The CBZ Newswire

Touching Gloves with…Alvaro ‘Yaqui’ Lopez

by on Dec.21, 2015, under Boxing News

By Dan Hanley

15_YaquiLopez-cropped

To explain what Yaqui Lopez brought to the table is quite simple and also, quite difficult. You see, boxing today is in an age of flux with MMA to contend with, not to mention a glut of safety-first fighters involved in the sweet science. So when I say that the sight of the name, ‘Yaqui Lopez’ in our quaint TV listings of the day would bring an excited shiver to my spine, I think some of the contemporary fans would either roll their eyes or stare quizzically at the text. But for those who lived through the ’70s and ’80s as fight fans, they know exactly what I’m on about. Because I’m talking sheer excitement here, baby.

 DH: Yaqui, where in Mexico are you from?

YL: I’m from Zacatecas, Zacatecas, Mexico.

DH: Tell me about family life growing up in Zacatecas.

YL: Well, there was no brothers or sisters, only me. We were very poor and my parents wanted to better ourselves by coming north.

DH: How old were you when you came to the U.S.?

YL: I was 14 or 15 and we settled in Linden, California. We were ‘field workers’ in those days.

DH: What got you interested in boxing?

YL: Well, I originally wanted to be a bullfighter. When I was in Mexico I would watch the matadors drive up in their expensive cars and they were always met with applause. I daydreamed of their fame and I wanted to be somebody too and decided to give their game a try.

DH: How did you make out?

YL: (laughing) I was gored in my right ankle when I was about 14 and my Mom begged me not to pursue it. We headed north shortly after that anyway and that was when I took up boxing.

DH: How did that come about?

YL: I was the only one of my friends who had a car and one of my friends asked me to drive him over to his girlfriend’s house. When we got there I saw his girlfriend’s sister and just said aloud, “Wow!” Her name was Beatrice Cruz, who was called Beno, and we dated for 4 years before we got married. But while dating I met her father Jack Cruz, who was training fighters, and asked her if he would teach me. And it took off from there.

DH: How did you progress as an amateur?

YL: Well, I only had about 16 fights. But I was taught by such great trainers as Jack, Benny Casing, Danny Dagampat and even Beno’s uncle Frank Guzman, who taught me how to block and roll. I entered the Eureka, California Diamond Belt championships and won the tournament by beating Junior Albers, who was the last year’s champion.

DH: Wasn’t it as an amateur that you picked up the nickname, ‘Yaqui’?

YL: Yeah, we were fighting in a show in front of a lot of Indians in Eureka and this crowd had had a lot to drink. So when one of them came up to Jack and asked him what tribe I was from, he thought fast and said, “He’s a Yaqui, from Mexico.” (laughing) It was the only tribe Jack knew, but it worked and they treated me as one of their own.

DH: Shortly before turning pro you picked up a role in John Houston’s ‘Fat City’. How did that come about?

YL: Jack was good friends with Leonard Gardner, who was the writer of ‘Fat City’. Anyways, when filming started Leonard asked me if I wanted to be in the boxing scenes. So I said, yeah, why not? But, you know, I watched that recently and, my God, (laughing) I really looked awful when I was just starting out.

DH: You turned pro in ’72 and embarked on a very busy schedule. By ’74 you were 16-2 and signed to fight old pro Andy Kendall in his stomping grounds of Portland, Oregon. This was a real step up in class, so you must tell me about that fight.

YL: I’ll tell you a funny story about this one. I signed the contract for that fight but never bothered to look at who I was fighting. I trusted Jack on everything. Anyway, I went to the gym and a friend of mine in the gym was looking at the contract I brought in. (laughing) I’ll never forget how his eyes widened and he sputtered, “Hey, you signed to fight Andy Kendall!” And I’ll tell you, Andy was one rough guy. But I listened to my corner and was using combinations I had practiced and I stopped him in five rounds.

 DH: That same year you picked up the California 175 lb. title, but somewhere along the way you also picked up Nevada and Texas state titles. How and when did that happen?

YL: (laughing) Oh, that would have been against Joe Cokes, who was Curtis Cokes’ brother. He happened to have both titles and I beat him over 12 rounds, which gave me all three state titles.

DH: Your first real test against a viable contender came in May of ’75 when you took on Mike Quarry in Stockton. Tell me about that fight.

YL: Mike was a pretty good boxer, but I went out there and did my job. They told me to cut the ring on him and I made him fight. I dropped him in the 6th and won the decision.

 DH: Who was promoting you in Stockton at this time?

YL: Jack Cruz.

DH: Whoa! Your manager was your promoter? That wasn’t exactly legal was it?

YL: (laughing) No, it was. See, we never had a contract. I didn’t want to sign one. We dealt with a handshake, so technically, he wasn’t my manager.

