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Jeff “Candy Slim” Merritt: A Fighter’s Life (Part Two of a Three-Part Series)

Steve Compton

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Merritt

NOTE: When we left Jeff Merritt, he had just advanced his record to 11-1 with an 8-round unanimous decision over Henry Clark, his most seasoned opponent. The match played out at Madison Square Garden on a show headlined by George Foreman vs. Chuck Wepner. It was Merritt’s fourth appearance at the Garden under the aegis of his sponsor, the National Maritime Union.

Merritt was quickly matched for another bout in the Garden’s Felt Forum but the fight never came off. Within a few months Merritt’s contract had been purchased from the Union by a ten man syndicate calling itself U.S. Championships, Inc. which included Bob Arum, Joe Louis, Norman King, Henny Youngman, William B. Williams, David Popsfsky, and William Walters. Muhammad Ali’s former court jester Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown was in town for the Joe Frazier-Jimmy Ellis heavyweight unification and looking to attach himself to a new fighter on the upswing with his former meal ticket in exile. He was given managerial and training duties over Merritt with Angelo Dundee.

Merritt’s new agreement gave him a $150 a week salary, living expenses, a car, and 50% of his purses. The syndicate would also pay for his training expenses, management fees, and transportation out of their share. In order to manufacture some cheap publicity they carted Merritt to the New York State Athletic Commission offices to file the contract. Accompanying the group was a belly dancer named Leila Sohl who they announced would be Merritt’s trainer. They invited a bevy of photographers who popped flashbulbs as Merritt and his “trainer” danced and gyrated to the horror of the commission members. The photos and Merritt’s story appeared in newspapers across the country. Bundini then rebranded Merritt “Candy Slim” because he was slim and had the sweetest left hook since Sugar Ray. It was a name that stayed with Merritt the rest of his life.

The syndicate immediately made the decision to send Merritt south to Miami where Angelo and Bundini would polish their new diamond in the rough at Chris Dundee’s 5th Street Gym (Chris was Angelo’s brother). Just over a month after arriving at Miami Merritt headlined his first card with a devastating two round knockout over Johnny Hudgins. Candy Slim pounded Hudgins mercilessly before finally lifting him off the canvas with an uppercut that left him glassy eyed and confused on the canvas for well over the ten seconds required to end the contest.

One day in April or May of 1970 while Merritt trained at Dundee’s Fifth St. Gym, Muhammad Ali, still in exile due to his stance over the Vietnam War, decided to test himself against one of the young guns in the gym. He selected Jeff Merritt as his foil. Accounts differ as to the outcome (Ali said by the end of the session he was able to figure out Merritt; Merritt claimed he hit Ali so hard he knocked his headgear off, forcing Dundee to call a halt to the session). Whatever the outcome, Ali and Merritt struck up an association that would last several years.

Over May and June of 1970 Merritt reeled off two more impressive victories over Eddie Vick and Charlie Polite but a series of opportunities at wider exposure failed to materialize. Merritt was scheduled to appear against Sylvester Dullaire but begged out of the contest when he was offered the opportunity to appear on the undercard of the Emile Griffith-Dick Tiger fight at Madison Square Garden. Merritt was also scheduled to appear in an exhibition bout with Muhammad Ali in Charleston, South Carolina which would be Ali’s first public appearance in a boxing ring since his exile began three years earlier. However, the day before the Ali exhibition opposition to Ali’s stance proved so great that promoters were forced to cancel the bout. Two days later Merritt was injured in training forcing him to pull out of his bout with Al ‘Blue’ Lewis on the Griffith-Tiger card. It would be nearly a year before Merritt would reappear in a boxing ring.

Jeff returned home to Kansas City for an extended stay where he capped off 1970 by marrying Bernice Cox just before Christmas. The following spring he returned to Miami with his new bride and her young son to resume training. He opened his campaign stating that he intended to fight every three weeks until the end of the year in order to crack the top ten but his ambition was short lived. He bowled over two cannon fodder opponents, George Dulaire and Willie McMillan, in the span of three weeks (a fight against Stamford Harris that appears on his record sandwiched between these two never took place) but Merritt pulled out of his next bout citing food poisoning despite going through with an exhibition bout against Muhammad Ali the following day.

