For middle-aged swingers, intemperate horseplayers and Cuban expatriates, it could not have been a more heartwarming occasion. Jose (Mantequilla) Napoles, who is all three of the above, struck a fine blow for immoderation when he outfought young, clean-cut, upstanding Hedgemon Lewis last Saturday afternoon to retain the world welterweight title, an outcome lustily applauded by some 16,000 fans in Mexico City.
Napoles is 34, going on 40. He has a strong and lasting affection for friendly women, horses that go off at 20 to 1 or worse and observing the dawn at the end, not the beginning, of the day. Lewis is 28, plays chess, studies real estate brokerage and stays in shape between bouts. He is going to be a success eventually; first in boxing, then in whatever else he wants to do. But he was unlucky enough on this day to run into a master boxer-puncher who, even in his athletic dotage, could call upon enough memories and remnants of physical talent to take over.
The fight was stopped just before the end of the ninth round, with Lewis out on his feet after a fearful beating that had gone on for almost three minutes. He had not been put down, but that was a tribute to his superb condition. He had been battered mercilessly around the tiny ring and it would have been inhumane to allow him to come out for the 10th.
Lewis had started well enough, moving quickly, flicking a left hand in Napoles' face, occasionally leading with a right hand, and once landing hard enough to raise a small lump over his opponent's left eye. A right-hand lead against Napoles used to be a no-no; his countering right over the heart was murderous.
"That counterpunch seemed to start almost as fast as the right-hand lead," said Eddie Futch, Lewis' trainer, before the fight. "It made anyone who fought him a one-handed fighter. But it's not that fast anymore. Lewis will lead with his right and not get hit."
Indeed, Lewis got away with it for four or five rounds. None of his punches did much damage but he was making Napoles miss with the counters and he was moving easily, and one had to think the weight of the years and late hours would tell on Napoles. But he was fighting a beautifully economical fight, not moving much, slipping punches or blocking them with a minimum of effort. And gradually sharpening his timing.
Early on, Napoles was countering the quick left jab with a left hook over the heart that was just missing. Then from about the third round the hook began to land, glancingly at first, more solidly as the fight went on.
Still, not all of Napoles' success was the result of his superior skill. The fight had originally been made for Acapulco, at sea level, was moved to Monterrey and, finally, at the behest of Napoles' camp, to Mexico City. At its mile-and-a-half altitude, oxygen debt besets a sea-level athlete sooner or later. The ring was not much bigger than a telephone booth, another advantage for the older fighter, and the ring floor was heavily padded. After those lefts to the belly sapped his legs, Lewis must have felt he was fighting in sand.
From the fourth round on, Lewis was through. More and more often Napoles caught him with a countering hook to the belly; then he began reaching him with hooks to the head, and in the eighth and ninth rounds with almost all of his considerable arsenal of punches. In the ninth he bent Lewis with a left hook to the belly, hooked him again to the head, followed him as he wobbled backward across the ring and hit him with an overhand right flush on the mouth. The bell rang, but the referee had already stopped the fight.
Later, in his dressing room, Napoles seemed tired, but not too much so. He had a tiny bump over his left eye, where one of the early right-hand leads had caught him, but otherwise his square, pudgy face showed no signs of damage.
"Always, before the fight, the writers say how bad I look in the gym, how old, how hard it is for me to make the weight," he said. "Then, after the fight, they say how wonderful I am. Is always the same. Me, I feel great. The way I feel, I may be the first to fight on the moon."
Napoles had indeed experienced trouble making the weight, working hard and sweating copiously. He came in at exactly 147 pounds, after taking 15 minutes to work off a few extra ounces the morning of the fight. He was snappish with associates, probably thinking of all the fun he was missing at the track and other places. The fight was, in effect, something of a command performance set up by the World Boxing Council, whose officials had ordered Napoles to defend his title against Lewis, threatening to take it away otherwise.
Lewis weighed in at a little over 142 pounds; in the ring he appeared to be in marvelous condition while Napoles showed most of his 34 or more years.
"I'll know what kind of man I'm facing after the sixth round," Lewis had said beforehand. "I don't think he'll be around for the 10th. He'll be asleep on the canvas. I thought I won the first fight we had in Los Angeles in 1971 and I know I've gained a lot in strength and maturity since then. He's only gained 2½ years."
"Mantequilla can fight forever," said Trainer Angelo Dundee after the fight. "He ages like fine wine. No waste, the old master, the great boxer. The left hand coming into the belly—boom, boom! Then, when he brings the hands down, the left hook to the head and the right and none of them missing. You just saw one of the real great ones."
Mantequilla is Spanish for butter, and the nickname was given Napoles in Cuba because of his smooth, slippery, effortless style. On this afternoon, he made up for loss of the speed and reflexes that gained him the name with an innate sense of anticipation. It allowed him to adjust his counterpunching to compensate. By the fifth round Napoles seemed to be reading Lewis' mind: the fearful left hook to the belly would start almost before Lewis threw the left jab.
Except for a six-month period when Billy Backus held the title, Napoles has been welterweight champion for six years. He learned to fight on the streets of Havana and eventually came under the tutelage of Alfred (Kid Rapidez) Cruz, who got his nickname from his hand speed when he was a fighter.
"I used to walk down the street in Havana with Kid Rapidez when I was little," Napoles once said. "He would pick out a boy maybe twice as big as me. If I could knock him out, I would get a silver peso, but I had to knock him cold. I got a lot of silver pesos and a lot of experience."
In those days, and occasionally since, Cruz was not above a bit of black magic to help his fighter. He would bring a white chicken into the dressing room, say a little abracadabra over it, then carry it to the ring. There Cruz wore a red kerchief over his head and poured cologne over his fighter's shoes just before the bell rang—all spells designed to propitiate whatever Cuban god looks after the welfare of welterweights. As an added touch last week, a couple of bongo drummers beat out weird rhythms as the fight went on. And while Kid Rapidez wore the red kerchief around his neck under his sweat shirt, he skipped the chicken and cologne.
This was a disappointing loss for Lewis, but the odds are that he will be back. He is an exceptionally pertinacious young man. "It has never been my whole ambition to be a fighter," he says. "I did not like fighting when I started. I was raised in Detroit, and when I was a kid a friend of mine was a fighter. Once he told me they needed someone to fight in the 105-to-110-pound class and I would get a trophy if I won. So I tried and I went to the finals and lost to some guy named Steve Miller. I didn't like fighting that much, but I couldn't stand losing, so I went back the next year just so I could fight Miller again and beat him. I won, but Miller did not fight that year. I never have found him."
Lewis has been on several talk shows and once won a record player on The Dating Game, as well as a date with a movie starlet. A measure of the difference between Lewis and Napoles: "The record player was better than the girl," Lewis said.
He will probably fight Napoles a third time, maybe at sea level, and maybe he will win. It would be a nice thing for the clean livers, the young and the ambitious. As for Mantequilla, he will be back among the slow horses and the not-so-slow women. He knows which side his bread is buttered on.