The Travelin’ Man goes to Broken Arrow: Part One
Thursday, August 23: If one lives long enough, he or she will discover that (1) life tends to unfold in clusters and (2) death does as well, especially when it involves prominent people.
Last month, boxing was struck by a lethal one-two-three as Hall-of-Famer Pernell Whitaker died at age 55 after being hit by a car as he was crossing a street in Virginia Beach, Virginia, while boxers Maxim Dadashev (age 28) and Hugo Santillan (age 23) passed away following fights against Subriel Matias and Eduardo Abreu respectively. All three left this realm within a nine-day span and the Dadashev and Santillan deaths occurred just two days apart.
Boxing suffered another big loss a week ago today with the passing of legendary welterweight Jose Napoles, who had been struggling with diabetes and Alzheimer’s for several years before dying at age 79. He reportedly was surrounded by children and grandchildren in his adopted hometown of Mexico City and the news of his passing brought forth an appropriately voluminous number of tributes. Thanks to editor-in-chief Douglass Fischer, my formal contribution will appear in a future issue of THE RING but I’d like to use this platform to offer more personal reflections of the man nicknamed “Mantequilla.”
Shortly after my interest in boxing was ignited by the second Roberto Duran-Esteban DeJesus fight in March 1974, I set about learning whatever I could about the history of this sport that was so new and so dynamic to me. During this process, I often came across the name of Jose Napoles, who, save for a six-month period, had ruled the welterweight division since April 1969. The longevity of his combined reigns immediately grabbed my attention and my interest was further piqued by the details of his career, especially the way he was described by the writers of the time. Not only was Napoles a deeply accomplished pugilist, the style with which he won drew universal raves. I forget the exact articles I read about him but the words that came up most often were “smooth” and “butter” (the English equivalents of his nickname). They also wrote about his understated hand speed, the tight arcs his punches traveled, his unusually long bursts of power combinations and his ability to take out opponents, especially with his left hook.
Their words painted a powerful picture in my mind and when I began collecting boxing videos in 1986, his fights were high on my “must get” list. Once I watched the opening moments of his title-winning fight against Curtis Cokes, I realized that all the glowing words I had read about him were on the mark. Like Fred Couples’ golf swing, Napoles’ athletic moves were executed with a liquidity that defied the undeniable speed and power with which he struck. His facial expression remained stoic and intensely focused in all situations – even when that face was covered in crimson. More than most fighters, he had the look of a master craftsman whom carefully considered his next step before making it. But when the going got tough – and thanks to his cut-prone eyes that happened fairly often – Napoles was courageous enough and resourceful enough to push on, then push through. The evidence: His 81-7 (with 54 knockouts) record that included a 15-3 (with 10 KOs) mark in world title fights.
His command of boxing technique was such that the era’s scribes felt he rarely had to extend himself fully in order to win. One exception to that rule, they said, was his title-regaining eighth-round TKO over Billy Backus in June 1971. To Backus’ credit, he defended the belt he won before his home fans in Syracuse in front of a heavily pro-Napoles gathering in Inglewood and, to his further credit, he fought as hard as he could to keep his belt, which, in turn, forced Napoles to step up his game. What a game it was and what a fight Napoles-Backus II ended up being. Interestingly the rematch ended on a butt-induced cut but, unlike the first fight in which a slice over Napoles’ right eye cut the fight short, a gash over Backus’ left eye caused the title to be taken back.
In all, Napoles recorded 13 successful title defenses, which is third behind Felix Trinidad’s 15 and Henry Armstrong’s 19 on the all-time list at 147. Besides Cokes and Backus, his title fight victims included Emile Griffith (UD 15), Ernie Lopez (TKO 15, KO 7), Hedgemon Lewis (W 15, TKO 9), Ralph Charles (KO 7), Roger Menetrey (UD 15), Clyde Gray (UD 15), Horacio Saldano (KO 3) and Armando Muniz (TD 12, UD 15). A careful reading of the last sentence reveals another trait that defined Napoles’ greatness – his extraordinary success in rematches. Many times, Napoles improved on his first-fight performances and his prowess is not limited to his lengthy title run. Here’s a compelling stat: Napoles was 77-5 in his first 82 fights and of his five losses, four were avenged. The only reason it isn’t five-for-five is because Hilton Smith, the first man to defeat Napoles, never met the Cuban-Mexican a second time. Napoles’ prowess in rematches extended to those he had already beaten; in fact, 10 fighters who lost to him the first time lost again.