DH: Shortly after the Quarry fight you took on old opponent Jesse Burnett and split a pair of close decisions. What did Burnett have that was giving you trouble?

YL: Jesse Burnett was like Floyd Mayweather. Very clever and hard to catch clean. I think it was the third fight – the first I won against him – my corner said to me towards the end of the fight, “Go get ‘em, champ, he’s tired.” (laughing) And I turned to my cornerman and said, “Hey, I’m tired too.” So if there was one good thing that came out of that series was that I really started to run. And I mean a lot. I didn’t want to be tired in a fight again.

DH: By 1976 you were the top contender at 175 and in October of that year you were signed to fight John Conteh for the WBC light heavyweight title in Copenhagen. But, I gotta ask you. How many times was this fight scheduled?

YL: (laughing) About 4 or 5 times. At one point we were going to fight in Uganda, but one week before the fight President Idi Amin cancelled the fight. Finally we settled in Copenhagen, Denmark.

DH: How did the fight unfold?

YL: Well, it took me about 4 days to get used to the time difference. You know, I was actually doing roadwork at 2:00 am. But I went the 15 rounds and actually thought I had him in the 7th if not for the referee interfering. But regardless, he got the decision.

DH: Could you explain what happened in that 7th round?

YL: During that round I caught Conteh with two very hard left hooks and the referee jumped in between us. I actually thought he was stopping the fight in my favor, but he started warning me and Conteh. I don’t know, but it seemed like he was stalling to give Conteh a chance to clear his head.

DH: Back home in Stockton, who were you working with in the gym?

YL: I had a recurring set of sparring from some excellent professionals. There was George Cooper, ‘Indian’ George Davis, Terry Lee, Joe Gonsalves and Erwin Williams. Jack would always have me go three rounds each with them, and when I was starting out they would beat the hell out of me. After awhile, when I had learned the ropes, they would come around and peek in the door first to see if I was there. (laughing) Hey, if I was a little rough it was because I always remembered that they never took it easy on me.

DH: In ’77 you entered a tournament called The World Television Championships and you were matched with Lonnie Bennett in Indianapolis. What happened in that fight?

YL: I had him down in the 2nd, but he butted me in the 3rd, slicing open my forehead. They stopped it and gave him the fight. I was so disappointed. They clearly saw it was a butt.

DH: I understand you sued to reverse the result. But wasn’t there also something about money?

YL: Yes, we were to receive $7,000 and the promoter Don Elbaum fronted us $1,000 and a check after the fight with the balance. Well, the check bounced and I had absolutely no luck in court. Y’know, I could have used that money. Purses back then were small, which is why I fought so often and why I always worked construction between fights.

DH: Things turned around for you in September of ’77 when you received your second title shot. This time against WBA champ Victor Galindez. But what I remember most of this fight was the repeated warnings for Galindez’ rabbit punching.

YL: Dan, my neck was so swollen after this fight we had to hold ice-packs to it. This fight took place over in Italy and the referee kept warning him and warning him for 15 rounds, but never took a point. And I lost a very close fight over the distance.

DH: Fair play to Galindez, he said you deserved a rematch and gave you one in May of ’78. But prior to that you went to New York to fight Mike Rossman. It almost seemed like you were there to benefit Rossman’s chances of a title shot.

YL: (laughing) They wanted to feed a fish to Rossman, but that fish wasn’t dead yet.

DH: You received no favors from the referee. I recall him jumping in and giving Rossman a standing eight count when you got him in trouble in the 6th. And there was no such rule in New York allowing a standing eight.

YL: Dan, he was their boy and they were giving him every chance. But it was the body shots that got to Rossman and they ended it after the 6th.

 DH: Your rematch with Galindez was again held in Italy. Was the rematch any different?

YL: While training for this bout, I took a spill in Victory Park while running and ended up with ligament damage. We wanted to postpone but Bob Arum wouldn’t do it. I had absolutely no mobility during the fight and he won again over 15.

DH: After another win over Jesse Burnett in October of that year you journeyed to Philadelphia to take on Matthew Saad Muhammad for the NABF title. Tell me about that fight.

YL: That fight took place in the Philadelphia Spectrum and it was a terrific fight. It was stopped in his favor in the 11th round on a cut. He was a great fighter and a man of his word. He said at the time if he won the title that he would give me a title shot and he did.

DH: Several years back I was present for Matthew’s induction in the World Boxing Hall of Fame and I recall you two getting into a friendly discussion of who was the North American champion going into that fight. Matthew said he won it from Marvin Johnson, yet you also held recognition.

YL: That’s right. I won it from Jesse Burnett. That last fight of ours was fought over 15 rounds. Even WBC President, Jose Sulaiman, who was present at the Burnett fight, said I held the North American title. (laughing) So, I think my claim was stronger.

