Throughout boxing history the welterweight division has been blessed with exceptional prizefighters. Names such as Walker, Ross, McLarnin, Armstrong, Robinson, Griffith and Leonard are just a few of the greats that come to mind. However, another name cannot be overlooked when considering great 147 pounders, Jose Napoles.
Napoles' nickname "Mantequilla" is the Spanish word for butter and anybody who had the pleasure of watching this brilliant boxer perform understands that Napolesí style was as smooth as butter. It was a style that combined great boxing skill, devastating punching power and cool control of the ring. It was a style that created trouble for any opponent he faced. I'd have to say the best way to describe Napolesí style is "timeless". It was a style that could unravel the old timers and the new breed as well.
I had the opportunity to watch this great welterweight's career evolve into a world championship during the years I was boxing. Napoles started out as a lightweight, but had to take on the best junior welterweights and welterweights in the world in order to get fights. Napoles beat them all in convincing fashion until finally, with the help of a great promoter, a champion finally gave him a title shot.
I'll give a brief run down of Napoles early career, however, my story begins in 1968, about a year before he won the title. Although I never boxed with Napoles, I know three men who challenged Mantequilla for the title. Ironically, all three of these welterweight contenders challenged Napoles for the crown twice. Much of my opinion of Napoles is based on the words of these three men who know him far better than those of us who saw him from ringside or watched him train in the gym. You get to know exactly how great a fighter is, or is not, after banging it out with him for fifteen rounds.
The three contenders whom I am referring to are Ernie "Indian Red" Lopez, Hedgeman Lewis and Armando Muniz. All three were talented and tough welterweights during the 60's and 70's, and all three agree that they never fought anybody better than Jose Napoles.
Jose Napoles was born in Cuba on April 13, 1940. He made his pro boxing debut in 1958, at the age of 18, and fought the first four years of his professional career in Cuba. Between 1958 and 1961, Napoles put together a record of 17-1 (8 KO's) before fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro and making his home in Mexico. Without the perils of living in a communist country, Napoles would now have a chance to make a name for himself in the world of boxing.
Mexico was almost perfect for Napoles, a Spanish speaking culture and rich in boxing talent. Many of the world's best boxers under 147 pounds hailed from Mexico and the Cuban lightweight would have the opposition necessary to take him to the next level. Of course, it wouldn't be easy. Napoles wasn't a Mexican.
After sixteen months of inactivity, Napoles resumed his boxing career in Mexico in July of 1962. Napoles quickly scored three straight knockouts before winning a ten round decision over Tony Perez. In a rematch, Perez was awarded a controversial decision over Napoles. Napoles scored two more victories including a decision over the highly regarded Baby Vasquez before losing again, this time in a ten rounder to Alfredo Urbina, one of the greatest lightweights Mexico ever produced.
After losing to Urbina, Napoles went on a rampage and won 18 straight with 17 knockouts, including KO's over Urbina and Perez in rematches. He also defeated Junior Welterweight champs Carlos Hernandez and Eddie Perkins, Adolph Pruitt and scored two knockouts over L.C. Morgan. After losing on a cut to Morgan in their third fight, Napoles KO'd Morgan for the third time. From there, Napoles put together a string of victories that would lead right up to a shot at the welterweight championship.
In 1968, the legendary George Parnassus became the boxing promoter for the newly built "Forum" in Inglewood, California. Parnassus had promoted boxing for years in the Los Angeles area, as well as in Mexico. Parnassus had a connection that would allow him to bring the very best talent up from below the border to Los Angeles. He would feature the very best Mexican stars at the Forum and it was here that many would become world champions. Champions such as Ruben Olivares, Chucho Castillo and Carlos Zarate won world titles in Parnassus promotions at the Forum, and so did Jose "Mantequilla" Napoles.
Napoles made his U.S. debut at the Forum in Parnassus' initial promotion that featured bantamweight contenders Jesus Pimentel and Chucho Castillo. I was anxious to see Napoles and was at the Forum that night. However, Mantequilla didn't give us a long look. He KO'ed Lloyd Marshall half way thru the opening round.
A few months later I got a little longer look at the future welterweight king when I saw him flatten Ireland's Des Rea in five rounds on the undercard of a featherweight main event featuring Dwight Hawkins and Frankie Crawford at the Forum.
