Born: April 13, 1940;

Died: August 16, 2019

JOSE Napoles, who has died aged 79, was one of the world’s all-time greatest welterweight boxers, a category he dominated between 1969 and 1975 as unified world champion throughout most of that period.

He first claimed the world crown in February, 1969, against reigning champion Curtis Cokes at the Forum, Inglewood, in California, with a 13th round knock-out before donning his trademark sombrero for the post-fight celebrations. His smooth fighting style earned him the nickname of ‘Mantequilla’ [‘butter’ in Spanish] but opponents were more concerned about his vicious counter-punching, with good reason. Cokes received a bad beating, with a cut mouth, bleeding nose and badly swollen eyes.

By then living in Mexico after fleeing Cuba in 1961, when Fidel Castro banned professional boxing, Napoles dedicated his victory to Mexico’s president, Gustavo Ordaz, who offered him a luxury gift in return. Napoles responded that he wished to become a Mexican citizen and within 24 hours had been granted full nationality, facilitating his path to national-hero status.

After three successful defences he lost the title, briefly, to Billy Backus on a cut eye in December 1970, but regained it from him six months later, stopping him in the eighth round. Another ten successful defences followed before he lost his final fight to Londoner John H. Stracey in December 1975 at the Plaza Monumental de Toros in Mexico City.

By then he was aged 35, or possibly older, as there was doubt as to his true date of birth. He was considered past his best but Stracey’s win in Napoles’ backyard in front of 40,000 partisan fans was an outstanding achievement. Particularly so as he was down for a count in the opening round thanks to the champion’s left hook but thereafter he built momentum using his left jab. He had Napoles down briefly in the third, prompting fans to throw an avalanche of seat cushions into the ring.

The fight was stopped in the sixth round, bringing the curtain down on Napoles’s outstanding career. His statistics read 77 wins, seven losses and 54 knock-outs, making him one of a select few to score over 50 K.O’s. Wisely, he did not attempt a comeback like many other famous fighters, most of which ended in tears. Years later, Stracey reckoned that his win over Napoles was the best night of his career and to have done so in Mexico City was special. He said: “I was lucky to have fought one of the all-time greats - one of the very best in history.”

In March 1972 Napoles took on British and Commonwealth champion Ralph Charles at the Empire Pool, Wembley, and achieved a seventh-round knock-out. His manager ‘Cuco’ Conde commented: “Charles is a smart fighter but we were never at full stretch.” Fighting on the same bill that evening in a non-title bout was Edinburgh’s world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan who, after sparring with Charles in training, predicted that he would lose by knock-out or on cuts. The only other home fighter to face Napoles was Belfast-born British champion Des Rea, who lost by a knock-out in the fifth round at the Forum, Inglewood, four months before Napoles’s first world title success.

Jose Angel Napoles was born in Santiago de Cuba in the Oriente region of the island to Pedro, a schoolteacher, and Rosa,. He started boxing young and was reckoned to have 114 amateur fights, most of which he won. His debut as a professional came in Havana in August 1958 against Julio Rojas, whom he knocked out in the first round. By the time he left Cuba he had fought 21 times, winning all but one, and after 17 months’ enforced inactivity he picked up his career in Mexico where he sought asylum, registering a second round knock-out over Enrique Camarena in July 1962.

At this time he was boxing at lightweight and junior welterweight, soon building an excellent reputation with wins over future world champion Carlos Hernandez and former world champion Eddie Perkins. Because he was doing so well it was difficult to obtain a title fight, and to further his ambition he decided to move up to welterweight in 1967. After several notable wins he finally secured the world title bout with Cokes, setting him up to dominate the welterweights for over six years.

He was trained by Angelo Dundee, who was best-known for his association with Muhammad Ali. Dundee claimed that if he had been in his corner the night he lost the title briefly to Backus his services as ‘cut man’ would have prevented that.

Given his superiority in the welters Napoles was tempted to step up to middleweight to fight world champion Carlos Monzon in 1974, but the Argentinian was too strong and stopped him in the 6th round.

Like many boxers he endured difficulties once his career finished. A gambling habit and occasional fondness for alcohol led to problems exacerbated by ill-health as he became older. Latterly he lived in Cuidad Juarez, where he helped run a small gym. He died in Mexico City and is survived by wife Berta Navarro and several children and grandchildren.