say I was world champion in the era I was in. The 1970s was a great era. How many fighters in their whole life can say ‘I was champion when Muhammad Ali was champion?’ What a legacy that is.
And how much did you know about Nápoles?
He hadn’t been beaten at welterweight for five years. Although he was beaten at middleweight by Carlos Monzon. Funnily enough I went to see the fight and we had a great chat. Monzon was an all-time great and he really shouldn’t have fought him.
Did you think that you could beat him? Nápoles was an all-time great too?
I’ll tell you a funny story: In 1972 when Nápoles was boxing our man Ralph Charles at Wembley I was given the chance to spar with Napoles. I did four rounds with him. At the end of the third Terry Lawless said to me: ‘John, just box as if you haven’t got a right arm. Just jab – I wanna see how you get on with your jab.’ Later on he said: ‘I think if you ever box him I think the left hand’s gonna beat him; And I think that was true. It paid dividends to spar him.
Did you get on all right with him? You didn’t find him a class above you? Nothing unexpected?
No. But the thing with sparring is unless you’re gonna have a real fight you can’t really tell how great someone is. But I learned a hell of a lot. So much so that it didn’t bother me having to go over to Mexico to fight him.
And was it a case of one morning you pick up the phone and Terry Lawless says: ‘I’ve got good news and bad news?’
That’s exactly what it was. He said: ‘You’re fighting Nápoles.’ And I went: ‘Oh! Fantastic! What’s the bad news then?’. He said: ‘It’s in Mexico.’ And I said: ‘Yeah… Well what? That’s not bad news. That’s the best news you could have. I boxed there in the Olympics. I know exactly how to train. I know exactly what to do. Let’s get over there!’
How long before the fight did you arrive in Mexico?
A month. Because I had to get used to the altitude. Getting used to it is a very hard thing to do. But because I’d boxed there in the Olympics I knew exactly what to do. I couldn’t wait to get there.
Was there any animosity from the locals?
Not really. I think what won them over is that when I got in the ring he didn’t appear for about 10 minutes. And I was going: ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ And they was laughing and I got a nice round of applause. But as he got in the ring I went over and I shook his hand. And I hugged him
Round One. (I switch on the video and the fight begins.) The first thing I notice is you seem to have a really long reach.
Do you know why? I’m actually left-handed in life. But I couldn’t fight southpaw. I’m left-handed in everything I do except boxing. When I was nearly 12 I was always in trouble at school and my dad took me to Repton. And the trainer taught me to be an orthodox fighter even though I was southpaw.
That’s not the greatest start. It’s only a minute into round one and you’re down.
I was always a bit of a slow starter. I always liked to feel my way through. But he caught me with two great punches. Luckily I was going away from them. I stayed down because I just wanted to get the feel of it. When I went back to the corner Lawless said: ’What happened there?’ I said: ‘He just caught me – but he ain’t gonna catch me again and put me down.’
How many times had you been down before this?
Maybe two or three times. It’s very difficult for a fighter in his career not to get put down. Because some time or another you’re gonna take a punch. When I went down Mickey Duff shouted out in the corner: ‘Oh no! Not the first round!’
Round Two: You’re throwing a very nice jab. Is that one of your main weapons?
Yeah. Being left-handed it was a bonus for me. The jab is so strong – it was actually my lead. That’s what made me.
He’s backing you up on the ropes but you’ve turned him nicely. It might be 45 years later but I have to say that one was a little low, John.
It might have been. I would never do anything like that on purpose but the odd one can go because your adrenalin takes over.
That’s a good right hook to the jaw you’ve caught him with there.
Yeah. And I caught him with a good left hook to the top of the head. When I got back to the corner Lawless said: ‘At least the second’s not as bad as the first!’
Round Three: Nápoles is looking really marked up already.
I know he is. That’s the jab that’s catching him. What people don’t realise is that my jab is a very powerful weapon. Being left-handed it’s double the power of your right hand. So all the jabs I’m catching him with may only look like flicks but they are hurting him.
And he’s beginning to back away for the first time.
Again it’s the jab that is the motivator. I’m catching him and pushing him back more.
Another thing that strikes me is how fast your hands are. I think that even in the modern era you’d give anyone trouble.
Yeah. I would.
(Nápoles goes down for the first time in the fight.) Do you remember the punch?
Yeah the left hook. I think it was more of a delayed action. Because I caught him really high and I think as it glanced off him he suddenly realised he’d been hit and went down.
