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Remembering Curtis Cokes

Curtis Cokes
Stacey Verbeek
Paul Wheeler pays tribute to Curtis Cokes, a devoted exponent of the noble art who boxed his way into the Hall of Fame

FOR Hall of Famer Curtis Cokes, boxing was a science and an art form. The former world welterweight champion did not consider himself as a fighter. He was a boxer – someone who viewed the ring as an arena for athletes to showcase their sporting intelligence. In his highly commended instructional guide, The Complete Book of Boxing for Fighters and Fight Fans (published in 1980), he emphasised the importance of footwork, feints and the fundamentals. In his opinion, preparation and strategy was everything. On May 29, the boxing world sadly lost this esteemed student of the game. Cokes passed away from heart failure at the age of 82 in his hometown of Dallas, Texas.

His boxing journey first began at his local YMCA when he was 17. Prior to putting on the gloves, he had shone on the baseball field and the basketball court, earning all-state honours in both sports. But it was in the ring where he would find his true calling. Cokes made his professional debut at 20 years of age in March 1958 with a six-round points success over Manuel Gonzalez. Little did he know then, but he would go on to face Gonzalez on five occasions in total, with their final fight being for the world title.

By the time of his third full year as a pro, he had established himself as a top welterweight contender following strong showings against a selection of respected opponents. During this period, he posted two more verdicts over Gonzalez (against one points defeat) and a knockout of Rip Randall (after a technical draw). Joe Miceli was outscored, while he drew with Kenny Lane. His real breakout victory came in his first clash with fellow future world champion Luis Rodriguez, whom he then lost to in a return. Both of these bouts were settled on the scorecards.

Over the next two-and-a-half years, Cokes continued to mix with notable names in the division. In August 1964, he suffered a 10-round points loss to the in-form Eddie Pace. This reverse led to a short-lived retirement, but he was back in the ring seven months later to become a two-time Texas State titlist, having previously won the belt three-and-a-half years beforehand. He rounded off 1965 by claiming another championship in the shape of the Southern title.

After this fruitful year, Cokes was entered into an elimination tournament in 1966 to crown a new world welterweight king, with Emile Griffith having vacated his throne when moving up to middleweight. In the semi-final, Cokes took on Rodriguez in their rubber match. Despite being the betting underdog, the gifted Texan forced Rodriguez’s corner to throw in the towel in the 15th and last round.

Opposing Cokes in the final was his familiar foe Gonzalez – the man he had met on his pro bow eight-and-a-half years earlier. Dominating proceedings from the start, Cokes cruised to a wide unanimous triumph to make it four wins out of five against Gonzalez. More importantly, the world welterweight title was now in his possession. The celebrated counterpuncher’s next target was to secure universal recognition as champion. He achieved this three months later by unanimously outpointing European ruler Jean Josselin – a result he would go on to repeat in their non-title rematch.

In the first of two successful defences in 1967, Cokes faced off against Francois Pavilla, whom he had formerly drawn with when his strap had not been on the line. This time, Pavilla was stopped in 10 sessions. Next up, Charley Shipes, the holder of California’s version of the world title, tried his luck at becoming the true champ. Cokes, though, was in no mood to give up his crown. After being halted in the eighth, Shipes said, “He’s the best fighter I’ve ever fought and his right hand is beautiful.”

The subsequent year, Cokes retained his belt twice more. Like Pavilla and Shipes, Willie Ludick was beaten inside schedule. The owner of South Africa’s version of world honours lasted less than five full frames, before succumbing in just three rounds in a non-title sequel. Ramon La Cruz managed to go the distance with Cokes in his crack at the championship, but the South American titlist found himself on the wrong end of a comprehensive unanimous decision.

In 1969, Cokes’ title reign was brought to an end by the brilliant Jose Napoles, whose punishing 13th-round retirement win launched his first of two spells as champion. The same fate befell Cokes in their immediate rematch – on this occasion after 10 rounds. He would fight on until October 1972, winning seven, losing three and drawing one, ahead of calling time on a career that saw him compete in six countries across three continents. His closing record read 62-14-4 (30).

Outside of the ring, Cokes appeared in John Huston’s critically acclaimed 1972 film, Fat City (based on Leonard Gardner’s boxing novel of the same name). In 1985, he became a full-time trainer, coaching the likes of Quincy Taylor, whom he guided to the WBC middleweight title, as well as heavyweight contenders Ike Ibeabuchi and Kirk Johnson. The role of coach fitted him perfectly, for who better to pass on their knowledge than one of the sport’s most cerebral minds.

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