Hawkins was the number one rated featherweight at the time and helped train me for manager Johnny Flores. I had heard Flores and Hawkins talk about how great a fighter this Napoles was and after seeing him in person at the Forum and in the gym I had to agree. Anybody amazed by the talent of Roy Jones Jr. would be a lot less impressed had they seen Jose Napoles up close.
In April of 1969, Jose Napoles would finally get a shot at World Welterweight Champion Curtis Cokes. Napoles was 29-years-old and had been fighting professionally and defeating the best for 11 years when he stepped into the ring at the Forum before a sellout crowd of more than 18,000. Many of the spectators had come up from Mexico in buses that Parnassus had chartered and the sound of mariachis filled the arena. Mexico had adopted the transplanted Cuban as one of their own and when Napoles climbed thru the ropes the Forum exploded with excitement.
Napoles had his way with Cokes and battered the champion at well. After 13 rounds referee Dick young stopped the fight to save Cokes from further punishment. Jose Napoles had escaped communism, defeated the best in three divisions and now, after 11 difficult years was the Welterweight Champion of the world.
Less than three months after winning the title, Napoles gave Cokes a rematch and again stopped the former champion in the 13th round. Like most champions of the era, Napoles didn't sit on the title between title defenses and stayed sharp with several non-title fights, which he won by knockout. Mantequilla finished out 1969 with a unanimous fifteen round decision over former welterweight and middleweight champ Emile Griffith in his second defense of the title.
In 1970, Napoles KO'd number one rated Ernie "Indian Red" Lopez in fifteen rounds and scored two more knockouts in non-title matches. Napoles closed out 1970 with his fourth title defense in Syracuse, New York against Billy Backus, the nephew of former champ Carmen Basilio.
Backus was given little chance of beating Napoles. However, after opening a cut over the champion's eye with a head butt in the 4th round, the bout was stopped and awarded to Backus.
Six months later, on June 6, 1971, Napoles would regain his title by destroying Backus in six rounds at the Forum. I was 19-years-old at the time and had been fighting professionally for exactly one year. I was scheduled to fight on the undercard of the Napoles-Backus rematch and remember all the excitement in the dressing room after Napoles had regained the title. I had won my fight that night but the biggest thrill for me was not my win, but having Carmen Basilio compliment me after my fight. Basilio had worked his nephew's corner that night and was kind enough to recognize that I had done well in my fight.
My most vivid memory of Napoles took place six months later, as he trained for his next title defense against Hedgeman Lewis. This would be one of two championship fights at the Forum along with a World Bantamweight title fight between champion Ruben Olivares and Jesus Pimentel.
I was one of Ruben Olivares' sparring partners for the Pimentel fight and each day we would workout immediately following Napoles before a paying audience. Promoter George Parnassus had his office at the old Elks Building, located right off Wilshire Blvd. near Alvarado St. in downtown Los Angeles. Today the Elks Building is the Park Plaza Hotel and sits right across from Macarthur Park.
Parnassus had a gym set up in the ball room of the Elks Bldg. with a ring at one end of the room against the stage and a couple of heavy bags, a speed bag and double-end bag on the stage. People would pay $1 admission to watch the boxers train and we'd usually have several hundred spectators for each workout. I recall that former lightweight champion Lauro Salas, one of Parnassus' friends who'd fallen on hard times, would collect admission at the door and Parnassus would let Salas keep the money so as the former champ could pay his rent and feed himself. Parnassus was a legendary promoter and had a legendary soft spot in his heart for ex-boxers.
Boxers are some of the friendliest people you could meet but people don't realize that most boxers, regardless of how nice, have a mean streak. This was especially true of Jose Napoles.
One of Napoles chief sparring partners was an L.A. club fighter named Baby Cassius. Baby Cassius (Eric Thomas) knew this all too well after sparring with the champ. I remember talking with Baby Cassius in the dressing room following one of his sparring sessions with Napoles. Both of Eric's eyes were swollen and his nose was bloody. Cassius would moan, "All I wanna do is earn a little Christmas money, but this guy is killing me". He also told me that he knew Napoles was drinking because he could smell alcohol on the champion as they were sparring. I didn't feel sorry for Baby Cassius because he didn't receive any worse an ass whipping from Napoles than what I (or any sparring partner) receive when trying to punch it out with a great world champ. That's the business. However, one incident involving Napoles between rounds of a sparring session will always stick out in my mind.