And a couple of naughty punches thrown at him when he’s on the canvas?
Well you know how it is. It’s all adrenalin. It’s your one and only moment and you don’t hold back. That’s why a lot of the time the referee lets things go. They know you’re excited and want to win but nothing’s intentional.
Napoles takes his count and now you’re after him frantically.
Yes. I wanna stop the fight. I wanna get it over.
I’m impressed with your in-fighting. Is that something you worked on a lot?
I think that if you’ve got it you’ve got it. And that’s not being big-headed. It’s a bonus to have it but in our day we didn’t know any different. We’d be in the gym hitting to the body for ages and ages and ages.
Round Four: The pattern of the fight has definitely changed now. Napoles is backing away all the time.
Yeah. When I got back to the corner Lawless says to me: ‘It looks like you’ve got him here. Just keep throwing the left all the time, pushing him forward and make him tired.’
Were you ever overwhelmed by the significance of the occasion?
No. I never worried about that. And the crowd not liking me gave me a big gee-up because I wanted to show them what I could do.
By this stage you’re feeling that the pendulum’s definitely swinging your way?
Oh, definitely. I could tell that.
Was he talking to you at all?
No. But when we had the first meeting he spoke through an interpreter and he was quite nice. He said ‘I hope you’re all right and everything’s good.’ He told me he was looking forward to the fight and was complementary.
So there was no nastiness in the build-up?
Do you know what? I’ve got to say this: If you see my fight with Hedgemon Lewis pre-fight we’re laughing and joking, holding each other. We didn’t do what they do today. You don’t have to be horrible or stupid. You’re boxing in the evening why would you want to do that?
Round Five: Could you sense him tiring?
I don’t know. I’m only doing my end. What I need to do. My view is I want to win. I’m going to win this whatever. This was very much the same as round four where I’m trying to keep on top of him.
He doesn’t look particularly difficult to catch.
No. I noticed that when I sparred him three years earlier
He’s grotesquely swollen now. And very flat-footed. But he’s just caught you with a good right.
I know he did. The trouble is when you’re boxing you’ve got to take chances. You can’t just lie back and think you’re gonna win. It could go to points and I probably wouldn’t have got the decision.
Do you recall any point in the fight when he really hurt you?
He caught me with some nice punches, yes. I mean he could really punch. But I don’t think whatever he hit me with would have made any difference. I felt very good.
This is the first time that you yourself are looking a little bit tired.
Well you’ve got to remember that in them days it was a 15-round fight. And I remember Lawless saying: ‘Just hold a little bit back’. But when you’re fighting you can’t because when you feel you’ve got a chance you’ve got to try and take it.
Round six: Jab, jab, jab. And elbow over the top I notice.
That’s what Lawless told me to do. The jab’s the best punch in the book.
Everything works off it doesn’t it?
Everything. No doubt about it.
When I watched it earlier I counted how many unanswered punches you hit him with before it was stopped Do you have any idea how many there were?
I’ve no idea.
19 unanswered punches.
How many? Bloody hell! I thought about 10. Well he started it!
I’ll flatter you here. That finish is reminiscent of a Sugar Ray Leonard finish.
Yeah, like when he fought Tommy Hearns.
Do you remember that moment?
Yeah. I remember everything. I just fell on the floor. I’d done what I wanted to do. Win a world title – that’s what every boxer’s dream is. And there’s not many that make it. And I won every championship I ever went in for. Except the Olympics.
I remember everything about that last round. I remember when they referee pulled me away and I fell down on the canvas and Lawless grabbed me and when we left the ring I had my dressing gown on my back but didn’t have my arms down the sleeves. And someone’s come and nicked it off me and run away. Only in Mexico! And my mate who had the British flag came and put it over my shoulders.
Did you party that night?
Yeah but we couldn’t get in anywhere because they wouldn’t allow me in. They didn’t like it that I’d beaten Nápoles. So we ended up going back to the hotel.
And what was it like when you got back to London?
When I got back to Bethnal Green everyone was there. I was in a Rolls Royce and everyone was there where I came from. Pie and mash shops and fish and chips shops. All the things we did as a kid. My old school. It was fabulous. And then lunch at the Mayor’s parlour.
That has to be the highlight of your life. How was everything after that not an anti-climax?