At the end of July Merritt travelled to Houston with Jimmy Ellis to serve as sparring partner while Ellis trained for his upcoming bout with Muhammad Ali (a fight against Ollie Wilson that appears on Merritt’s record at this time never took place). Bob Arum, who was a part of the syndicate that owned Merritt’s contract and was promoting the Ali-Ellis card, found room for Merritt on the undercard. Chris Dundee offered Olympic heavyweight champion George Foreman $50,000 to fight Merritt on the card but Foreman’s manager Dick Sadler declined. Instead Merritt faced Al Banks who he stopped in two rounds.

Merritt returned to Miami for a scheduled 10 rounder against Leroy Caldwell, who was a late substitute for Wendell Newton. The night of the fight Jeff Merritt was nowhere to be found. As Angelo Dundee grew frantic he sent another of his fighters, Vern McIntosh, to the hotel where Merritt was living only to find that Bernice had no idea where Jeff was. In order to save the show Dundee put McIntosh in Merritt’s place and Vern proceeded to knock out Caldwell in six exciting rounds. The following day the Miami boxing commission suspended Merritt’s license. The fans were told that Merritt had refused to fight because he “felt weak.” What the fans weren’t told, and what wasn’t revealed until later, was that Merritt was now in the throes of heroin addiction. It was a struggle which would send his once promising career into a tailspin and ultimately consume his life.

It was more than three months before Merritt would emerge again. He appeared on a short exhibition tour during the winter months of 1971/72 with Muhammad Ali. In between exhibition bouts with Ali he lived in a rundown hotel in South Beach. He had sent his family home because he couldn’t afford to support them. He complained that the syndicate which controlled his contract had devolved into infighting and lost interest in his career while Chris Dundee was struggling to keep his lease on the Miami Convention Center. All of this made it nearly impossible for him to get fights even though his suspension was up. The only thing that kept him struggling along were the handouts that Angelo Dundee would give him whenever Merritt showed up to half heartedly train.

In March he joined the training camp of Vicente Rondon who was training for his light heavyweight unification bout with Bob Foster. He gave Rondon such a battering in sparring that when Foster stopped him easily in two rounds Rondon’s promoter Mickey Duff, seated ringside, remarked “How they hell do they expect him to have any confidence after Jeff Merritt killed him for two weeks?”

The following month Merritt had his first bout in nearly a year, knocking out Junior Grant but months of on and off drug abuse had left him at the lowest weight of his career and he admitted that his timing was off. Despite this, his performance was good enough to interest a wealthy local businessman, Jules Freeman, to take over his management. Merritt expressed optimism and high hopes for the future but three months later, with no fights under his belt, Merritt was described by the Miami News as in poor shape physically and emotionally “and probably through” as a fighter.

In the fall of 1972 Paul Mitrano, a successful Boston car dealer and fight bug, took over Merritt’s management. His first order of business was to move Merritt back to New York and place him under the guidance of Sugar Ray Robinson’s former trainer George Gainford. Any hope that a change of scenery and management would get Merritt’s career back on track was misplaced. He begged out of a late January fight in Las Vegas and a month later was arrested in New York for burglary. It had been a year since Jeff had been in the ring and not just his career but his entire life seemed in free fall.

Still believing in Merritt’s potential Bundini put him in contact with a man he’d met through Muhammad Ali. Don King was an emerging player in boxing. He had recently purchased the contracts of light heavyweight Ray Anderson and heavyweight power puncher Earnie Shavers, both based in King’s native Ohio. King had heard all about Merritt’s potential and all about his problems. He spoke to Jeff and despite all of Merritt’s baggage he convinced himself that this was a fighter he could work with. King, a product of Cleveland’s streets and a former felon himself could understand and communicate with Merritt in a way that none of the businessmen who had managed him in the past could. He decided to take a gamble on the wayward fighter. While in New York for Earnie Shavers’ fight with Jimmy Ellis King filed managerial contracts with the New York State Athletic Commission. It was the beginning of the most vibrant year of Merritt’s career.

King immediately went to work rebuilding Merritt’s confidence and body. He talked to him on a philosophical level about where he’d come from, how he got where he found himself, and what he wanted for his future. Merritt responded to King’s Svengali charms and rededicated himself to training. He was sent to Earnie Shavers’ training camp at Grossinger’s where Shavers was preparing for the biggest test of his career, a showdown with Irish Jerry Quarry. Merritt quickly found that he had a lot of work to do in order to get back into fighting form. Shavers, who was never one to pull his punches in sparring, battered Merritt. Merritt resented this treatment and as he rounded back to form their sparring sessions became hellacious.

