Interview by Dan Hernandez-October 3, 2007
“Boxing is a lonely business.” – Curtis Cokes
I contacted Curtis Cokes, International Boxing Hall of Fame honoree and Former WBC & WBA Welterweight Champion of the World, at his home away from home, the Home of Champions Gym in Dallas, Texas. Curtis is a Partner and Director of Services at the gym, where he has trained several boxing world champions: Quincy Taylor, Reggie Johnson and Troy Dorsey. He has also developed many excellent contenders: Ike Ibeabuchi, Kirk Johnson, and Randy Stephens to name a few.
Curtis was born June 15, 1937, in Dallas, Texas…an all-around athlete, excelled in baseball and basketball but at 17 turned his attention to boxing, learning the basics of the sport at his hometown YMCA. He turned pro in 1958 and by 1961 was a top-ten contender. He defeated top fighters of that era, Rip Randall and Joe Miceli and drew with Kenny Lane and future Hall of Fame fighter, Luis Rodriguez. On July 6, 1966 he TKO’d Rodriguez in the 15th round and then won over Manny Gonzalez with a 15 round decision on August of 1966 to capture the welterweight crown vacated by Emile Griffith, who had moved up to the middleweight division.
Cokes defeated Jean Josselin in Dallas on February 5, 1968, to gain universal recognition as champion. He successfully defended his title four times before future Hall of Fame fighter, Jose Napoles dethroned him with a thirteenth round TKO on April 18, 1969. Curtis was also stopped in a rematch with Napoles two months later. He continued to box until 1972, winning his last fight and leaving behind a legacy of great encounters and tremendous sportsmanship. Retiring with a ring record of 62-14-4, 30 KO’s.
He is busy today with his interests in the gym, and working with the local youth in teaching boxing and values. He also is a renowned trainer of professional boxers and at seventy years of age stays as active as a twenty-five year old. In addition, he has more grandchildren than he can count and an enthusiasm for life that is enviable. In spite of his hectic schedule, he found time to speak to RSR.
DH: How have you been feeling lately?
I’m doing good. I just had my 70th birthday on the 15th of June, so I’m doing great!
DH: Are you still working with kids?
Yeah. We have about 39 kids that are registered with USA boxing, my gym. And, I have 13 pro fighters.
DH: Are you working with any ranked fighters right now?
Kirk Johnson. I know you remember him. He’s got a fight coming up pretty soon in the next month or so.
DH: So you’re still in the limelight.
Sure, we have fighters coming up all the time and we sign with Top Rank and Golden Boy…we’re always on television. Evander Holyfield, in his first comeback fight…he trained in my gym. So we’re ok with him…
DH: It sounds like you have a very good and busy life…
Pretty good, pretty good, for a guy that’s 70…I’m still doing things that the guys of twenty-five years of age are doing.
DH: Are you married?
No, I’m not married. But, I got a stable (laughs).
DH: Do you have children and if so, do any of them have a direct role in your life or gym?
Six, I’ve got six kids. One son and he helps me train the kids at the gym and I have one daughter that finished Ohio State University. She’s a lawyer in the state and she takes care of all my personal business.
DH: Do you have any grandchildren?
Oh yeah sure. I don’t know how many, but I got a lot.
DH: Give me a break. You must know how many. My count is easy…I have one, how many do you have?
I’ve got more than that in one house.
DH: Any fond memories of when you were fighting professionally?
Just that I had the opportunity to train and travel all over the world. You know I’ve been to South Africa six times, I’ve been to Paris, and I’ve been to London. I have been just about all over the world to fight and if I hadn’t been a fighter, I don’t think I would have been able to go to those places.
DH: Can you tell me about your famous straight right hand?
I think one of the fights, a guy from South Africa, Willie Ludick that was one of the fights where I hit him with three straight right hands and everybody in the country was calling me “The Rifleman.”
And there were some strong contenders then. Everyone in the division was capable of being champion of the world. It was just a matter of a guy getting a shot. It took me a while to get my shot. It was when Emile Griffith moved up to the middleweight championship and they had a box off. The first guy I fought was Luis Rodriguez and I beat him, then I beat Manny Gonzalez and won the championship.
DH: Was Luis Rodriguez very good?
He was good and fast. He was from Florida and Angelo Dundee had him. We fought three times and I won two of the three. He fought bigger guys better than he fought guys in his own weight because he used to beat all the middleweights up and when he came down to welterweights he had it tough.
DH: Who gave you the most trouble?
Stan Hayward, a kid from Philadelphia. I fought him about ten or twenty days after I got married. We fought on national television and we fought at the Blue Horizon…he stopped me in four rounds, but it was a great fight. They still talk about that fight in Philadelphia. It was a great fight, I had him down, he had me down, and I mean he had me down more times, then I had him down. I fought him before I won the championship.
DH: How did you keep focused in such a tough business?
