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20-20 vision – The greatest fighter from Cuba: Jose Napoles

Napoles’ style was as smooth as his nickname, but he could also punch, scoring more than 50 KOs in his 81 victories.
Fighters Network

Most countries have produced at least one or two special boxers whose ring exploits have been etched permanently in our collective memory. That includes tiny nations like Puerto Rico and behemoths like the U.S. and Mexico, as well many in between.

In this feature, The Ring looks closely at 20 countries with strong boxing traditions and selects the best fighter from each.

The process wasn’t easy. First, we had to select the 20 countries, which proved to be painstaking. Some nations that have produced memorable fighters didn’t make the list. And, second, choosing a single boxer from the countries that did make the cut was easy in some cases – Panama, for example – but excruciating in others.

The countries will be rolled out in alphabetical order one day at a time at The Ring.

Notes: The “five more” listed at the bottom of each capsule were among other fighters in the discussion for each nation. … Some boxers lived in more than one country. We assigned each to the country where they spent their formative years. For example, a fighter who left one country as a small child was assigned to his second country.


Birthdate / place: April 13, 1940 / Santiago de Cuba
Death date: August 16, 2019
Years active: 1958-75
Record: 81-7 (54 KOs)
Major titles: RING welterweight (1969-70, ’71-75), WBA-WBC welterweight (1969-70), WBA-WBC welterweight (1971-75)
Greatest victories: Billy Backus, Curtis Cokes (twice), Emile Griffith, Hedgemon Lewis, Ernie Lopez (twice), Armando Muniz (twice), Eddie Perkins

Background: Napoles fled Cuba for Mexico shortly after new dictator Fidel Castro banned professional boxing. Thank goodness for the sport. Napoles, as smooth as “Mantequilla (Butter)” and powerful to boot, built one of the greatest welterweight resumes in history out of Mexico City. Napoles was actually an accomplished professional between featherweight and junior welterweight but never received a title shot in those divisions. His break came in 1969, when he dominated fellow Hall of Famer Curtis Cokes en route to a 13th-round knockout that gave the Cuban the world 147-pound title. And he stopped Cokes again two months later in his first defense. He would go to hold portions of the championship from the first Cokes fight to 1975, when he lost his title to John Stracey (again on cuts) and never fought again. The only blip during his reign – which included 13 successful defenses – was a loss to Billy Backus on cuts that he avenged two fights later. Napoles greatest failure was his ill-fated attempt to wrest the middleweight title from all-time great Carlos Monzon in 1974 but he should be applauded for thinking big. When he was finished, he had gone 15-2 in world title fights and was 4-1 against fellow Hall of Famers. Greatness.

Quote: “What a magnificent fighter he was and what a great champion. Look how long he reigned as a champion. This is such a sad day,” Stracey said upon Napoles’ death this past August.

Five more from Cuba (in alphabetical order): Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilan, Sugar Ramos, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Luis Rodriguez

Next up: France

Ones you missed:

Argentina: Carlos Monzon
Australia: Jeff Fenech
Canada: Sam Langford


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