The first thing you notice about Willie Ludick are the eyes. They are big and soft and brown, and they are buried deep between high cheekbones and dark, heavy brows. Willie's eyes had never been so big as they were in the days before he fought champion Curtis Cokes for the welterweight title in Dallas last week, for Ludick is from South Africa, where they do not drive around in big shiny Cadillacs and say, "Ha yew, Willie." Willie even got to ride in a Cadillac and a Lincoln Continental.
But now it is the fifth round against Curtis Cokes, and you cannot see Willie's eyes anymore. Blood streaming from cuts above and below his right eyebrow and from a gash along the side of his nose has transformed Ludick's eyes into twin craters of dark red.
"He couldn't even see me," Cokes said after he scored a technical knockout at 34 seconds of the fifth round. "The very first right hand I threw busted open his nose. That showed me he was a bleeder, and I set about cutting him up a little."
Curtis Cokes does not particularly enjoy the sight of blood. He says he gets sick every time one of his four small children cuts a finger, but in the ring Cokes is as skillful a surgeon as you will find. Boxers used to duck Curtis Cokes, because he put them on the shelf for so long, win or lose. But now Cokes is the welterweight champion, and anybody up to 147 pounds who wants his title will have to fight him for it.
April 28, 1968
Willie Ludick was such a man. A 26-year-old steelworker who still labors in a mill south of Johannesburg, Ludick came to Dallas hailed as some kind of South African Joe Louis, Willie Pep and Sugar Ray—all stuffed into a white skin. David Levin, a short, chubby millionaire from Johannesburg, had underwritten Ludick's career from the start, put up the $50,000 guarantee Cokes wanted for defending his title and even brought the famous Angelo Dundee from Miami Beach to be in Ludick's corner. This was for the "real" welterweight championship of the world, Levin said, for the WBA had no business declaring Cokes champion in the first place since he had not fought Ludick, a contender for the welterweight and middleweight championships of Europe. Levin said Cokes could have a rematch in Rhodesia, since blacks cannot compete with whites in South Africa.
"Willie is a very nice fellow," said Cokes, a small, tidy man of 30 who wears a mustache. "But, really, there will be no need for a rematch. I am going to win. The fact that he is white and happens to come from South Africa means nothing to me. Tonight we will fight, but afterward I'm sure we'll be friends."
Cokes is a thoughtful man, and he picks his words with care. His face bears a strong resemblance to Zora Folley's, but the body below it is more like that of Maury Wills. There was a time, years ago, when he wanted to play professional baseball, but he failed in a tryout with the Dodgers.
So Cokes graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas and started fighting "strictly for the money." He quit three times for various reasons and probably would have given up altogether if Emile Griffith had not vacated the welterweight title to become a middleweight in 1966. Cokes then won the championship by beating Luis Rodriguez and Manny Gonzalez.
Boxing has not made Cokes a rich man. He is a partner in a steak house that will open soon, but that is all he has. "I realize," he says, "that if I am ever to enjoy the easy life it must come through boxing."
On the day of the fight Cokes sat in the den of his modest home on a tree-lined street in a predominantly Negro section of South Dallas. The shelves were filled with trophies and the walls with pictures. No picture, however, showed Cokes cut or bleeding. "In 12 years of boxing I've never been cut," he said. "I do not like to get hit, and I'm sure that has hurt my appeal as a fighter. People come out to see the sluggers. But those who criticize me don't have to step in the ring and get hit. I want to win as badly as anyone, but it's just important to me that I protect myself. When I'm through fighting I don't want my children to be ashamed of how I look."
Cokes didn't always think this way. He started out as a slugger, but when Sammy Williams knocked him out in 1958 (his first loss) he became a counterpuncher almost overnight. He has since become one of the best—if not (he best anywhere. A growing coterie of followers is beginning to enjoy his style almost as much as the helpless state in which he leaves his opponents.
"It is difficult to see the blows that do that to a man," Cokes said. "It always happens so fast. When he throws a left I wait until the arm and glove are extended and he begins to draw it back. For a split second he is relaxed, almost defenseless, and that is when I go over his left with my right. When the blow is timed perfectly it's like hitting a cushion. In fact, it's a lot like hitting a home run—the ball just takes off, even though you hardly feel it touch your bat."
Against Willie Ludick, Cokes expected a rough, crude fight. While he respected Ludick, he was not awed by his buildup. He expected his bigger, stronger opponent to bully him and hurt him along the ropes. So Cokes planned to hold back the first few rounds, figure out Ludick's southpaw style and then go to work with his right hand (which broke a sparring partner's rib a week before).
The promotion, handled by Dallas theater owner Norm Levinson, was not at all in the tradition of Big D. It came off smoothly. It was a far cry from the Cokes-Gypsy Joe Harris fiasco of a year ago, when Harris failed to show up the day of the fight and fans who had paid $8,000 to see the match never got their money back.
Price-Roberts Productions, Inc. carried the fight on home television in 30 cities, and this, too, was refreshing, since such operations had usually been monopolized by Madison Square Garden.
When Cokes and Ludick entered the ring there were 6,000 spectators in the Dallas Memorial Auditorium. Twenty million more were watching on television. They saw a Curtis Cokes nobody had ever seen before—and the purses to come after Cokes's good show should turn his career around completely.
At the bell Ludick charged, as expected, and ran smack into a stiff right hand that immediately drew blood from his nose. Cokes won the round by scoring repeatedly with those same right hands. In the second round Cokes, his face expressionless, opened the cuts about Ludick's right eye. As the fight wore on, more steady rights, shooting straight into Ludick's face, widened the cuts into gashes, smearing blood over both fighters. Cokes was in control in the third and fourth rounds. Shortly after the fifth began it was all over.
Ten seconds into that last round the fighters met in the center of the ring. Cokes scored with a left hook to Ludick's head and followed with a right uppercut to the jaw. Ludick, dazed, dropped his guard. Cokes shot two straight rights and another right uppercut into Ludick's face, and the challenger toppled over backward and crashed to the floor. He somehow struggled to his feet to take the mandatory eight count, but his eyes were glazed and rolling back in his head. Then, stupidly, Referee Lew Eskin waved Cokes in again. Ten seconds and what seemed like 85 blows later Cokes made Eskin stop it.
Ludick, smiling through puffed, bloody lips, congratulated Cokes and asked if he might have his gloves. Cokes said he had to keep them—for the den.
"Willie tried," said Dundee. "He gave it the good college try. But Cokes is a good fighter. He always was good, but he has become twice the fighter since he became champion. You can tell just the way he steps into the ring. Willie gave him a few shots that would have decked lesser men, but Curtis is a champion now."
Cokes, sitting on a table in his dressing room, was drinking orange juice from a quart bottle. "He made me fight harder than I wanted to in the first rounds," he said. "I had to be careful because he can hit. And he was always on top of me. I had to beat him off to set up to punch. He's a good boy, a very game boy."
They were polite comments, the kind champions can afford to make. Then somebody asked Cokes how many home runs he hit that night. Cokes smiled, took a swig from the orange-juice bottle and said, "Oh, 'bout five."