Napoles had an assistant trainer in L.A. named Phil Silvers. I never cared much for Silvers personally and it was obvious that Napoles didn't either. Silvers job was to tie the champions gloves and give him water between rounds of sparring sessions. One day, after pouring some water into Napoles mouth between rounds of a sparring session, the champ spit the water back into Silver's face. He then smirked and turned around. Not even the wildest fans watching the workout made a noise. I remember how surprised I was to see this, and obviously, so was everybody else. "What a jerk", I thought.
A couple of days later I had a strange experience with Napoles myself. One day after he finished sparring, I was warming up for my sparring session with Olivares. I was punching one of the two heavy bags on the stage and had my eye on Napoles as his trainer helped him slip on his bag gloves. I wanted to see if Napoles was ready to hit the bag that I was warming up on and if he was I'd move to the other bag. Napoles was the champ and he could hit whatever bag he wanted to hit. It was his show, not mine. When I saw Napoles moving my way I assumed he wanted the bag I was punching and I respectfully moved to the other bag. Napoles started banging away at the bag and I began doing the same on the other bag.
As the next round started I saw Napoles approaching me out of the corner of my eye and he tapped me on the shoulder. When I looked at him he motioned for me to move away from the bag and pointed at the other bag. "No problem", I thought to myself, and moved to the other bag. As I'm punching the other bag I see Napoles heading toward me again and noticed a few of his friends smiling. It occurred to me that Napoles was either trying to play a joke on me, or intimidate me, or whatever. Napoles again tapped me on the shoulder and waved me off the bag. When Napoles began to hit the bag, I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the other bag, then stepped in front of him and began hitting the bag again. Napoles grabs my arm and I turn to face him.
In my mind, I had set myself up for an ass whipping by the welterweight champion of the world. However, a fighter does not let himself get pushed around by another fighter and I looked him directly in the eyes. We stood face-to-face for a few seconds that seemed like hours to me. Napoles had a very serious look on his face and I didn't know what was coming next. My trainer, Mel Epstein, saw what was going on and quickly stepped in. "C'mon Ricky, let's get ready for Olivares", he said, trying to pull me out of the situation. All of a sudden Napoles begins to smile and turns toward Epstein, motioning that it was Ok for me to continue working on the bag.
I will never know what Napoles was doing but I assume he was having fun trying to see how much I would take. One thing I did notice was that Napoles reeked of alcohol. I was surprised, despite having this told me earlier by Baby Cassius.
A couple of weeks later, Olivares stopped Jesus Pimentel in twelve rounds and Napoles won a very close fifteen round decision over the flashy Hedgeman Lewis. Lewis was a very flashy welterweight along the lines of a Sugar Ray Leonard, but not the class of Napoles. I realized that Napoles partying had affected his performance. three years later, Napoles and Lewis fight again and this time Mantequilla would ruin Hedge. Lewis was never the same after the beating he took from Napoles in this title fight.
The same was true with Ernie 'Indian Red" Lopez. Three years after losing to Napoles in his first bid for the welterweight crown, Lopez was given a second chance in 1973. After the beating Lopez took from Napoles in this fight he was never any good again. I remember talking with Lopez at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles just a few days after his second fight with Napoles. I told Ernie I thought he gave Napoles a good fight and was shocked by Ernie's response. "I'll never fight that guy again . . . for any amount of money!" These aren't the kind of words that came out of the mouth of Ernie "Indian Red" Lopez.
At 34, Jose Napoles, a blown-up lightweight who had become one of the greatest welterweight champs in history, challenged another great fighter, Carlos Monzon for the undisputed Middleweight title. Napoles was stopped in seven rounds.
Napoles defended the welterweight title fifteen times and when he was the undisputed champ, something that no longer exists. His last two title defenses were against a friend of mine, Armando Muniz.
Like Lewis, Muniz caught Napoles out of shape in their first match and almost won the title. However, in the rematch held three months later in Mexico City, Napoles had his way with Muniz and scored a unanimous fifteen round decision win.
On December 6, 1975, after holding the welterweight title nearly eight years, Jose Napoles would make his last defense of the title at age 35. Englishman John Stracey would stop Napoles in his hometown of Mexico City.
After the fight, Napoles would announce his retirement from boxing after spending more than half his life in the professional boxing ring.
When thinking about the great welterweights in boxing, don't forget the guy they called 'Mantequilla". He was a true all-time great.