Except for the sound of tape being ripped and the weak hum of an old fan, the dressing room was quiet. His eyes vacant, Curtis Cokes watched a fly move slowly up and down a bilious green wall as his manager finished taping his hands. "Feel good?" asked the manager. "Good," said Cokes, as he stood up and jabbed the raised palms of the manager. "I got all my dependin' on you, boy," said a friend. "You hit him with that right, just one time Curtis, and he don't go down I gotta look in back of him and see who holdin' 'im up." Cokes smiled and then moved over to the fly. The fly buzzed off, and Curtis tried to take it out with a right cross. "Get him?" asked the manager. "No," said Cokes, "he got away."
Last week before a crowd of 5,102 in New Orleans, Manuel Gonzalez, who is not as slow as a fly but certainly just as undestructive, got away from Cokes, too, but he did not escape with the World Boxing Association's idea of the welterweight title. That now belongs to Curtis Cokes, just as the heavyweight championship belongs to Ernie Terrell, names like Emile Griffith and Cassius Clay being anathema to the WBA.
This was the fifth time that Cokes had fought Gonzalez—Cokes won on three other occasions—and it seemed spectacularly disrespectful to call this a title fight in a city so eminent in boxing history. In the argot of the gym Gonzalez (rated No. 9 by Ring) is a stiff who could win a six-day bicycle race without being on a bike. His equipment consists of clever moves and a steady, precise jab that would not even raise a welt on Henry Cooper's mushy face. Cokes, ranked 10th, was in the ring simply on the strength of the severe beating that he dealt Luis Rodriguez a few months ago. Neither Gonzalez nor Cokes should have been considered for a welterweight-title fight, but they ended up in one mainly because of a WBA elimination tournament that lacked quality and quantity.
For example, Jean Josselin (No. 1) of France and Ted Whitfield (No. 3) were not included in the series of fights that the WBA scheduled, but this hardly mattered since only one of the elimination fights was held. That was between Cokes and Rodriguez. Kitten Hayward, who is not even ranked, was supposed to fight Gonzalez, but he decided he did not like the idea and backed off. So Promoter Lou Messina—who is called Leaping Lou because one night when a fight was too dull and the house too small he leaped into the ring and tried to stop it—talked the WBA into a title fight between Cokes and Gonzalez. It was a natural. They were both from Texas, and Cokes had been excellent in his fight with Rodriguez in New Orleans. Messina began talking of a $35,000 gate.
September 4, 1966
"When Corbett fought Sullivan here in 1892," he said before the fight last week, "ringside cost $100. For this one, with inflation and everything, it is only $12 for gold row. And we got seats as low as $3. Keep in mind, too, Corbett won in a walk. These two guys are evenly matched. What a bargain!"
Some bargain. For 11 rounds Gonzalez sprinted around Cokes, and Cokes, almost somnambulantly, kept after him. The tedium was unbearable. Then, in the 12th, Cokes caught Gonzalez with a right hook, a right uppercut and another right hook, and Gonzalez went down. He took a mandatory eight count and got up, yet he still appeared to be in serious trouble as Cokes moved at him on the ropes. But Gonzalez whipped a right and a left to Cokes's head as he was coming in, which was enough to discourage Curtis though not enough to encourage Gonzalez. In the 13th Cokes shot a hard right hand to Gonzalez' jaw, but after that blow the fight reverted to its previous pattern. Even the referee seemed bored—especially with Gonzalez—and relieved when the bout was over. He just shook his head and scored it 14-0-1 for Cokes.
Gonzalez was embarrassed by his performance, but he attributed it to the fact that he had not fought since December, when he lost to the real but unofficial welterweight champion. Emile Griffith, in Madison Square Garden, a fight that was another stunning example of his ability to put an audience to sleep. It is unfortunate that he persists in his style, because he is a superb defensive fighter who smothers punches with ease and slips and slides with great grace. If he would punch—he never uses his right and never goes to the body—he would be thrilling to watch, simply because of his technique and because he has the mind of a boxer.
An illiterate, gentle man, Gonzalez came out of the cotton fields of Odessa, Texas. Once when he was 15 he picked a thousand pounds. He used to watch the Friday night fights on television, and one day he decided he would like to be a fighter. In his first bout he received a hamburger as his end of the purse, and in his second he received a broken nose, which is now crushed and boneless.
"Picking cotton was easier," he says, "but I like to light. The broken nose, that's the part I don't like."
"Have you made much money from boxing?" he was asked.
"No, not that much, but I will, and then I will send my two boys to get an education and buy a ranch for my wife to put pigs on."
"Do you hold a job?"
"Yeah," said a friend, "he's a rag-picker."
"Yeah," said Gonzalez, "I'm a rag-picker, but I'm a fighter, too."
Cokes, however, seemed hardly concerned with the lack of artistry in the fight. He was the champion now and, indeed, he had tried to make a fight of it. His principal postfight concern was how he could make money out of the title, and he was especially grateful to a gentleman by the name of Cornbread Smith. "If it hadn't been for Cornbread I don't know what I'd done," Cokes said. "He always said I'd win the title. Too bad he couldn't see it. He's dead."
Cornbread Smith was an old trainer around Dallas who, in his youth, had been a carnival fighter. Twice, once in 1963 and again in 1965, when Cokes, then a bank messenger, had quit fighting, Cornbread berated him for his hastiness and prodded Cokes back into the ring. He would send other fighters around to Cokes's house to pick him up, and every night he would call him on the phone and talk at great length. Cornbread, although a soft-spoken, placid person, "sure lived up to his nickname." says Cokes. "He got the name while catching for a ball team. They used to see that little thin guy scrap, and everybody got to sayin' he was as rough as cornbread. He was with me anyway."
"Boy," Cokes can recall Cornbread saying, "you got no sense? Why don't you stop all this messing around and be what you're supposed to be. A fighter. In fighting you got a chance at something. And don't anybody tell you that you can't get busted up real nice outside there. That bear, he just waiting for fellas like you."
"What bear! Boy, you ain't never heard of the bear? You stop fighting and you'll run into him. Bear back and bear table, that's what bear'll be looking for you."
Following the fight, Cokes, laughing and talking quietly, said, "That old man sure had me scared of that bear, but I ain't no more." And then he went home, turned his record player up so that the sound crashed through the room and sat back and listened to the alto of Cannonball Adderley, who, like Cornbread, plays things the way he feels, brings them up from deep down.