My Favorite Guys
by Lee Groves from Max Boxing
Ever since I became a boxing fan more than 30 years ago, I’ve had the chance to see or read about thousands of fighters. Though I admire the vast majority of them, there are a special few that stir emotions that are a cut above. We all have our favorites and the reasons why they occupy a special place in our hearts don’t always have to be logical or concrete. We just like them, and no amount of criticism or persuasion from our fellow fans can change our minds.
In his second book "One Knee Equals Two Feet," former NFL coach and broadcasting legend John Madden often referred to offensive linemen as "my favorite guys" because he played the position himself and could empathize with the challenges big people encounter on the field and off. We relate to those who have gone through similar situations as ourselves and as a result we form a vicarious bond with them. I, too, have "my favorite guys," but not because I went through the same things they did. I like them because they created an indelible impression during a time in my life when I was still forming opinions about the world in general and boxing in particular. They didn’t necessarily have to be great or even exciting, but there was something about them that prompted me to pay special attention to them. Without further adieu, here is the first half of my top 10 "favorite guys," and after you read mine, I’d like to hear about yours.
10. Jose Napoles – At first, my admiration for the great welterweight champion was based entirely on what I read about him. When I was first learning about the sport in the mid- and late 1970s, I spent much of my time reading books and magazines that extolled "Mantequilla’s" many fistic virtues. They described his perfect technique, his smooth movements and his flowing combinations that usually culminated with a deadly left hook. They wrote about how he comprehensively outboxed the well-seasoned Emile Griffith and how he twice dismantled Curtis Cokes with polished precision.
A few years after I began collecting VHS fights, I made a point of securing copies of Napoles’ bouts to see if the video matched what I read. Surely, I thought, nobody could be THAT good. Maybe the image I had of him in my mind had to be just that – a figment of my imagination. But when I popped in a tape of his first fight with Cokes, I immediately knew he WAS that great. The jabs speared Cokes’ eyes again and again and his movements, while not flashy, were economical and effective. He didn’t fight like a ball of fire – he went about his work like a master craftsman who took the extra time to build a solid foundation before applying the finishing touches. During his nearly six years as welterweight champion, Napoles amassed 13 title defenses in two reigns and was unquestionably the dominant 147-pounder of his era.
Shortly after Roberto Duran beat Sugar Ray Leonard for the WBC welterweight title in 1980, one of the boxing magazines offered readers a chance to rate the greatest 147-pound champions in history. The article provided thumbnail sketches of the top champions of the past and included a ballot that readers could cut out and mail in. My 15-year-old mind sifted through the information and came up with Napoles as the top choice with Henry Armstrong second. Of course, my opinion has shifted slightly over the years as I now rate Armstrong first and Napoles third behind Felix Trinidad, who rolled up 15 defenses during an uninterrupted six-year reign.
The results of the reader poll were stunning to say the least – Duran was rated number one, with opinion no doubt swayed by the freshness of Duran’s powerful victory over Leonard. But Napoles was also near the top – and deservedly so.
9. Ayub Kalule – A curious pick? Perhaps, but this is, after all, my list. Besides, I’ve been described as peculiar more than once so I don’t mind if someone looks at me with a tilted head once in a while. The reason why I liked the Ugandan-turned-Danish southpaw was because he was perceived to be the best junior middleweight in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I was fascinated with the 154-pound class in general because it was so obscure.
During the middle to late 1970s, names like Koichi Wajima, Miguel D’Oliveira, Oscar Albarado, Elisha Obed, Rocky Mattioli, Eddie Gazo, Masashi Kudo, Jae Do Yuh and Eckhard Dagge were prominent in the 154-pound rankings. The division lacked an American flavor, so U.S.-based feature writers didn’t pay much attention. Because I was a guy who liked to be different, I wanted to know as much about the division and its participants as I could. Wajima, for one, fascinated me because he won and lost the belt three times and fought with an aggressive, crouching style seen by many as strange.
After Wajima faded from the scene in 1977, I turned my attention to Kalule, whose undefeated record and polished skills earned him uncrowned champion status. Like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Kalule was forced to wait for his opportunity because he was the classic "high-risk, low-reward" contender. I was happy when Kalule finally got his shot at WBA champion Kudo and proceeded to toss a near shutout over 15 rounds, validating the confidence the experts had in him and the admiration I had built over time. It felt good to see a man whose persistence and hard work was rewarded.
