Obituary: Jose Napoles, Cuban welterweight boxing champion

Jose Napoles  in London in 1972. (Picture: Getty Images)
Jose Napoles in London in 1972. (Picture: Getty Images)
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Jose Angel Napoles, boxer. Born: 13 April 1940 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Died 16 August 2019 in Mexico City, aged 79

Cuban-born Jose Napoles, who has died aged 79, was one of the world’s all time greatest welterweight boxers, a category he dominated between 1969 and 1975 as unified world champion throughout most of that period. He first claimed the world crown on 15 February 1969 against reigning champion Curtis Cokes at the Forum, Inglewood, in California with a 13th-round knockout before donning his trademark sombrero for the post-fight celebrations. His smooth fighting style earned him the nickname of “Mantequilla” – “butter” in Spanish – but opponents were more concerned about his hard-hitting vicious counter punching, with good reason. Cokes was on the receiving end of a bad beating, with a cut mouth, bleeding nose and badly swollen eyes.

By then living in Mexico after fleeing Cuba in 1961 when Fidel Castro banned professional boxing, he dedicated his victory to the country’s president Gustavo Ordaz, who offered him a luxury gift in return. Napoles responded that he wished to become a Mexican citizen and within 24 hours full nationality was granted to him, facilitating his path to national hero status.

After three successful defences he lost the title briefly to Billy Backus on a cut eye on 3 December 1970 but regained it from the same opponent six months later, stopping him in the 8th round.

Another ten successful defences followed before he lost in his final fight to Londoner John H Stracey on 6 December 1975 at the Plaza Monumental de Toros in Mexico City, the world’s biggest bullring. By then he was aged 35 – or possibly older, as there was doubt as to his true date of birth – and considered past his best, but Stracey’s win in Napoles’ backyard in front of 40,000 partisan fans was an outstanding achievement. Particularly so as Stracey was down for the count in the opening round thanks to the champion’s left hook, but thereafter he built momentum using his left jab and had Napoles down briefly in the 3rd, which prompted fans to throw an avalanche of seat cushions into the ring. Stracey maintained his composure to wear Napoles down, with the referee stopping it in the 6th round to bring the curtain down on an outstanding career whose statistics read: 77 wins, 7 losses and 54 knockouts, making him one of a select few to score over 50 K.O’s. Wisely he did not attempt a comeback like many other famous fighters, most of whose ended in tears.

Years later Stracey reckoned that his win over Napoles was the best night of his career and to have done so in Mexico City was special. He said: “I was lucky to have fought one of the all time greats– one of the very best in history.”

Over three years previously he had sparred over four rounds with Napoles prior to the latter’s bout with British and Commonwealth champion Ralph Charles and Strachey thought then he was susceptible to the left jab, a strategy later used to his advantage.

The fight against Charles took place at the Empire Pool, Wembley, in March 1972 ending in a 7th round knockout by Napoles, whose manager “Cuco” Conde commented afterwards: “Charles is a smart fighter but we were never at full stretch.”

Fighting on the same bill that evening in a non-title bout was Edinburgh’s world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan, who after sparring with Charles in training predicted that he would lose by knockout or on cuts.

The other home fighter to face Napoles was Belfast-born British champion Des Rea, who lost by knockout in the 5th round at the Forum, Inglewood, four months before his first world title success.

Jose Angel Napoles was born in Santiago de Cuba in the Oriente region of the island to Pedro, a schoolteacher and Rosa, and had a younger brother, Pedro Jr. He started boxing young and was reckoned to have 114 amateur fights, winning the vast majority of them.

His debut as a professional came in Havana on 2 August 1958 against Julio Rojas, whom he knocked out in the first round. By the time he left Cuba he had fought 21 times, winning 20 and after 17 months of enforced inactivity he picked up his career in Mexico, where he sought asylum, registering a 2nd round knock out over Enrique Camarena in July 1962.

At this time Napoles was boxing at lightweight and junior welterweight, soon building an excellent reputation with wins over future world champion Carlos Hernandez and former world champion Eddie Perkins. Because he was doing so well it was difficult to obtain a title fight and to further his ambition he decided to move up to welterweight in 1967. After several notable wins he finally secured the world title bout with Cokes, setting him up to dominate the welter weights for over six years.

He was trained by Angelo Dundee, best known for his association with Muhammad Ali, who claimed that if he had been in his corner the night he lost the title briefly to Backus his services as “cut man” would have prevented that.

Given his superiority in the welters he was tempted to step up to middleweight to fight world champion Carlos Monzon in 1974 but the Argentinian was too strong and stopped him in the 6th round.

Like many boxers he endured difficulties once his career finished. A gambling habit and occasional fondness for alcohol led to problems exacerbated by ill health as he became older. Latterly he lived in Cuidad Juarez where he helped run a small gym. He died in Mexico City and is survived by wife Berta Navarro and several children and grandchildren.