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Remembering Jose ‘Mantequilla’ Napoles (1940?-2019)

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  • Remembering Jose ‘Mantequilla’ Napoles (1940?-2019)

    Click image for larger version  Name:	jose-napoles.jpg Views:	1 Size:	60.1 KB ID:	14287

    By Arne K. Lang

    The passing of Jose Napoles last Friday (Aug. 16) caused hardly a ripple in the English-speaking world. This says something about the current state of boxing -- how it has slipped out of the mainstream, at least in the United States – and something about how quickly important fighters of yesteryear fade from view and become little more than a footnote in the sports pages when they leave us.

    The record book says that Jose Napoles was born on April 13, 1940, but that may warrant an asterisk. Like many Cuban exiles who made their mark in sports, Napoles was widely considered to be older than his listed age. A 1974 article in Sports Illustrated said he was 34 going on 40. But regardless of his true birthdate, there is no question that Napoles was a special talent. The noted Scottish boxing historian Matt McGrain named “Mantequilla” the fourth best welterweight of all time, surpassed only by the two Sugar Rays, Robinson and Leonard, and Jack Britton. He was ushered into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1990.

    Purportedly 113-1 as an amateur, Napoles turned pro as a featherweight and had his first 21 pro fights in Havana. Then Fidel Castro came to power and outlawed professional sports which he associated with the depredations of capitalism, a plaything for the wealthy. To profit from his talent, Napoles would need to go elsewhere. He defected to Mexico, settling in Mexico City.

    In Mexico he found an appreciative audience. In time he developed a following that surpassed the top native-born fighters. His two bouts with Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez attracted crowds of 17,000-plus to the LA Forum including thousands from Mexico, many arriving on chartered planes. Lopez, born on a Utah Indian reservation, had a good following too, but nothing like Napoles. When he fought at the Forum, cries of “may-he-co, may-he-co” drowned out the ring announcer.

    Napoles sported a 54-4 record when he made his U.S. debut at the Forum underneath a non-title fight between Jesus Pimentel and Chuchu Castillo. Overall he fought 10 fights at the LA sports palace, six of which were sanctioned for the WBA and WBC welterweight titles at a time when these were the only world sanctioning bodies with a significant footprint.

    Napoles won the title here with a dominant performance over Curtis Cokes who was unfit to continue after 13 rounds. The rematch in Mexico City was a carbon, only three rounds shorter. Among his other victims were Emile Griffith and Hedgemon Lewis who he defeated twice.

    About that nickname: “Mantequilla” means butter in Spanish. Napoles, who methodically dismantled his opponents, never changing his stone-faced expression, was said to be as smooth as butter. But he was more than a technician. He flattened Ernie Lopez with a vicious uppercut in their second meeting. Indian Red was unconscious before he hit the canvas.

    A “butter knife” would have been a more appropriate nickname, a very sharp butter knife, said some of the wags, but actually Napoles was often more sliced up than the men he beat; his one flaw as a fighter was that he was prone to cuts.

    He lost a fight in Mexico to the capable L.C. Morgan on cuts, a loss he avenged with a second-round knockout. Not quite four years later, he lost his title to Billy Backus on cuts. He was bleeding from cuts over both eyes, and bleeding badly over the left, when the fight was stopped in the fourth round.

    Canastota’s Backus was Carmen Basilio’s nephew. The fight, which some say was stopped prematurely, was held in Syracuse, Backus’s backyard. This was one of the great upsets of the 1970s. A few years earlier, Backus had retired on the heels of three straight losses, returning to the sport after being laid off from his job as a construction worker.

    Napoles, a ladies man, had a reputation for being lax in his training. “He liked to observe the dawn at the end, not the beginning, of the day,” wrote Tex Maule. But he trained fiercely for his rematch with Billy Backus who was a bloody mess when the referee interceded in the eighth round. In hindsight, said several reporters, Napoles didn’t lose his title to Backus when they first met; he merely let Backus borrow it.

    Napoles’ propensity to cut prompted his management to reach out to Angelo Dundee who worked Napoles’ corner in several big fights including the rematch with Backus. In his early days, before he established his bonafides as an elite trainer, Angelo was primarily known as an elite cutman. He acquired this reputation working with the aforementioned Basilio, one of the great bleeders of all time.

    In February of 1974, Napoles moved up in weight to challenge Argentina’s renowned middleweight champion Carlos Monzon. This was too big a reach for an aging fighter who had begun his career as a featherweight. The bout, held in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris, ended with Napoles sitting glassy eyed on his stool after six rounds.

    There would be four more successful defenses of his welterweight title before it was sheared from him by England’s John Stracey (TKO 6) in what would be his final fight. He finished 81-7 with 54 KOs.

    In retirement, Napoles regularly attended WBC events even as his health deteriorated. In his end days, noted Robert Ecksel in an obit for the International Boxing Research Organization, he suffered from an assortment of maladies including diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, and consumption. Moreover, in common with so many ex-boxers of an advanced age, his behavior had become increasingly erratic. “In his days of crisis he becomes impulsive and it’s difficult to stabilize him,” his wife Berta said in a 2017 interview with a Mexican paper.

    Jose Angel “Mantequilla” Napoles died with his children and grandchildren at his side. Among the mourners at his memorial service were the family of the late, great Salvador Sanchez. Napoles had attended his memorial service; they were reciprocating. John Stracey sent a floral arrangement and a note that said it was an honor to have shared the ring with him.

    May he rest in peace.

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

  • #2
    Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles career is viewed a lot like Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker's in that they are two of the very best to have done it, but you rarely hear their names mentioned in conversation. Maybe the could have used a bit more controversy during their lives. Sad, really. RIP great champions.

    Comment


    • #3
      Agreed, Willie. Thank you for chiming in.

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