According to Larry Holmes, Jeff quickly developed resentment toward Shavers born out of jealousy. He resented the attention Don King paid Earnie. Those tensions flared in mid-July when, with King away from camp, Archie Moore, who had been hired to train Shavers, let a sparring session with Merritt and Shavers get out of hand. During one heated exchange Shavers, who had been warned several times against keeping his mouth open, was caught with a combination by Merritt that broke his jaw in two places and forced a cancellation of the Quarry fight. King was furious. He immediately fired Moore and, making lemonade out of lemons, used the publicity to get Merritt a marquee fight at Madison Square Garden against former WBA heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell. Merritt was immediately back in the limelight.

When Merritt signed with King he weighed 200 pounds, had visible needle tracks on his arms, and was a physical wreck. When he stepped into the ring with Terrell he was a muscular and healthy 221¼ pounds and a force to be reckoned with. The fight would serve as a live undercard to the closed circuit telecast being beamed into the garden of the Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton rematch. Terrell, who eight years earlier had been dubbed ‘the octopus’ by Muhammad Ali, rushed out and grabbed Merritt in a vice like bear hug. After the referee broke them several more waltzes followed before Merritt landed a dynamite left hook that sent Terrell spinning. Candy Slim pounced on his dazed opponent and chased him around the ring with a torrent of punches. Arthur Mercante tried to jump between the fighters but Merritt continued his assault, forcing the stoppage. The official time was two minutes and forty-two seconds of the first round and Merritt was back to being a sensation.

The win over Terrell was the most publicized win of Merritt’s career to date. Forgotten was the fact that Terrell’s performance had been so bad that the New York State Athletic Commission had revoked his license and forcibly retired him due to the deterioration in his skills over the previous two years. After the success of the Terrell fight Don King moved Merritt back to Cleveland with him and for a time allowed Jeff to stay at his home. King provided Merritt a car and even purchased a home in Kansas City for Jeff’s mother on Woodland Avenue. It was the first home she had ever owned. For the first time in a long time, maybe in his entire life, everything seemed to be coming together for Merritt.

In order to keep Jeff out of trouble you had to keep him busy. To that end, one month after the Terrell fight, Merritt was matched with Ron Stander. Like Terrell, Stander was in a different class from Merritt’s previous opponents. Stander was a short, squat heavyweight. What he lacked in skill he made up for in heart and durability. In the first year of his career he had stopped Merritt’s stablemate Earnie Shavers and only a year and a half earlier he had challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship and despite losing in four one-sided rounds he gave a great showing of determination and grit. Yet by Stander’s own admission he had dissipated after the loss to Frazier. Drunk on the career high purse he received and copious amounts of beer and wine, his weight had steadily climbed. Never svelte at an advertised height of five foot eleven (but closer to five foot nine), Stander was now a blob of a man, in no condition for a serious contest against a man knocking on the door of the contender class.

When Stander arrived in Cleveland his weight was announced as 233 lbs but reporters made note of his heft, his unwillingness to train, and his prodigious appetite. One paper stated that in the days before the fight he dined on steak and wine and gained a remarkable 13 pounds the day before the fight to come in at a career high 245 pounds. Regardless of when or how Stander gained the weight he was a jiggling mass of flesh when he came to meet Merritt ring center and had no business anywhere near a boxing ring.

Merritt approached his quarry like a butcher approaches a fatted calf. Stander feigned confidence and bravado but he would later admit he took the fight just for the payday. Merritt was confident as well and went right after Stander. In the early moments of the contest Stander landed a glancing right that sent Merritt into a clinch. Merritt’s tendency to give up his height advantage allowed Stander to land the occasional punch but Merritt answered back, eventually finding his range with hard jabs and driving hooks deep into Stander’s soft midsection. In close Merritt, angered by Stander’s trash talking, began raking him with lefts to the head and body, reddening Stander’s face. As the round drew to a close Merritt landed a hard hook to Stander’s face causing Stander to dramatically shake his head in the fashion of Ali, denying he was hurt but it was evident that he was tiring rapidly. The round ended with the fighters trading punches after the bell and Stander dismissively waving Merritt off.