I wanted Kalule to win when he got his big-money chance against Sugar Ray Leonard June 25, 1981 in Houston. It wasn’t a matter of my rooting against Leonard as much as I was cheering for Kalule. I liked Leonard very much as a fighter and person, but I liked Kalule more because he was one of those solid guys who overcame obstacles to achieve a level of success few boxers could imagine. When I heard over the radio that Leonard knocked out Kalule at the end of the ninth round, I took the news with resigned acceptance. I knew Leonard was the better fighter, but it would have been nice if Kalule had found a way to defend his division’s honor against a short-term interloper. At least he gave Leonard a good fight, and that’s as much as a fan could ever ask.
8. Thomas Hearns – I first heard about Hearns during his rise toward the WBA welterweight title, and the first thing that grabbed me was his dimensions – 6 feet 1 inches in height, 78 inches in reach and a mere 147 pounds of weight. At first glance, I thought such a fighter would be a stick-and-move artist but Hearns was nothing of the sort, at least as a pro. "The Hit Man" was a unique blend of lightning-quick hand speed and enormous one-punch power, especially in the right cross. Hearns was the personification of killer instinct, burying his opponents in a blizzard of blows before rubbing them out. His reputation grew to the point that he posed for the cover of Ring magazine wearing a pinstripe suit while carrying, appropriately enough, a Tommy gun.
Comparisons to Detroit legends Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson were inevitable and Hearns lived up to those expectations for a while. His two-round knockout over WBA welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas remains the single best example of one fighter emasculating the reputation of a man who to that point was considered one of the greatest welterweights to have yet lived.
Hearns’ array of offensive skills was something to behold, but even in his loss to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1981, Hearns proved himself multidimensional as he overcame beatings in the sixth and seventh to outbox Leonard before being stopped in the 14th. Those skills shouldn’t have surprised anyone as Hearns was a dancing master throughout an amateur career that saw him score only a handful of knockouts.
One never knew which version of Hearns would enter the ring – he could be the cold-blooded killer that crushed Duran in 1984 and James Shuler in 1986 or the slick craftsman that conquered Wilfred Benitez in 1982 and Virgil Hill in 1991. Even when he lost against Marvin Hagler, he went down in a blaze of glory as he and the Marvelous One produced one of history’s greatest three-minute spans in the first round of their 1985 bout. Amazingly, Hearns fought much of the round (and the fight) with a broken right hand and on legs that were mistakenly rubbed down in the dressing room by hangers-on minutes before the fight.
Indeed, variety is the spice of life and Hearns provided plenty during his best – and worst – moments.
7. Saoul Mamby – One of the first issues of Ring I picked up included a report out of Korat, Thailand detailing the bout between WBC junior welterweight champion Saensak Muangsurin and "Sweet" Saoul Mamby. The fight went the full 15 rounds, but the most surprising development was the hometown crowd’s reaction to the decision that favored Muangsurin – they booed. The ringside reporter had the fight scored for the New Yorker and the fair-minded crowd agreed that Mamby was the rightful 140-pound champion.
I was 12 at the time and my radar for perceived injustices was very sensitive. When I read how Mamby had been jobbed out of the title, I decided to follow his career in the hopes that the wrong perpetrated in Thailand would somehow be rectified in future fights. It took two-and-a-half years, but Mamby secured another crack at the WBC title against Sang Hyun Kim in Kim’s backyard of Seoul. With one right hand in the 14th round, the 33-year-old Mamby became a world champion and fulfilled the destiny that should have been his against Muangsurin.
When it was announced that Larry Holmes was going to defend his WBC heavyweight title against Scott LeDoux in Bloomington, Minn. July 7, 1980 on NBC, I was excited. But when I heard Mamby was going to fight Esteban DeJesus on the televised undercard, I was ecstatic. Not only was I going to see Mamby fight for the first time, he was doing so against DeJesus, the other half of my "thunderbolt" fight six years before.
Mamby didn’t disappoint as his consummate skills dissected DeJesus before the fight was stopped in round 13. For me, this was the fight of the night and my expectations were fully realized. I was upset when Leroy Haley lifted Mamby’s belt two years later and I thought the rematch which saw Haley retain the belt was poorly judged at the time. By then, it was clear Mamby wasn’t going to regain the championship because at 35 his skills were beginning to lose their consistency. He fought bravely and well against WBC super lightweight champ Billy Costello, but the 37-year-old Mamby wasn’t strong enough to climb the mountain one last time. He lost a lopsided decision in his final fight for world honors.