In a perfect world, Napoles might have become a champion at 135 and 140 as well but despite a seventh-round TKO in Caracas over home country hero Carlos Hernandez (who would become a world champion just two fights later) and a 10-round decision over Eddie Perkins (the man Hernandez dethroned), Napoles, although highly regarded, never got a crack at the champions. One can argue that the 29-year-old Napoles – a pro for more than 10 years who was engaging in his 64th professional fight – might have been slightly past his zenith when he won his first championship from Cokes. Moreover observers believed Napoles to be somewhat older than his listed age.
Despite these circumstantial and chronological hurdles, Napoles is still regarded as one of the greatest 147-pound boxers who has ever walked the earth. A 1999 Associated Press poll listed Napoles as the fourth best welterweight in history and other accolades include THE RING’s “Fighter of the Year” award in 1969 and a spot in the inaugural class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (of which Napoles was the final surviving member).
In closing, Napoles played prominently in one of my earliest attempts to act like a boxing historian. Shortly after Roberto Duran dethroned Sugar Ray Leonard in June 1980, a boxing magazine (Big Book of Boxing) offered readers the opportunity to vote for the greatest welterweight champion in history. The article provided thumbnail sketches of 10 top candidates while providing readers a mail-in form to list their top five. Although I was just 15, the names were familiar to me and I spent considerable time weighing my options before putting Napoles No. 1, Armstrong a very close second and Sugar Ray Robinson third. As it turned out, Robinson was voted No. 1 with Duran second – a result no doubt influenced by his very recent and high-profile victory over Leonard. In the intervening years, I’ve elevated Armstrong to No. 1 in terms of welterweight champions while raising Robinson to the best welterweight boxer who ever lived regardless of championship reign. But Napoles remains very high on my list and will remain so until my own “time” comes.
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is the largest suburb of Tulsa and, with an estimated population of nearly 112,000, it is the state’s fourth largest city. To me, it is a city with a name straight out of central casting in terms of where to stage a boxing match but a quick search of BoxRec revealed that tomorrow’s “ShoBox: The New Generation” tripleheader (topped by super middleweights Vladimir Shishkin and DeAndre Ware and supported by junior welterweights Shohjahon Ergashev and Abdiel Ramirez and junior featherweights Arnold Khegai and Vladimir Tikhonov) will be the first ever boxing card ever held here. While the hope was to have the card take place outdoors, the weather forecast calling for thunderstorms prompted the show to be moved inside the Central Park Community Center. Although an outdoor telecast would have made for better atmospherics for TV, I was happy that the show was moved inside because (1) my luck with outdoor fights in terms of weather has been spotty over the years and (2) a 54-year-old redhead outdoors in Oklahoma during late August is a mismatch of epic proportions, even if said redhead is armed with light-colored clothing and 100 SPF sunscreen.
With that worry out of the way, I focused on getting from Point A to Point B. In the hopes of meeting carpool mates Bob Spurck (stage manager) and Aris Pina (CompuBox counter) in a timely manner, I chose an 11:55 a.m. American Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas and a 4:28 p.m. bird from Dallas to Tulsa that would touch down at 5:32 p.m. But while Bob was able to complete his Los Angeles-to-Salt Lake City-to-Tulsa itinerary, weather issues at LaGuardia forced Aris to miss his original Chicago-to-Tulsa connection. Although Aris ended up staying an extra four hours in Chicago, he touched down in Tulsa and caught a ride to the crew hotel in Broken Arrow, thanks to a Twitter friend.
After spotting Bob at Baggage Claim Area A, we walked to his rental car and, once inside, the first thing he told me was that I was going to be his navigator and that he would not dare dispute any of the instructions I forward to him. The reason: The last time we rode together – a March 2017 show in Miami, Oklahoma – Bob did a bit of “freestyle driving” that unnecessarily lengthened our trip to the crew hotel. Frankly I had forgotten about that episode but the memory apparently been seared into his mind and he was determined to make amends. And for the most part, he stuck to Google Maps’ script, though he was tempted to take an alternate route when, at a stop light, he saw a sign to his left indicating the interstate we were seeking to enter was nearby. When I reminded him of what Google Maps was telling us to do, he decided to remain on point and, because he did, we arrived at the crew hotel without any trouble.