As the second round opened Stander tried for a Hail Mary right hand that missed wildly. Merritt quickly took over and before the round was a minute old he snapped Standers head back violently with a powerful left hook. Both fighters traded low blows and then Merritt shoved Stander into his own corner and began to cannonade his pudgy adversary. A left sent Stander down for what was reported to be the first time in his career. Stander argued angrily with referee Lew Eskin that he had slipped on the wet canvas but moments later a series of punches sent Stander down again and this time when he tried to rise he fell flat on his face. There was no denying that he had been hurt. Merritt went back to chopping Stander down and violent spun him into the ropes. With the audience screaming wildly a series of unanswered blows sent his defenseless opponent down. Eskin rushed in to stop the fight and Merritt raised his hands in victory, spit his mouthpiece out, and marched around the ring to soak up the adulation of the crowd as seconds and officials filled the ring.

As Bundini Brown, Don King, and co-trainer Richie Giachetti embraced their victorious charge referee Eskin approached and notified them that the round had ended before he had stopped the contest. The fight would continue. It was academic. When the third round belatedly began Merritt resumed his slaughter and quickly sent Stander, bleeding and mouth agape, reeling into the ropes. Eskin jumped in once again and rescued him on his feet.

Jeff was joined by Don King and Earnie Shavers at King’s Sheraton Inn headquarters. Merritt looked pleased with himself as he spoke to a small gathering of reporters from the podium. Dressed in an imperial purple jump suit and wearing a shy smile on his face he remarked simply that “I trained to fight the guy and that’s what I did.”

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Luis Feliciano and Blair Cobbs Remain Undefeated in Desert Showdowns

David A. Avila

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INDIO, Calif.-After years of honing and crafting their combat skills several undefeated prizefighters met in the desert and a pair emerged victorious – one by knockout and the other by decision on Thursday night.

Puerto Rican super lightweight prospect Luis Feliciano (13-0, 8 KOs) walked into the Fantasy Springs Casino arena to boos and hisses from the crowd, but departed the winner of the NABF super lightweight title by unanimous decision over Mexican challenger Genaro Gamez (9-1,6 KOs).

It wasn’t an easy task for Feliciano (in the black trunks) who was the naturally bigger and taller fighter. Gamez began his pro career as a super featherweight but could not make lighter weight divisions and found himself as a super lightweight.

Just using the eye test, a person could see Gamez was physically a smaller fighter. But when it comes to weight there are no true height sizes. And once the punches flowed the action was torrid.

Feliciano trains in South El Monte, Calif. with boxing wizard Ben Lira, and he learned his craft well. From the opening bell he zipped body shots underneath Gamez’s guard repeatedly. The San Diego fighter never allowed Feliciano to enjoy too much success and often retaliated every big hit with one or two of his own.

After several overhand rights and uppercut body shots by Feliciano, one connected solidly in the torso of Gamez who buckled severely but did not go down. Feliciano noticed immediately and increased the attack. It was the crucial moment of the fight.

For three ensuing rounds Feliciano controlled the fight. It looked like the Puerto Rican fighter might dominate and win easily, but in the fifth round, Gamez took a stand and reminded everyone just why he was undefeated. The San Diego fighter opened up with three-punch combinations and shots to the head and to the body. The momentum shifted to Gamez.

Perhaps Feliciano was told by his corner to stop going backwards. In round six Feliciano slipped into his most offensive mode and unfurled three-punch combinations with a steely look on his face that seemed to say whatever happens, happens, I’m not going backwards.

For the remainder of the fight Feliciano was steadfast in his attacks and refused to yield despite the many attempts by Gamez to regain control.

After 10 rounds all three judges scored in favor of Feliciano 99-91 and 98-92 twice and the Puerto Rican became the NABF titlist.

“That was a very tough fight. He came to fight,” said Feliciano. Conditioning was the difference. I was the stronger fighter in the end and no disrespect to Gamez, he was very good.”

Cobbs Wins NABF Title

Blair Cobbs (12-0-1, 8 KOs) traded knockdowns with Steve Villalobos (11-1-1, 9 KOs) then slipped into overdrive to knock out the local Indio fighter with a blinding combination in the ninth round of their NABF junior welterweight title fight.

It was slow going at first as Cobbs boxed and moved laterally from side to side and was racking up most of the rounds until Villalobos caught him with a combination and floored the Philadelphia-born speedster in the sixth round.