DH: You went on another winning streak after that and participated in the novelty of fighting in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey against inmate James Scott. Tell me how that came about.

YL: When the offer came through Jack did not want me to take it. Not that there was an issue going to the prison, but I just wasn’t ready. I insisted, however, because the offer was $40,000. I just would not turn down that kind of money. As for the fight, I have to tell you that something was wrong. I know the feel when I hit someone and when I hit Scott to the body he didn’t budge. I suspected what went on after the fight when I took the post fight urine test, because he refused to take it. Why? And why even administer the test if you’re not going to enforce it?

DH: By 1980 Matthew Saad Muhammad was the light heavyweight champ and signed to defend his title against you for your 4th crack at the whip. Tell me about 1980s fight of the year.

Yaqui Lopez (right) against Matthew Saad Muhammad in his July 13, 1980 challenge for the WBC light heavyweight title. (photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Yaqui Lopez (right) against Matthew Saad Muhammad in his July 13, 1980 challenge for the WBC light heavyweight title. (photo courtesy of Getty Images)

YL: You know, I thought I had him in the 8th, but he got his second wind and I didn’t. The better man won. Matthew and I became friends and I never forgot him when he passed away. I even attended his funeral in Philadelphia when he passed. I just felt I had to be there.

DH: You were also stopped in your next fight against Michael Spinks and it really looked like the end of the career. But then you got a new lease on life at cruiserweight. Was 175 a struggle?

YL: I had outgrown the division. I could still make 175 but I was killing myself to do it. Cruiserweight was much more comfortable, but on the other hand, my skin was letting me down by this time. I was just cutting so easily.

DH: During your run at cruiserweight you traveled to Australia and took on Tony Mundine, who was one of the top contenders at that weight. I understand he really went at you early.

YL: Yes, he did. And like the Rossman fight, I was again the ‘Pescaro’. But this fish still wasn’t dead. I really tore into his body and knocked him out in three rounds. And it was funny, because again like the Conteh and Rossman fights, he had help from the referee.

DH: Could you explain?

YL: (laughing) Well, the referee counted him this way, “1…2…Tony, get up…3…4…”

DH: You carried on with great success until receiving your 5th shot at a world title. This time against Carlos De Leon for his cruiserweight title. Was it just not there anymore?

 

YL: That’s exactly what it was. I wanted to do the things I used to but the legs weren’t willing.

DH: You had one more fight, a loss in ’84 to Bash Ali, a man you had previously outclassed. Was it a difficult decision to pack it in?

YL: No! The decision itself was difficult, but my wife, my parents and my father-in-law all sat me down and told me that I don’t have anything to be ashamed of and that made the decision easy. I was still getting offers, including a nice one from Australia, but I didn’t want to become a stepping-stone.

DH: Was the James Scott fight the largest purse of your career?

YL: No, but it was right up there. My largest purse was $50,000 for the title fight with Matthew in New Jersey.

DH: A silly question seeing as how your record reads like a who’s who in boxing, but was there any fight out there you wanted that couldn’t be made?

YL: Ahhh…maybe just one. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad – who was Eddie Gregory at the time – was training for a fight in Lake Tahoe when his opponent pulled out. I was also training for a fight and the promoters suggested me as a replacement, but Eddie turned it down. I don’t know why, we were both in shape. But Jack said to me, “Eddie doesn’t like busy fighters.”

DH: What did you get into after retiring from the ring?

YL: I worked in waste management for about 11 years until my back went out and had to retire.

DH: You had such a remarkable career and you came so close so many times. Is there anything you would have done differently if you could do it all again?

YL: No! I had such a great team, I met so many people and I traveled to so many places that I have no room for regret. Of course, I really wanted the world title, but I don’t think God wanted me to be world champion. I think I did achieve what I started out to do when I wanted to be a matador. Remember, I just really wanted to be somebody. Well, if you want to be somebody in this life you have to give 100%. And believe me, I left a lot of blood and sweat in those rings I fought in.

DH: How is life today for Yaqui Lopez?

YL: Well, I have been married to Beno for 43 years and we have 2 kids and 2 grandkids. And outside of some back pain, I would say…so far, so good.

 

Yaqui Lopez today (photo by Dan Hanley)

Yaqui Lopez today (photo by Dan Hanley)

It was most unfortunate for Yaqui Lopez that he came along in an era of exceptional champions. And that it took this exceptional talent to keep him just outside the grasp of world laurels. However, what was most fortunate was the fact that television offered him a stage to display his wares to another audience. One comprised of pugilistic nutjobs like me who could not get enough of his uncompromising style. Yaqui may not have held a belt, but he left something indelible in a lot of us. I can’t help but muse over the kid from Zacatecas who just wanted to be somebody.

See ya next round,

 

Dan Hanley

pugnut23@yahoo.com

 

 

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