Nemesis of a succession of Cuban fighters, Emile Griffith had taken titles from two of them and had the chance to tie a record when he went after Jose Napoles' welterweight crown
October 27, 1969

The partisans of Jose Napoles, welterweight champion of the world, like to call him "Mantequilla," the Spanish word for butter, which is what his boxing style is as smooth as. Otherwise, they ordinarily choose to honor him in a more demonstrative way, as they did during his virtuoso performance last Friday night at the Forum in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood. While Mantequilla, a Cuban exile who now dwells in Mexico, was having his way with Emile Griffith, his churned-up followers were boisterously exercising similar dominion over the scene of the action, and it was a tribute to the indestructibility of Griffith and the Forum alike that both were still standing at the end.

The Forum takes on a particularly giddy air whenever a Mexican enters the ring. In the case of Napoles, whom Mexican fight fans happily accept as their own, there was extra reason for celebration, since Griffith made the perfect foil for their idol's heroics. With an offense characterized by punching that, if not overpowering, was both busy and brisk, Napoles eased his way to a unanimous decision while the crowd reacted lustily to the spectacle of virtue rewarded, justice triumphant and evil duly vanquished.

Promoter George Parnassus had expressed fears that Operation Cooperation (born as Operation Intercept, the U.S.'s war against marijuana smuggling) might keep Mexicans away, but it was doubtful that even land mines at the border could have accomplished that. Besides an audience watching on television in Mexico City (the fight was also beamed to San Francisco and Sacramento), 15,461 turned up at the Forum. And to judge by the live rooster that somebody thrust into Napoles' corner as he entered the ring and the reverberating waves of "Meh-hee-co!" "Meh-hee-co!" that periodically swept through the crowd thereafter, few of those present hailed from Griffith's neighborhood back home in Weehawken, N.J.

The gate of $194,315 was another triumph for the 74-year-old Parnassus, a small, spry, birdlike man whose long-running feud with Promoter Aileen Eaton, a onetime partner, gives Los Angeles not one, but two thriving boxing operations. One reason for Parnassus' success is that he pays so very well, as his $40,000 to Griffith and $80,000 to Napoles attest. For Griffith, of course, there was the extra inducement of a shot at a record-tying sixth world championship, the number held by Sugar Ray Robinson. In winning his previous titles—welterweight three times and middleweight twice—Emile had always come up with a big effort just when he seemed to be running out of tomorrows, but this time around there was reason to doubt that his particular brand of brinksmanship would work. For one thing, he had been away from the welterweight ranks for three years. His last fight before this was a listless split-decision victory over Art Hernandez in South Dakota, for which he received a skimpy $6,400. That is hardly the kind of purse to which he is accustomed and has required in order to support a collection of relatives and strangers numbering as many as 17 at times.

Behind the decline in Emile's earning power is the fact that even at his best he was never much of a crowd-pleaser. He suffered from his reputation as a bullying fighter, partly derived from his freakishly top-heavy build—a massive bust on a delicate pedestal—which made him seem awfully big for a middleweight and monstrous for a welterweight. He was a ruler with few constituents, even in Madison Square Garden, where he seemed to appear whenever the New York Knickerbockers had the night off. Still, if he wound up a bore to some, he became an ogre to the succession of Cuban fighters who have left their marks on the welterweight division. They were a well-tutored breed who shared the belief that if a young fighter concentrated on developing his footwork, his punching and all the rest would take care of themselves. But the best of them, Welterweight Champions Benny Paret and Luis Rodriguez, lost their titles to Griffith. They dazzled while Emile dominated.

With the outflow of athletes stanched by the Castro regime, Jose Napoles, who fled his country in 1961, looms as the last of the fine Cuban fighters. A converted lightweight who competed in relative obscurity in Mexico, despairing of ever getting a shot at a title, Napoles made his U.S. debut in Los Angeles barely more than a year ago and quickly established himself as a gate attraction. He easily mastered Curtis Cokes, until then a solid champion, in two fights earlier this year, but the fate of the earlier Cuban welterweights was apparently not lost on him; outside the ring he continued to act as if he dared not take himself, or his success, all that seriously. A handsome man whose rakish image is reinforced by the bandido mustache he grew last year, Napoles derives pleasure from jumping onto the tail end of buses in the company of squealing schoolchildren in Mexico City and he exhibits a sharp eye for the se√±oritas, referring to himself as the "hawk who gets all the chickens." The question hanging over Napoles the fighter had as much to do with will as with ability—whether he could withstand the bullish, swarming tactics of Griffith or whether he would become the latest Cuban to wilt before the onslaught.

The answer came first to Napoles and then to everybody else. In the first round he contented himself with a few sharp jabs, meanwhile studying Griffith with the cool, detached perspective of a man sitting in the fourth row. Returning to the corner at the bell, Napoles told Carlos (Cuco) Conde, his chalk-faced manager, "I looked at his footwork, and I know he can't catch me." Another thing Napoles knew he had going for him was the fact that Referee Dick Young had been quick to separate the fighters in that opening round, thus neutralizing Griffith's head-down, hold-and-hit tactics. In the second, Napoles let Griffith charge him and began nimbly to assert his mastery, slipping under Griffith's advances and tagging him with short, jolting uppercuts on the way out.

Napoles fully dominated the early rounds, an artist coolly and confidently going through his repertoire—aggressive combinations, left hooks, right crosses. Always in perfect position, repeatedly slipping and sliding out of the challenger's grasp, he had the other man spinning, occasionally landing potshots from outside but also beating him on the inside, supposedly Griffith's own game. The only knockdown came early in the third round when Napoles nailed the advancing Griffith with a quick right uppercut to the jaw. Griffith later admitted that it was a clean knockdown, but added that he was not hurt by the blow.

Emile's performance was, in its own way, as remarkable as Napoles'. Although he never seriously dented the champion's armor, Griffith gamely fought back to win a couple of rounds when Napoles eased up in the middle of the bout and he landed enough blows to stay in every round. After a full decade in boxing's top class, he remains a formidable fighter.

On his way to the dressing room, exhilaration overtook Jose Napoles, who for some obscure reason playfully crawled on the floor, making like a hamster. When he started answering questions, he was fully aware of the meaning of his accomplishment. Asked why he had succeeded in conquering Griffith when the other Cubans had failed, Mantequilla said simply, "I'm better than they are." Griffith, who refuses to entertain the possibility that he is "down the hill," as he puts it, could only agree. "He is a great champion," said Emile. "I can't knock him. After all, he beat a good fighter tonight."

PHOTOUnmarked and no longer unsure of his superiority, Jose recounts details of his triumph. PHOTOIn fight's only knockdown, Griffith rests on his knees following a Napoles uppercut.