In other areas of the world, more blasé, perhaps, or more cloyed with success, the emergence of a new world's prizefighting champion is hardly occasion for a national holiday. But for vigorous Old Mexico the victory of 23-year-old José Covarrubias Becerra (pronounced beh-sair-ra) in the bantamweight championship boxing match last week in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena was a cataclysmic event which reduced a crowd of 15,000 largely Mexican spectators to a state of gibbering hysteria, touched off a weekend of riotous dancing in the streets of the national capital and prompted the President of Mexico to dispatch a mock-stern command to Becerra: "Monday, without excuses, I will expect you at the National Palace."
The deep emotional interest of the people of Mexico in the athletic achievements of its muchachos has to be seen to be disbelieved. When José Becerra knocked Alphonse Halimi flat on his back in the eighth round and the count of 10 had been tolled off, there was genuine fear the prone ex-champion would get trampled to death in the rush of Mexicans into the ring.
Becerra himself contributed to the solemnity of the occasion when he observed right after the fight: "I give thanks to God for winning this title which is for my own good and for the good of boxing in Mexico."
In a sense, the passion of his people is understandable. True, they have had campeónes del mundo before. But there was always a tarnish to the wins: Juan Zurita, after all, was only the NBA's version of a lightweight champ—and he held the title in virtual anonymity during the war and only until his first defense. Raul Macias was a moustachioed caballero (and movie actor) who also won only the NBA version of the bantamweight title in a fight with an ex-foot-fighter from Thailand. He got his jaw broken in his first fight after that and lost his title hands down in his first world defense (against Halimi) in 1957. A graduate street brawler from Monterrey, Lauro Salas, secured an overnight hold on the lightweight title by winning a disputed decision over Jimmy Carter in 1952 but lost it right back, and convincingly, the very next fight. Only Becerra is able to hand the ears to his countrymen and El Presidente. He won convincingly and, assuredly, could do it again.
Becerra is hardly the best fighter ever to come out of Mexico. At 23 he is green. He punches hard but not explosively. He gets tangled up in his own feet. But he is big for a bantamweight, and his arms are long and skinny and make him capable of hurting an opponent just as competently with a long hook or cross as with the short inside smashes more favored by bantamweights.
But mostly, Becerra is persistent. In Halimi he was fighting a canny, muscular champion who is used to outlasting and outslugging his opposition, a man who enters the ring so relaxed and with such low blood pressure a doctor might be pardoned for giving him No Doz tablets to keep his mind on his work.
WINE AND CIVILIZATION
In a sense, it is too bad Halimi has gone, for however long, from the boxing scene. A gentle, kindly man, he brought a fresh air of French elan and civilization to the ancient art of la boxe. He smiled readily and with warm eyes. He dismissed sparring partners who pursued their duties too energetically, explaining apologetically that he fought for his life only in the real ring on fight night and for money. He popped the eyes of sportswriters when he politely ordered a full bottle of wine to go with his red meat at the contract-signing luncheon.
At the bell at the end of each round he grabbed opponent Becerra's cheeks in his gloved hands and smiled warmly at him as though he were about to thank him for the dance rather than the savage bloodletting just completed. At the end of the fight it was loser Halimi who marched over to winner Becerra's dressing room to congratulate him.
This sportsmanlike philosophy did not dissuade Champion Halimi from making a full-throttle effort to keep his championship. For the first three rounds of his fight it seemed as though the thousands of Mexicans who had made the pilgrimage once more up from the old country to fill all the gaudy gold, blue and red seats of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, whose inaugural event this was, had once more paid through the nose to see a countryman humiliated. In the second round Halimi squashed his rival's nose with a right and might have kayoed him except that he seemed to want to save it till later. By round three Halimi had short-hooked Becerra into a state of mouth-breathing, flat-footed confusion.
But later an astonishing thing began to be apparent. Although he had put a mouse under Becerra's left eye and had hit him broadside with dozens of smashes, Halimi could not really hurt Becerra. The silent youngster from Guadalajara kept coming on through the rain of punishment, and his own punches, longer and straighter, began to crash through Halimi's rocket rain. It was also evident Becerra could hurt Halimi.
Becerra, with two inches more height, was a bigger if less muscular man. In the third he hit Halimi with a punch that seemed no harder than several the French-Algerian had landed on him, but the champion would have gone down except that his seat caught on the ring ropes. Quite suddenly the champion was indeed fighting for his life.
Halimi was so tormented by the relentless Mexican that he began to make uncharacteristic tactical errors. He allowed himself to be backed into the ropes and beguiled into slugging with José. He was decidedly overmatched at this activity, and while the end, in the eighth round, was sudden, it can be recalled in retrospect as having been more like the gradual chopping down of a thick tree rather than the explosive uprooting.
Halimi was beset with more and more persistence and began to look around like a man trying to escape a party bore by the middle of the eighth round, when Becerra's blows began to snap his head back as if on a hinge. He tried rather desperately to maneuver around to Becerra's corner, unable to comprehend the screamed French instructions ("Stay off the ropes!") from his own corner in the fantastic din of broken Spanish and English that was the sports arena. Suddenly a left whistled into his stomach. He doubled up.
A right crackled on his jaw, then a left and he toppled face forward. As he went down, another right (Becerra increased the tempo of his punching metronomically as the fight wore on) curled around the back of his neck so that it seemed for an instant as though he had been flung to the floor rather than slugged there.
But when he got up, there was no doubt about it. Becerra bottled him up again, drilled a left, then whopped a right, then a left. The last left was superfluous. Halimi's legs were going out from under him by then, and he was briefly in a state of levitation before he thudded to the floor, spine first. The count was unnecessary, and by the toll of "seven" it seemed the ring was already crowded with excited vaqueros in peg-topped pants hotly pursued by harassed cops, as in a scene from an old Mack Sennett two-reeler. The ex-champion slumbered through it. A nonrooter approached the doctor kneeling over him. "Is he hurt?" he wondered out loud. The doctor shrugged. "No," he said. "Just knocked out."
For a U.S. fighter, being a bantamweight is a little like being a left-handed third baseman. There's just no future in it. But in Mexico, and for José Becerra, it is enough to be el campeón del mundo. In the future, José Covarrubias Becerra, who quit school at the age of 12 and the weight of 80 pounds to work carrying bus engines around a repair shop, will be, without excuses, ready to keep his people proud of him.
Farther up the Coast, another champion had better fortune last week. He is Don Jordan who, in the second defense of his welterweight title, took on Denny Moyer in the infield of a Portland race course. Moyer, who is 19, would have been the youngest champion in the history of the division had he but won. He didn't come close. Although a resourceful boxer, Moyer simply did not have the weapons or experience to cope with Jordan's relentless pressing. The daylight fight went 15 rounds and Moyer, despite the close official scoring—147-143, 147-144 and 144-143—won perhaps two of them, the second and the 15th. For the remainder of the fight he beat an orderly retreat before Jordan's banging. The only way youth was served in Portland was on a platter.