My trainer told me: “An inch was as good as a mile” and you didn’t have to jump all over the ring to have a guy miss a punch. We could just move our head slightly and they could miss you by an inch. We didn’t have to jump all over the ring to fight either…we stayed in one spot. But you had to stay focused.
DH: What did you have to give up to reach your goals?
Boxing is a lonely business. You’re by yourself. Everybody is having a good time, but you have to concentrate on your fight and you know, I would be in a hotel and everybody else would be down having a beer or something and enjoying themselves and I’m up there worrying about my fight in the next two or three days. Boxing is a lonely business. You’re doing it all by yourself until you get in that ring.
And you can’t be around people. In fact, when I was in training I didn’t want anybody even laughing around me in the gym. It was serious business, not any fun. Right?
DH: How about Stan Harrington?
Stan was from Hawaii and just got off beating Ray Robinson. I went over after Ray lost and I beat Stan.
DH: Did you meet Sugar Ray Robinson? How bad was the dementia?
Oh sure…in Vegas. I believe he was 63 or 64 years old. He was a real nice guy and he knew who I was. I was walking down the hall and he said: “Hey Curtis.” He knew all the fighters. Ray knew exactly who I was and we had a nice conversation.
DH: It must have been a thrill to meet one of the, if not the, best fighter of all time.
Well you know, I fought for Joe Louis. Joe was the promoter at the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles and I fought this guy that Joe was backing, Johnny Newman, who was unbeaten, and I stopped him in three rounds. Joe was a nice guy…he would take everybody to his house to eat dinner and then we would go and fight, but he was so upset that I beat his fighter, who he thought would have a natural win over me, that after the fight he got on a plane and went to Hawaii without paying me. His wife ended up paying me. He had this kid that he had put a lot of money into and I went down there and busted his bubble. In fact, later on, Joe’s wife came down to Texas with some friends to see me fight and she said pointing at me: “See that guy there. He’s a fan of Joe’s and he came down to L.A. and beat Joe’s fighter.”
DH: Who else did you meet that left an impression?
Lots of guys, but I’ll tell you the guy that I had a lot of respect for and that’s Sonny Liston, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Sonny used to come to my fights in St. Louis when they wouldn’t allow Sonny in St. Louis. They allowed Sonny to come and see me fight and he was a really nice guy. Sonny was a nice man, and I really admired him. He refereed a fight in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while I was there. He was always around.
DH: How did you stay so solid and sharp?
I was a boxer-puncher. I had over eighty fights and I didn’t get beat up like lots of guys did. I mean…some of them really whipped me, but I didn’t get beat up.
DH: Eddie Mustafa Muhammad said that “You hit and don’t get hit.” Do you agree?
Eddie was here a couple of weeks ago. Nice guy. He’s right…you can’t take too many beatings. The crowd…they love to see you stand toe to toe and beat somebody up, but then when you’re punch drunk and they (the crowd) can’t speak to you, they forget you.
DH: What made you stop fighting?
Well, I had a bad eye and the last three fights I had trouble seeing the hooks come. I didn’t know I had a bad eye until one day there was this guy standing on my right and he was talking to me and I had to shake my head because I did not see him. So when I fought my next fight, I left all my equipment to make sure I didn’t pick it up anymore. I quit!
Boxing kept me alive and it’s still doing that. If I did not have boxing, I don’t know what I’d be doing.
DH: Who are your favorite current fighters?
I like all of them. I don’t have a favorite, but Floyd Mayweather is probably one of the best fighters around. I think he and Ricky Hatton…that should be the fight of the year. I think Hatton will do a good job with Mayweather. He’s got the kind of style that might give Mayweather some problems. It should be a great fight.
DH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Well here’s what I think. Boxers of today are not as good as the boxers of yesterday. I don’t believe they have the enthusiasm, the training, the ability to train as hard. The kids today are looking for the big bucks and looking at the ring to attaining without really fighting. I don’t think they are as proud of their skills as we were of ours. Everybody helped everybody back in those days. Like I beat Luis Rodriguez but he was nice enough to tell me: “You have a good right hand, but I hit you with some jabs. You gotta work on keeping away from the jabs.”
So, we helped each other. It wasn’t a thing like I wouldn’t speak to you because I’m fighting you. It’s a sport. We get through the fight, we shake hands, and we go out to dinner. These guys today are just different, greedy people. Everybody just wants to put everybody else down and I don’t think the fighters of today are as good as we were.
DH: So you feel today’s fighters lack heart?
No, they don’t have heart. It’s a different show. They want to go in there and shake their booties at people and disrespect their opponent. We didn’t ever disrespect our opponent. You know, if we knocked you down it was just part of the game. We did not stand over them and clown and dance around. That’s no good.
I had guys that I’d beat and they would be my sparring partners for my next fight and they would give me help. They would say things like: “Curtis, you have to keep your hands up” or “Curtis, I think you should try this or that.” And these were guys that I beat up, they came right back to help me. We weren’t jealous of anybody, everybody wanted to get to the top and you had to fight the best man to get there. You couldn’t fight a bunch of tomato cans and get there. It was real!