Cobbs got up and both fired rapid combinations with a right hook stopping Villalobos assault. But it was the best round for the local fighter whose crowd of fans roared loudly sensing a stoppage.

“I got nailed,” said Cobbs. “But when I landed that right I could sense his energy go down.”

Blair Cobbs on the attack

Cobbs returned to his box and move strategy that had worked effectively for five rounds. Then, with 30 seconds remaining in the seventh round, Cobbs unfurled a sizzling combination that took the steam out of Villalobos.

In the eighth round Cobbs stopped moving rapidly and was instead looking for openings and unloaded three successive straight left – right hook combinations. All connected and Villalobos looked for a solution to stop the Philadelphia fighter’s momentum. None could be found.

Cobbs increased his attack and connected with a three-punch combination and a follow up right hook that floored Villalobos. The Mexican fighter got up and Cobbs returned with a right uppercut and left cross combination that sent Villalobos violently down near the ropes. Referee Eddie Hernandez didn’t bother to count and wisely stopped the fight at 1:20 of round nine for a Cobbs knockout win. He also retains the NABF junior title in the welterweight division.

“I tried to place my shots and once I found it, boom. game over,” said Cobbs. “Villalobos came and brought his A game and I respect him. I wish nothing but the best for him.”

Other Bouts

A super welterweight battle between undefeated Richard Acevedo (5-0-1, 5 KOs) and Connecticut’s Jose Rivera (8-4-1, 5 KOs) ended in a split draw after six back and forth rounds. Acevedo started quickly against the southpaw but Rivera could not miss with the right hook and rallied back into the fight. No knockdowns were scored but each had their moments in the six-round fight. Scores were 59-55 Acevedo, 59-55 Rivera, and 57-57 for the draw. Rivera looked much better than his record indicated.

Mexico’s Raul Curiel (7-0, 5 KOs) upper-cutted his way to victory over Florida’s Alphonso Black (8-7-1, 4 KOs) by knockout in the sixth and final round. Though Black was never knocked down Curiel was unloading six-punch combinations with impunity. Referee Eddie Hernandez stopped the super welterweight fight at 51 seconds of the sixth round.

“I felt good today, very strong,” said Curiel. “My opponent was honestly strong. He had a heavy hand.”

Curiel is trained by Freddie Roach and has shown obvious improvement in his combination punching and timing. Black showed a sturdy chin but was absorbing multiple combinations. In the fifth round Curiel connected with four consecutive left hooks to the body and head. The fighter from Tamaulipas is managed by Frank Espinoza.

“It was my first fight at 154, but I knew how to handle his punches,” Curiel said.

Nicholas Sullivan out of Norfolk, Virginia won his pro debut in a tug of war type of fight with Mexico’s Jose Palacios (1-4) by unanimous decision after four rounds in a lightweight match. Sullivan cruised through the first round with his speed, but subsequently Palacios began timing the attacks and the fight got closer each round. Both fighters connected but Sullivan was more accurate and won on all three cards 39-37 and 40-36 twice.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Remembering Jose ‘Mantequilla’ Napoles (1940?-2019)

Arne K. Lang

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The passing of Jose Napoles last Friday (Aug. 16) caused hardly a ripple in the English-speaking world. This says something about the current state of boxing — how it has slipped out of the mainstream, at least in the United States – and something about how quickly important fighters of yesteryear fade from view and become little more than a footnote in the sports pages when they leave us.

The record book says that Jose Napoles was born on April 13, 1940, but that may warrant an asterisk. Like many Cuban exiles who made their mark in sports, Napoles was widely considered to be older than his listed age. A 1974 article in Sports Illustrated said he was 34 going on 40. But regardless of his true birthdate, there is no question that Napoles was a special talent. The noted Scottish boxing historian Matt McGrain named “Mantequilla” the fourth best welterweight of all time, surpassed only by the two Sugar Rays, Robinson and Leonard, and Jack Britton. He was ushered into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1990.

Purportedly 113-1 as an amateur, Napoles turned pro as a featherweight and had his first 21 pro fights in Havana. Then Fidel Castro came to power and outlawed professional sports which he associated with the depredations of capitalism, a plaything for the wealthy. To profit from his talent, Napoles would need to go elsewhere. He defected to Mexico, settling in Mexico City.