As Mamby continued to fight into his 40s, my admiration for him had reached a different plane. Mamby kept himself in marvelous physical condition and the fact that he could still compete against far younger men was a source of amazement to me. He no longer had to win – just being there was a victory in itself. Every once in a while, the wily Mamby would upset the apple cart. He knocked out former IBF junior welterweight champion Gary Hinton in nine rounds and he handed prospect Glenwood Brown his first pro defeat in their first fight in 1988 (a tape I would very much like to see). Mamby fought on until age 52, losing a six-round decision against Kent Hardee in Hardee’s home territory of North Carolina May 19, 2000.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mamby in 1997 during the IBHOF induction weekend. He was one of more than 50 champions Don King invited to attend his enshrinement and I happened to be staying in the same hotel in Syracuse that housed King’s delegation. My eyes lit up when I saw "Sweet" Saoul, who remained youthful and trim though he had just turned 50. I introduced myself and asked for his autograph, and he was genuinely surprised that someone would seek him out. As he signed my copy of Harry Mullan’s "The Great Book of Boxing," I told him I had been following his career since the Muangsurin fight.
"Wow, that was a long time ago," he said. "I barely remember that. You must be a real fan."
Indeed I was. And I still am.
6. Miguel Canto – Anyone who read my previous articles knows I have a great affinity for the "Little Big Men," and Canto was the first truly great small fighter I followed. As with the other boxers on this list, he had to have something unique that would grab my attention and with Canto it was his ability to outbox opponents despite significant disadvantages in height and reach. He would often travel to his opponents’ homelands to defend his title, and much like Willie Pep before him Canto had to be on his game at all times because he could not afford to fall behind and rely on the knockout to save him. He need not have worried, because his extraordinary hand and foot speed as well as his fistic acumen made sure that the fight was under his control. Some may label Canto boring, but to me he was a joy to watch.
As Canto rolled up title defenses, I learned about the other terrific fighters in the division because the fact they were fighting Canto drew my interest. He thrice beat Shoji Oguma, who reigned as champion before Canto and would do so after Canto lost the belt. He defeated Betulio Gonzalez in two of their three fights and like Oguma, he would be champion both before and after Canto’s reign. Other names also became familiar: Kimio Furesawa gave the great Mexican several anxious moments before dropping a decision. Perpetual bridesmaid Martin Vargas determinedly tried to become Chile’s first world champion -- twice against Canto, once against Gonzalez and once against Yoko Gushiken for the WBA 108-pound belt – but would inevitably fall after putting forth strong efforts. Canto was the constant through it all and when he lost his WBC flyweight title to Chan Hee Park by decision March 18, 1979 it was shocking. Just like the night of Feb. 15, 1978 when Leon Spinks dethroned Muhammad Ali, I learned the hard way that champions come and champions go, and even the great ones weren’t immune.
When Canto was inducted into the IBHOF in 1998, I was able to grab a few moments of his time. He was hustled inside the Hall of Fame building to receive the personalized tour given to all enshrinees. Knowing this might be my only chance to get his autograph, I waited a few moments before entering the building. As he emerged from a back room containing some of the exhibits, I stuck out my book and asked in my best rudimentary Spanish for an autograph. His face had a startled expression at first because he probably didn’t expect to run into an autograph seeker at this juncture. But he dutifully signed right below a picture of him throwing an uppercut against Furesawa. I thanked him and he continued his well-deserved tour. I hated to intrude, but this was an autograph I had to get.
Whenever I get in the mood to see some serious science, I pop in a Canto tape, especially his third fight with Betulio Gonzalez. Every great fencer needs a great foil and Gonzalez fit the bill perfectly. Throughout the 15-round battle, Gonzalez tried to catch the elusive Canto but the Mexican would always find a way to stay a step ahead.
Every boxing fan has a group of fighters who hold a special place above all others, and the first part of this series covered the bottom half of my top 10 list. Today’s second and final installment reveals my top five personal favorites. After reading my story, I’d like to hear from the members of MaxBoxing Nation on whom their "guys" are and why. If there are enough good replies, I’ll put together a mailbag next week. I can’t wait to see what comes up.
5. Hilario Zapata – The pages of Ring were indeed "The Bible of Boxing" for me because the articles played a major role in shaping opinions and impressions that hold to this day. My admiration for boxing’s smallest men was formed by the many fight reports written by Joe Koizumi, who was Ring’s correspondent for the Orient (if he’s not already in the Hall of Fame, he definitely should be). His highly descriptive writing style painted word pictures that enabled me to visualize how the fighters appeared and the way they fought. A tall lanky fighter was "elongated," particularly effective body blows were "sticky" and uppercuts were "sickle-like." A stick-and-move boxer "outlegged" his opponent using "hit-and-run" tactics while a cautious fighter was "nervous."