Well I always had my feet on the ground. I was never a big head. When I was young my dad used to fetch me home plain paper and I used to write out a boxing bill on it. And I’d put John H. Stracey fighting for the world title. And it was always welterweight. And I’d put the current champion Emile Griffith up and I’d have John H. Stracey vs Emile Griffith. And then I’d tear it up and put it in the bin and draw another one a couple of days later. I always wanted to win a world title. I just knew it was going to happen.
Are there any other highlights that stand out for you?
Yeah. In December 1972 I got a phone call from Mickey Duff and he said: ‘I’ve got something for you…You’re boxing on 14 February in Las Vegas on the Muhammad-Ali-Joe Bugner bill.’ I knew it was Mickey Duff because it was a reverse charge call! I went, ‘Oh, you’re joking! Oh, my God!’ He said: ‘John Conteh’s on there as well. The bill was called The British Are Coming.
When I got to Las Vegas I met Muhammad Ali. It was incredible. I was training in the ring and he stood on my foot! He nearly killed me! I went: ‘Aaarrgh!’ and he grabbed hold of me saying: ‘You alright? You alright?’ And I looked over at Lawless and I said to Ali for a laugh: ‘No! No! Stay there! Stay there!’ So for about a minute-and-a-half Muhammad Ali was hugging me. Can you imagine? The first time I’ve ever met Muhammad Ali. I’m 22 years of age and he’s grabbing hold of me to stop me from falling over. It was just so funny.
And then when I boxed that night we’re in the dressing room and Elvis Presley was walking around and no one even knew it was him! Then when I had my gloves on and I was shadow boxing, getting ready to fight, Elvis comes walking over and wishes me good luck. And he tapped the arm of my dressing gown.
I won the fight. It was my first 10-rounder. A very tough fight. When I came out of the ring my hero of all time was sitting there watching the fight: Sugar Ray Robinson. As I came out the ring and walked past he got out of his seat and said to me: ‘That was fantastic! I hope you have a good career. Congratulations.’ And I went: ‘Oh my God! This is it now!’
To me he’s the greatest fighter there’s ever been. Nearly 200 fights. Only stopped once because of the heat. That man was incredible. I loved him. Joe Louis was there that night. I mean, how amazing is that? Jake LaMotta, Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Carmen Basilio, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr. They were all sitting ringside and I couldn’t believe it. It was surreal.
I suppose we can’t talk about your career without mentioning Carlos Palomino.
That shouldn’t have happened. I shouldn’t have actually fought Palomino at that time. When I came back from Mexico I was such a big name and Mickey Duff and Terry Lawless told me I was fighting in March. But I wanted to have a break and have a good time. Then I got a telephone call from somebody telling me I was fighting in June. So I phoned Lawless and he said, ‘No, you’re not fighting.’ But the next day Lawless called me and said that Mickey Duff has been over in America and you’re fighting a guy called Carlos Palomino. I didn’t even know him. He’d boxed a draw with Hedgemon Lewis, who told me I’d beat him, no problem.
I wanted a break. But the problem was that when you were dealing with these people they ruled your life. They told you what to do. When you’re gonna fight. I mean that happened with John Conteh as we all know. And that was the problem – I was bullied into fighting. I’m not saying that I would have won but I would have been a lot better in my mind had I fought Palomino, say, in the September or October.
The one thing I always used to do was try to go forward. With him I was backing off because my whole mentality was wrong. And it was just a shame. I’m not saying that he wasn’t a good fighter but I’d like to have fought him when I was 100 per cent. In those days you couldn’t say no because otherwise you’re not going to fight anywhere. Because they ruled. Two fights in six months… Why?
Nevertheless, your career was incredibly successful.
I won what I won and I did what I did. I had 51 pro fights. I lost five. Drew one. Won 45. 37 knockouts. And a 73 per cent record. Now how many people can say that? Did you know that’s the third best in the welterweight division? Look it up. So I’m happy with that. Out of 500-odd scheduled rounds I did 284 rounds. So I didn’t have a lot of battles. If you’ve got a good punch it can really save you getting hurt. And I was lucky that I did.
And of course, you grew up with Alan Minter.
Yeah, I knew Alan when we were kids. And one thing I’m very proud of is that he made his debut when I was top of the bill at the Albert Hall. And when he won that night I think everyone knew that he was going to be a great fighter. I just want to say that he was the best middleweight we ever had. It’s just so sad that he passed on – it’s such a shame. We had this lifelong thing together and he was a smashing bloke. We used to have some great times. We had a lot in common – he was brilliant.