While Bob was going to have his dinner at a barbecue place located directly across the street from the hotel (Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Cue), I hoped to order room service and settle in for a quiet evening. Upon checking in, I was told the hotel did not offer room service but that plenty of places deliver to the hotel. One of the choices on the hotel room’s phone was “Uncle Vinny’s New York Style Pizzeria and Kitchen,” a restaurant highly recommended by a hotel staffer. Being from West Virginia, I’m no expert on New York Style pizza – especially when it’s being made in Oklahoma – but it nicely fulfilled its purpose by being my night’s dinner and, because I only finished half of it, I planned to make it my breakfast as well.
As thunder and lightning raged throughout the evening, I spent the next few hours watching the Golden Boy Promotions Thursday night show on my laptop as well as catching up on all the news and sports I had missed while flying over “flyover country.” Remaining on Eastern Time, I clicked off the light shortly after midnight.
Friday, August 23: For me, the day began six-and-a-half hours after the last one ended and I spent part of the morning talking shop with Hall-of-Famer Steve Farhood – always a good way to spend one’s time.
After finishing off last night’s pizza – I heated it up in the room’s microwave – I met our carpool driver (veteran cameraman Gene Samuels) and Aris in the lobby at 1:45 p.m. in order to make our 2 p.m. call time, which we made with ease. Because the pre-show preparations were completed without a hitch, Aris and I had plenty of time to kill.
One delightful diversion occurred a couple of hours before the show began as a nattily dressed man asked Aris and me about where he could find a member of the Showtime crew. It turned out that the man was Larry Love, the president and namesake of Larry Love University (a nonprofit institution of higher learning located in Muskogee) and he wanted to inform Showtime about the presence of his guest – former WBC junior welterweight titlist “Lightning” Lonnie Smith.
This was a most pleasant surprise for Aris and me, especially since both of us were well versed in Smith’s fistic history. Born in Denver, Smith – who has subsequently moved from Colorado Springs to Oklahoma City – amassed a 44-7-2 (with 26 KOs) record in a 19-year career that ended in 1999. The signature moment of that career occurred on August 21, 1985 at Madison Square Garden when Smith won the WBC junior welterweight title from Billy Costello, a fight that saw Smith overcome a first-round knockdown to floor Costello twice in the second, once in the fifth and twice in the eighth before the fight was stopped at the 2:31 mark. The result made real one of the best pre-fight quotes I’ve ever come across: “I’m engaged to the super lightweight title and, on August 21st, I’m getting married.”
Smith’s win over Costello was a stunning fusion of not-before-evidenced punching prowess and technical unorthodoxy. Following the expected first round knockdown by Costello, Smith regained his feet and proceeded to nail Costello with sweeping blows thrown from the unusual angles produced by his constant dual-directional circling. Moreover Smith preceded these bursts of power by turning his eyes away from Costello and staring into the crowd. Smith’s tactics astonished not only Costello but also ringside commentators Charley Steiner and Al Bernstein. Smith described his tactics in unforgettable fashion in the November 1985 issue of THE RING:
“The ring is called a ring for a reason,” he told THE RING’s Joseph D’O’Brian. “Don’t let those four corners fool you; it’s a circle. The entire action of a fight goes in a circle; it can be little circles in the middle of the ring or big circles along the ropes but always a circle. The man who wins is the man who controls the action of the circle, whether by moving around the outside of it or by making the other man move. Costello’s attack was lines, all straight lines. By moving in circles, I was able to control the action. My game plan was to out-think Costello, to confuse him. He was concentrating on knocking me out in the first or second round, so I let him try. I took his best shots in the first round and, after that, he’d shot his wad. From then on, I played chess with him: (I) took a piece here, a piece there and then, checkmate.”
Thirty-five years after speaking with THE RING, Smith explained the genesis of this theory, the building blocks of which came from time spent with Muhammad Ali.