Because many of the world’s outstanding lighter-weight fighters resided in Japan and Korea, it was Koizumi who covered most of Zapata’s title fights there. One of his more memorable reports appeared in the February 1983 issue when he recounted Zapata’s rematch victory over Tadashi Tomori. His lead grabbed me: "WBC junior flyweight champ Hilario Zapata must have a computer in his brain. He seemingly compiles complete data on his previous opponents – then demolishes them in return bouts. Zapata had won a disputed split duke over Tadashi Tomori last July to regain the WBC junior flyweight title. This time, he had stopped him in the eighth." Another time, Koizumi wrote that Zapata "has more moves than a snake on a hot sidewalk." I like big punchers as much as the next guy but I also appreciate watching a craftsman break down an opponent with a wide range of skills. That was Zapata’s appeal for me.
I didn’t get to see Zapata in action until February 1986 when "El Mundo Del Box" aired a tape of his WBA flyweight title fight with Mexican power puncher Javier Lucas. Zapata fought brilliantly, both on offense and defense. More than a few times, Zapata left Lucas bewildered by executing the "squat" move later made famous by Pernell Whitaker. The difference between Zapata and Whitaker is that the Panamanian used the move as part of his normal ring work while Whitaker’s intent was purely show business. Zapata was often criticized by his countrymen for not being exciting like Duran but on this day there were no boos from the boxing-savvy crowd.
One of my most prized possessions is a personalized autographed photo from Zapata that reads "Para Lee Groves, my biggest fan!" I think it’s safe to say that I’m his biggest fan in America – all 5 feet 11, 223 pounds of me.
4. Eder Jofre – In the August 1986 issue of Ring, Nigel Collins wrote a profile of Jofre after he was elected to the magazine’s Hall of Fame. To be honest, this was the first I ever heard of Jofre, at least in this much detail. Collins described Jofre as one of the hardest punching bantamweights who ever lived and recounted how many experts regarded the Brazilian as the world’s top pound-for-pound fighter during the early 1960s.
"Wow," I thought, "why hadn’t I heard of this guy before?" I learned through Collins’ prose that Jofre compiled a 72-2-4 (50 KOs) record, losing only to Fighting Harada in two savage wars in 1965 and 1966, after which he retired for three years. Jofre rejoined the fray in 1969 as a featherweight and proceeded to put together boxing history’s most successful comeback – 25 fights, 25 wins and the WBC featherweight championship, a belt he won from the heavily favored Jose Legra at age 37. After defending the belt with a four-round KO of Vicente Saldivar, Jofre was stripped after his manager failed to arrange a title defense against mandatory challenger Alfredo Marcano. Jofre soldiered on until age 40, winning a 12-round decision over Octavio Gomez in his final fight.
After reading Collins’ piece, I was anxious to get video on Jofre to see how great he was. I was disappointed to find that the only two complete fights of Jofre available were his two losses to Harada. They were both great fights, and I thought Jofre did enough to win the rematch.
Several years later, a complete version of Jofre’s first victory over Joe Medel surfaced but no other complete fights are known to exist. Until they do, the boxing world can only rely on word of mouth to spread the gospel of Jofre’s greatness.
3. Danny Lopez – Most of the guys on my list so far were skillful artisans whose styles were better suited for the symphony than the mosh pit. "Little Red," on the other hand, was boxing’s ultimate thrill ride, a television fighter’s television fighter whose bouts stirred the passions of red-blooded boxing fans everywhere.
To me, Lopez was the king of the small screen as he rescued himself from certain defeat time and time again with one mighty swing of his wrecking ball right hand. A few weeks back, one of the installments of "Closet Classics" recounted Lopez’s two-round demolition of Juan Malvarez because I felt it was the one fight that best represented "Little Red’s" legend. The fight lasted 3 minutes 44 seconds and Lopez lost all but the final 10 seconds as he overcame a knockdown in round one and a battering early in round two to emerge victorious by way of one concussive right to the jaw.
Unlike most big hitters, Lopez was a volume puncher of the highest order because Lopez knew he had to work hard to set up the knockout blow. If he didn’t get it, he was secure in the knowledge that he outpunched his opponent enough to win on points. This was no muscle-bound guy who waited endlessly to land one big blow; he was more like a termite that relentlessly bore holes through his opponents’ defenses, and before long their weakened foundations would crumble.
In a 10-round fight against Genzo Kurosawa, Lopez threw – unofficially -- 1,791 punches. It was that count that eventually led to my part-time gig with CompuBox a few years later. For that, I will always be grateful to Lopez.
My father Gary also likes boxing, though he’s nowhere near the hardcore junkie I am. But he loves Lopez above all others because "Little Red" gave it all he had during every second of every round, no matter how badly things were going.