In Mexico he found an appreciative audience. In time he developed a following that surpassed the top native-born fighters. His two bouts with Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez attracted crowds of 17,000-plus to the LA Forum including thousands from Mexico, many arriving on chartered planes. Lopez, born on a Utah Indian reservation, had a good following too, but nothing like Napoles. When he fought at the Forum, cries of “may-he-co, may-he-co” drowned out the ring announcer.

Capture 1

Napoles sported a 54-4 record when he made his U.S. debut at the Forum underneath a non-title fight between Jesus Pimentel and Chuchu Castillo. Overall he fought 10 fights at the LA sports palace, six of which were sanctioned for the WBA and WBC welterweight titles at a time when these were the only world sanctioning bodies with a significant footprint.

Napoles won the title here with a dominant performance over Curtis Cokes who was unfit to continue after 13 rounds. The rematch in Mexico City was a carbon copy, only three rounds shorter. Among his other victims were Emile Griffith and Hedgemon Lewis who he defeated twice.

About that nickname: “Mantequilla” means butter in Spanish. Napoles, who methodically dismantled his opponents, never changing his stone-faced expression, was said to be as smooth as butter. But he was more than a technician. He flattened Ernie Lopez with a vicious uppercut in their second meeting. Indian Red was unconscious before he hit the canvas.

A “butter knife” would have been a more appropriate nickname, a very sharp butter knife, said some of the wags, but actually Napoles was often more sliced up than the men he beat; his one flaw as a fighter was that he was prone to cuts.

He lost a fight in Mexico to the capable L.C. Morgan on cuts, a loss he avenged with a second-round knockout. Not quite four years later, he lost his title to Billy Backus on cuts. He was bleeding from cuts over both eyes, and bleeding badly over the left, when the fight was stopped in the fourth round.

Canastota’s Backus was Carmen Basilio’s nephew. The fight, which some say was stopped prematurely, was held in Syracuse, Backus’s backyard. This was one of the great upsets of the 1970s. A few years earlier, Backus had retired on the heels of three straight losses, returning to the sport after being laid off from his job as a construction worker.

Napoles, a ladies man, had a reputation for being lax in his training. “He liked to observe the dawn at the end, not the beginning, of the day,” wrote Tex Maule. But he trained fiercely for his rematch with Billy Backus who was a bloody mess when the referee interceded in the eighth round. In hindsight, said several reporters, Napoles didn’t lose his title to Backus when they first met; he merely let Backus borrow it.

Napoles’ propensity to cut prompted his management to reach out to Angelo Dundee who worked Napoles’ corner in several big fights including the rematch with Backus. In his early days, before he established his bonafides as an elite trainer, Angelo was primarily known as an elite cutman. He acquired this reputation working with the aforementioned Basilio, one of the great bleeders of all time.

In February of 1974, Napoles moved up in weight to challenge Argentina’s renowned middleweight champion Carlos Monzon. This was too big a reach for an aging fighter who had begun his career as a featherweight. The bout, held in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris, ended with Napoles sitting glassy eyed on his stool after six rounds.

There would be four more successful defenses of his welterweight title before it was sheared from him by England’s John Stracey (TKO 6) in what would be his final fight. He finished 81-7 with 54 KOs.

In retirement, Napoles regularly attended WBC events even as his health deteriorated. In his end days, noted Robert Ecksel in an obit for the International Boxing Research Organization, he suffered from an assortment of maladies including diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, and consumption. Moreover, as is common with so many ex-boxers of an advanced age, his behavior had become increasingly erratic. “In his days of crisis he becomes impulsive and it’s difficult to stabilize him,” his wife Berta said in a 2017 interview with a Mexican paper.

Jose Angel “Mantequilla” Napoles died with his children and grandchildren at his side. Among the mourners at his memorial service were the family of the late, great Salvador Sanchez. Napoles had attended his memorial service; they were reciprocating. John Stracey sent a floral arrangement and a note that said it was an honor to have shared the ring with him.

May he rest in peace.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 61: Puerto Rico vs Mexico and a Weekend Look-Ahead

David A. Avila

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Southern California loads up with multiple fight cards this weekend.

It’s Puerto Rico versus Mexico when Luis Feliciano (12-0, 8 KOs) meets Genaro Gamez (9-0, 6 KOs) in the main event at Fantasy Springs Casino on Thursday Aug. 22. It can be seen on RingTV.com and Facebook Watch via the Golden Boy Fight Night page.