“Ali had a gym in Santa Monica, California, and one day I was in the ring with him, just messing around, and I started asking him questions about how he fought certain guys and why he made certain moves against them. He told me how he trapped fighters and how to counter their counters. I picked it up and it worked quite well. I used ‘the circle’ on Billy and had him off-balance a lot and when I caught him off-balanced, I reacted with bunches of punches. I was actually surprised that Billy would take a fight with me because I was one of Billy’s sparring partners before his title defense with Ronnie Shields and I was hitting him so easily. But the reason why they actually took the fight was because we offered him more money than he ever made – a half-million dollars.”
Smith, now 56, was in Broken Arrow not only to attend the show but also to drum up publicity for LLU’s Celebrity Health and Fitness Expo, October 4-6 at the Muskogee Civic Center located at 425 Boston Street. According to the flyer posted on the university’s website, Smith will be just one of several notable names scheduled to appear at the fundraiser and the roster is an impressive one: Riddick Bowe, Larry Holmes, Lamon Brewster, Ray Mercer, Chris Byrd, Fres Oquendo, Sean O’Grady, Mike Weaver and Mike Tyson. Smith added that James Toney had also committed to the event, which is set to begin at noon.
As Smith spoke about his career, he did so in a clear deep baritone that belied his 19-year, 53-fight pro career. He says he’s just 14 pounds above his fighting weight at 140 and he describes his life as simple and laid back Although he retains his love of boxing in general, the sport’s business side has left scars.
“When you’re a fighter coming up, you see this sport as a way to get rich right away,” he said. “All you have to do is climb into the ring, beat people up and make a whole lot of money. Well, I’d like to say one thing to all those kids out there: It’s not what it looks like. It’s a lot of work, a lot of dedication and you have to sign with the right people because everyone that says they’re your friend is not your friend. There’s a lot of money involved in this game, so there are a lot of crooks. My boxing career was fun and exciting and I loved doing what I was doing but when they started playing with my money, I didn’t love it anymore.”
Unfortunately Smith’s story is a common one and one can understand why all sides of the business fight so fiercely to secure every possible dollar.
As for tonight’s pursuit of the Almighty Buck, it began with a heavyweight fight between 6-foot-6 Kazakh southpaw Izim Izbaki and 6-foot-10 Detroit native Armonte Summers, who I spotted shadow-boxing inside the 16-foot ring a couple of hours earlier. The tiny ring made the combatants appear even larger but Izbaki’s consistent aggression and solid left crosses paved the way for a 40-36 sweep that raised his record to 2-0 (with 1 KO) while dropping Summers’ to 1-2.
It was hoped that local favorite Trey Lippe Morrison – son of former WBO heavyweight titlist Tommy “The Duke” Morrison – would appear on the show. Instead he and promoter Tony Holden climbed into the ring to reveal why he would not be fighting. The short explanation: Five different fighters were offered the opportunity to face Morrison in his home state and all five turned it down because, in Holden’s words, when one fights Morrison in his back yard, he knows he’s going to get his butt whipped. The 16-0 (with 16 KOs) record speaks to that and 13 of those knockouts occurred in Oklahoma.
The two other non-TV fights – a scheduled 10-rounder between welterweights Jaron “Boots” Ennis and Franklin Mamani and a slated six-rounder that paired junior welterweights Brandun Lee and Francisco Medel – were Oklahoma-style butt-whippings inflicted by non-Oklahomans. Lee’s fight lasted just 31 seconds and, in that time, the Californian scored a knockdown with a flush right to the chin, then finished the bout with two chopping rights to the head. As for Ennis, a native of Philadelphia, he pounded the shorter and softer Bolivian into a corner retirement after one full round of action. Aris and I counted both fights and both yielded an interesting statistical coincidence: Lee and Ennis landed exactly the same number of punches than their opponents threw (four connects by Lee and four punch attempts by Medal; 22 connects by Ennis and 22 punch attempts by Mamani).
With that, Aris and I prepared to begin the next phase of our evening – counting the televised tripleheader. The conventional wisdom around ringside was that the first two fights (Khegai-Tikhonov and Ergashev-Ramirez would produce TKOs while the main event between Shishkin and Ware would go the most rounds. Would the “chalk” be proven right or will the fighters, as they often do, be able to flip the script?
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 16 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of the newly released book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.
Struggling to locate a copy of The Ring Magazine? Try here or
You can order the current issue, which is on newsstands, or back issues from our subscribe page.