"When Danny Lopez fought, you knew what you were going to get," he told me recently. "You were going to get excitement and that’s the way boxing is supposed to be." Lopez was willing to walk through any amount of punishment to get the job done because he had unwavering faith in his ability. More often than not, that faith was justified – all he had to do was look down at his fallen opponents for evidence.
2. Alexis Arguello – When I shadowboxed as a kid, I always envisioned myself being like "The Explosive Thin Man." As I threw punches in the air, I imagined dissecting opponents with long, hard jabs, thumping body shots and powerful right crosses that would render my opponents senseless. I would execute my fight plan with intelligence and mental energy.
I wanted to be like that, but Alexis Arguello WAS that – and more. Not only was Arguello a classy fighter, he was also an admirable sportsman. His conduct following the Ray Mancini fight was as memorable as the fight as he encouraged "Boom Boom" to keep fighting for his father and offered his help if he ever needed anything. When it comes to having class, you either have it or you don’t, and Alexis had it in abundance. I had so much regard for Arguello that when I began posting on boxing message boards, my pseudonym was "Arguello."
The night before Arguello fought Pryor for the first time, I dreamed that I was sitting ringside at the Orange Bowl. I was looking up at Arguello and Pryor fighting against a completely dark background. I perceived it was a late round and Arguello was being hammered into unconsciousness along the ropes. Seeing the unpleasant scenario, I snapped awake. "Wait a minute," I thought. "Why did I dream that? I know that Arguello’s going to win the fight tonight. Pryor’s too wild and he’s going to run into something." Comforted by my own reasoning, I went back to sleep.
When I heard that Arguello had been knocked out in the 14th round, I was disappointed but when I saw the video of the knockout a few days later I was shocked. The KO sequence almost exactly matched the scenario I had dreamed about, right down to the side of the ring it took place. It remains the only time I had a premonition about a sporting event, though it almost happened again when I dreamed I was at the Kentucky Derby and I saw a betting sheet that had a monarch butterfly instead of a name. Three days later, Monarchos won the Derby. What made this even more eerie was that I had not even seen a list of the horse’s names beforehand.
1. Roberto Duran – Duran was the first winning fighter I ever saw and his performance against Esteban DeJesus in their second fight sparked my lifelong passion for boxing. How could I not put him at the top of this list?
Duran not only had tremendous ability, he also personified the raging fire needed to become successful. Unlike the amiable Arguello, Duran disdained his opponents and dismissed them as unworthy to share the same ring. Even sparring partners got "the treatment" from Duran, and if they showed any sign of disrespect – look out. In that circumstance, being knocked unconscious would be considered light punishment. He might have been short on sophistication, but Duran at his best was the single greatest example of "machismo" ever conceived.
When he was lightweight champion, his jet-black hair, coal-black eyes and goatee that framed his sneer gave him a satanic visage that frightened fighters and writers alike. The last time we saw the Duran persona in its purest form was the night he ravaged Sugar Ray Leonard in "The Brawl in Montreal." Duran was incensed by Leonard’s "All-American Boy" image, and he felt he, not Leonard, was more deserving of the money and fame that came with superstardom in the United States. Driven by a tidal wave of hatred mixed with an unquenchable thirst for combat, Duran nearly swept Leonard under with a torrent of blows. But Leonard showed he had the "right stuff" as he fought Duran toe-to-toe, never willingly ceding an inch. When Duran was announced as the winner, he had achieved his greatest victory and stood alone atop the boxing world.
That’s why the "no mas" fight five months later was so shocking. Those two words drove Freddie Brown into retirement and many fans left Duran for dead. Though he would never be the same rampaging animal, Duran would become boxing’s phoenix, rising from the ashes again and again. After a dispiriting defeat to Kirkland Laing, Duran knocked out Pipino Cuevas and WBA junior middleweight champion Davey Moore before losing a close decision to fearsome middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Five years after being knocked unconscious by Thomas Hearns, a 37-year-old Duran won his fourth world title by beating WBC middleweight champion Iran Barkley in a glorious give-and-take war. There were more than a few people who thought a 47-year-old Duran could somehow rise again and beat WBA champion William Joppy in 1998.
As Duran aged, he transformed himself from a raging ball of fire into a cerebral assassin who picked opponents apart while staying incredibly relaxed. He won many fights on knowledge alone, and one would think Duran would still be fighting had it not been for a car accident suffered shortly after his final fight with Hector Camacho in 2001.
"The Hands of Stone" will be on the IBHOF ballot for the first time next October and if anyone can be considered a lead-pipe cinch for enshrinement, he is. Anyone who withholds his checkmark from Duran is either stoned – or should be stoned.