back in black
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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) receives 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.