An odd thing happened to Welterweight Champion Billy Backus on the way to his first title defense in The Forum—he got knocked out for the first time in his life. For his conqueror, José Napoles, a dispossessed Cuban now operating out of Mexico City, the victory in Los Angeles Friday night was sweet vindication for an even odder thing that had happened to him last December in Syracuse, N.Y., Backus' home town. There, the referee had quickly stopped the tight in the fourth round because of a cut eye and given Napoles' title to Backus.
"Oh, Sierracuse," cried Carlos (Cuco) Conde, Napoles' rotund little manager. "I no like Sierracuse. They have no reason to stop the fight in Sierracuse. This time will be different."
This time it was different. For one, Napoles had a volatile crowd behind him, a Forumful of Mexicans who rhythmically chanted, "Meh-hee-coe, Meh-hee-coe, Meh-hee-coe." For another, Conde had taken the precaution of hiring Angelo Dundee, who has fallen heir to Whitey Bimstein's title as "the best cut man in the business," to work in the corner, "Cuco doesn't want lightning to strike twice," Dundee said before the fight. "I worked for Carmen Basilio for eight years, and he never got stopped on a cut, and he was busted up plenty."
This time Basilio was in the opposite corner, since Backus is his nephew, but Carmen bore no grudge against Dundee. "It's a business," Basilio said to his old friend. "Just as long as you're not in the ring throwing punches—you throw one and I'll be right in there."
Napoles and Conde also are very close—"like father and son," according to Dundee. Now 31, Napoles was born in Santiago, Cuba and started boxing there as an amateur.
Since then he has become a citizen of Mexico, whose fans have adopted him as one of their own. He is known as "Mantequilla," which means butter and refers to his ultra-smooth style. In 1969 Napoles won the welterweight championship by knocking out Curtis Cokes in The Forum and he defended it three times before losing to Backus last December. If, up until last Friday night, there was one criticism against Napoles as a fighter, it was that he rarely displayed his full talents in the ring, even though he had 43 knockouts in 65 fights. He was a heavy favorite against Backus in The Forum, but as one camp follower said, "Mantequilla almost never extends himself. He does just enough that is necessary. No one really knows how good he is."
No one in the Backus camp paid any attention to the claim that Napoles had been robbed in Syracuse. "When you lose, you gotta say something," shrugged Tony Graziano, Backus' manager. To which Basilio added, "They can say what they want but Billy kicked the hell out of him." The prospect of fighting before a partisan crowd did not faze Graziano. "I don't care if they got half the Mexican army in there," he said. "We got that dago blood in us and we don't give a hoot how tough he is. When that fight starts, those fans there can't help him in the ring."
Uncle Carmen has been Backus' trainer since last October, concentrating on teaching him combination punching. "Basilio was a tremendous combination puncher," Graziano said, "and Billy didn't deliver like he should have. It was my fault. Now he's much sharper and crisper than he was the last time he boxed Napoles." Before the fight Basilio also served as a sparring partner for his nephew. "I'm only good for two rounds," he said, "but I'm real tough." Backus' camp felt that the only fighters who ever beat him were those who jabbed and ran away.
Which, to an extent, is just what Napoles did at The Forum. From the beginning it was apparent that it was Napoles' night. Maybe the crowd didn't jump in the ring with him, but the fervor certainly helped. When Napoles pranced into the ring first, there was tremendous applause as well as cheers and shouts of "Viva Mantequilla." Backus drew jeers and boos. The south-of-the-border theme continued as a se√±orita dressed like Rio Rita sang seemingly every verse, punctuated with applause, of the Mexican national anthem, leading a few gringos to conclude they had bought tickets to a concert instead of a fight. By contrast the crowd remained mum and Backus glum after the mod-suited, hirsute ring announcer invited everyone to sing The Star-Spangled Banner.
When the bell rang, Backus was the aggressor, shuffling and weaving in. After 30 seconds the fight looked like a replay of Syracuse as Backus opened a deep cut over Napoles' right eye. Backus appeared to have the edge, but at the end of the round Angelo Dundee went to work on Napoles with his magic potions. He pressed the cut with a cloth and then dressed it with a swab stick he took out of his mouth. Conde watched intently as Dundee worked on the cut. "I used what they call Dundee's Ointment," Angelo said afterward, displaying a handful of small jars. "It's four or five coagulants. My best friends are doctors and I'm always asking them about coagulants. I have only 50 seconds to play around and several doctors have told me that a good cut man takes care of cuts better than they can because they can't work that fast."
Reassured by Dundee's treatment, Napoles danced out for the second round. As Backus tried to swarm inside, Napoles kept him at a distance with sharp left jabs. After jabbing with the left, Napoles would then retreat a step. The basic strategy was to keep Backus off balance and to hit him with counterpunches as he came in again. Now and then Backus landed some good shots, but he was unable to put together any concentrated attack. He reopened the cut in the second and third rounds, but again Dundee was able to close it and Napoles had no further trouble.
Still, Backus was the aggressor. Once in the sixth, Napoles forgot to step back after jabbing, but Backus missed the opportunity to follow up. Now Backus appeared to have cuts over both eyes. The end came in the eighth round. Backus looked tired and frustrated as Napoles continued to dance, jabbing with his left. Suddenly Napoles knocked Backus to the canvas with a left hook. Dazed, his face covered with blood, Backus arose and tried to carry the fight to Napoles. He walked into a swarm of punches and went down a second time. He pulled himself up on the ropes to beat the count, but Referee Dick Young stopped the fight to call a doctor into the ring. The Mexican fans, thinking Napoles already had won, started screaming, but after the doctor took a quick look at Backus, Young did stop it and raised Napoles' hand in victory. The Forum exploded, and Napoles shouted in Spanish: "My title! My title! My title!"
In the dressing room, still fresh, Napoles spoke of the action while Conde translated. "Backus is a strong guy," he said, "and for a southpaw he has a good right hand. He is a tough kid with heart. He did the same he did to me before. He take me by surprise in the first round, but I get more confidence, and I jab, go out, jab, go out. With my left hand, màs, màs, màs."
Next door, Backus was flat on his back on a table. His petite wife Peggy held an ice pack over his right eye. Peggy Backus can take almost anything that happens in the ring—"I come from a family of fighters," she says—but she was livid over the abuse handed her by Mexican fans. "They gave me the business," she said fiercely. "After I started crying, they gave me the victory sign and jeered. When Napoles fought in Syracuse, we didn't jeer or boo. If we don't cheer, we keep our mouths shut."
In the center of the room, Uncle Carmen, who has been through so many wars, was calm. "Napoles won, but he didn't have that easy a time," he said. "We're gonna look for a rematch. It had the fans standing on their feet."
Whether or not there is a rematch is anyone's guess. But if there is, Cuco Conde will bet all his coconuts it won't take place in Sierracuse.