“I know all about the rivalry,” said Feliciano who trains in South El Monte, Calif. “I’ve heard about it all my life.”

As long as I can remember, whenever you put standout Boricuas against standout Mexicans, it’s like adding gasoline to a fire. Just stand back. This year alone two Puerto Ricans with world titles were tripped up by Mexican challengers.

But the opposite can happen just as easily.

The first time I actually saw this heated rivalry in action was back in 1981 when Puerto Rican great Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez met Mexico’s equally great Salvador Sanchez in a featherweight duel in Las Vegas.

Gomez, at the time, was considered by many as the best fighter pound for pound. He walked into the Caesars Palace indoor arena with 32 consecutive knockouts in 32 wins. After fighting to a draw in his pro debut in Panama, he made sure that his fights did not end in a decision by brutally knocking out everyone in front of him.

Sanchez was the featherweight champion defending against Gomez who was moving up a weight division after cleaning out the super bantamweights. The Mexican fighter from the small farming town of Tianguistenco trained in Mexico City with several of the top fighters of his country. One of his teammates, Carlos Zarate, was wiped out by Gomez two years earlier by getting hit after the bell for a knockdown. He never recovered and it left ill feelings with Mexican fighters, including Sanchez.

The stage was set when they met on August 21, 1981, exactly 38 years ago today. Gomez walked in with a salsa band and Sanchez with a band of mariachis. Both bands dueled with each other. I laughed when I saw that.

Sanchez walked in as the underdog and the two warriors erupted at the opening bell. It was Sanchez who floored Gomez in the first round and looked like he would finish the Boricua. But Gomez got up and would not quit. Still, it didn’t look like the Puerto Rican champion would make it through the second round. He did and more.

Both fighters exchanged punishing blows, daring the other to take each other’s big shots. In one round they exchanged left hooks as if challenging the other to see whose punches were more powerful. Slowly the fight developed in Sanchez’s favor, and in the eighth round the Mexican fighter connected with a combination and down went Gomez. Though Sanchez would win by knockout that day and go on to gain more victories against three more fighters, he would die in a car crash almost a year later in Mexico.

Gomez would go on to knock out several Mexican fighters, including Juan Meza, Juan Antonio Lopez, Roberto Rubaldino and then the coup de grace, the epic knockout win over Lupe Pintor. Gomez would go on to win featherweight and super featherweight world titles. But his fight with Sanchez further ignited the future battles between Puerto Rico and Mexico.

Here we are 38 years later and the wars between fighters from these two countries are still captivating.

Puerto Rico vs Mexico

Feliciano, 26, ironically trains in the heart of Mexican style boxing and is trained by Ben Lira. Though he was raised in Milwaukee, he has spent the past two years in Southern California getting familiar with the pressure style that Mexican fighters impose on their opponents. He’s sparred and fought numerous times against all styles in California, New York and Puerto Rico.

“I feel I’m more than ready for this fight,” said Feliciano recently at the South El Monte boxing gym. “Gamez is a good fighter and that’s what I want to prove myself against, good fighters.”

Gamez, 24, began his pro career as a super featherweight but grew into the lightweight and now super lightweight division. Despite the changes in weight divisions, the San Diego-based prizefighter remains undefeated. He had a strong amateur career and, despite the varying weight divisions, Gamez (pictured with his promoter Oscar De La Hoya) has shown good boxing skills and a sharp boxing IQ.

Both fighters are undefeated and eager to move to the next level. On paper it’s a dead even fight. But you never know when Puerto Ricans fight Mexicans. It can end suddenly.

In a co-main event, Las Vegas-based Blair Cobbs (11-0-1, 7 KOs) meets undefeated Steve Villalobos (11-0-1, 9 KOs) of Mount Vernon, Washington in a 10-round welterweight clash.

Cobbs, a southpaw, has endured a virtual gamut of opposition and the Las Vegas-based fighter, originally from Philadelphia, has emerged unscathed. He signed with Golden Boy and continues to show improvement aside from natural toughness.

Others on the fight card are Mexico’s Raul Curiel (6-0) fighting Alphonso Black in a super welterweight match and lightweights Kevin Ventura (10-0) battling Brian Gallegos (6-1) in a six-round bout. Several other fights are planned.

Carlos Zarate, the great Mexican bantamweight world champion, will be a special guest at the fight card. Zarate, who had 63 knockouts in 66 wins, will also be available for photos and autographs at 6 p.m.

Doors open at 4:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25.

Costa Mesa

On Thursday, Aug. 22, a Roy Englebrecht Events boxing card at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, Calif. features several young prospects including a middleweight showdown between Malcolm McAllister (9-3) and Rowdy Legend Montgomery (5-2-1) in the main event.

Others on the boxing card include Sergio Gonzalez, Jorge Soto, Israel Mercado, Mike Fowler and several others.

Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information call (949) 760-3131.

Corona

On Friday, Aug. 23, Thompson Boxing Promotions presents a summer outdoor event at Omega Products International. In the main event, bantamweight prospect Saul Sanchez (12-0) meets Edwin Rodriguez (10-5-1) in a 10-round fight.

Sanchez, 22, returns to the site of his last battle that took place this past May and ended in a knockout win for the Pacoima, Calif. prizefighter. He’s trained by Joel Diaz and Antonio Diaz and has shown improvement in each of his fights since February 2016.

“I think it’s great that I’m fighting in the same place as such great champions,” Sanchez said. “I put in a lot of work for this camp to make sure I win convincingly. I know Rodriguez is looking to pull the upset, but it’s not going to happen.”

Rodriguez is a tough Puerto Rican who has toppled a couple of undefeated fighters and has never been knocked out. He also briefly held a regional title and has never been an easy foe for anyone.

A welterweight showdown pits Kazakhstan’s Bobirzhan Mominov (10-0, 8 KOs) against Puerto Rico’s Javier Flores (14-2, 12 KOs) in an eight-round fight.

Mominov, 27, fights out of Florida and his last fight was in Costa Mesa this past March.

Flores, 33, is a southpaw slugger who has fought some tough competition. It’s an interesting welterweight matchup.

Others on the fight card that begins at 8 p.m. are heavyweight prospect Oscar Torrez, welterweight Luis Lopez and super featherweight Sebastian Salinas. For more information call (951) 737-7447.

Pico Rivera

Red Boxing International presents another lengthy boxing card at Pico Rivera Sports Arena on Saturday, Aug. 24.

In a lightweight headliner, Angel Flores (5-0, 4 KOs) risks his undefeated record against veteran Roberto Almazan (9-11, 4 KOs) in a six-round bout. Both Flores and Almazan previously fought at the outdoor arena located by the San Gabriel River.

A flyweight matchup pits Axel Aragon Vega (12-2-1, 7 KOs) against Giovanni Noriega (2-4-2) in a six-round fight. Vega, 19, fights out of Ensenada, Mexico and Noriega, 24, hails from Tijuana, Mexico.

Seven other pro bouts are scheduled on the fight card. Doors open at 5 p.m.

San Diego

Middleweights clash on a Roy Jones Jr. Boxing Promotions fight card on Saturday Aug. 24, at Viejas Casino and Resort in Alpine, Calif.

Connor Coyle (10-0) and Rafael Ramon Ramirez (21-4-2) meet in a 10-round middleweight contest. UFC Fight Pass will stream the fight card.

Coyle is an Irishman who now trains in Florida. San Diego’s Ramirez is a fighter who actually fought at the Olympic Auditorium and left boxing for seven years before returning in 2013. He hasn’t lost since losing at the now retired boxing venue in 2004.

Six pro bouts are scheduled for Saturday.

Fights to watch

Thursday Facebook Watch 5 p.m. Luis Feliciano (12-0) vs Genaro Gamez (9-0).

Fri. Showtime, 10 p.m. Shohjahon Ergashev (16-0) vs Abdiel Ramirez (24-4-1).

Sat. ESPN+ 9:30 a.m. PT Sergey Kovalev (33-3-1) vs Anthony Yarde (18-0).

Sat. DAZN 4 p.m. Juan Francisco Estrada (39-3) vs Dewayne Beamon (16-1-1).

Sat. UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. Connor Coyle (10-0) vs Rafael Ramon Ramirez (21-4-2).

Sat. Fox Sports1, 7 p.m. Brandon Figueroa (19-0) vs Javier Nicolas Chacon (29-4-1).

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel  

To comment on this story in The Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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