When Jose Napoles died in 2019, the boxing world paused to mourn a truly great boxer, one of the all-time best welterweight champions. Everyone in the fight game acknowledged Napoles’ rare talent and unique ability to box with both deadly efficiency and uncommon grace. Indeed, his sophisticated style won him the nickname of “Mantequilla,” meaning “butter,” a reference to his smooth and refined moves in the ring.
Napoles (81-7, 54 KOs) was born in Santiago de Cuba on this day back in 1940 and he is widely regarded as his native country’s greatest professional prizefighter, having reigned twice as the undisputed world welterweight champion. He turned pro in 1958 and fought his first 21 bouts in Cuba before abandoning his home nation after Fidel Castro banned pro boxing. Napoles lived the rest of his life in Mexico where, after he won the welterweight title from Curtis Cokes in 1969, his adopted homeland granted him full citizenship.
But it must be noted that the former lightweight decided to campaign at 147 pounds not because he could no longer make 135, but due to the fact he was so talented and dangerous he just couldn’t get fights at the lower weight. His slick movement, crafty use of angles, and crippling power made him virtually unbeatable at lightweight. Welterweights didn’t fare much better and Napoles went on to notch fourteen championship wins before defeats to Carlos Monzon and John Stracey prompted him to retire.
At its technical height, the skill of boxing is all about making offense and defense blend together into one seamless athletic act and precious few have ever been better at this than Jose Napoles. Lee Wylie has previously taken a close look at the balance and footwork of Napoles, but in “Artful Aggression” he breaks down how the legendary “Mantequilla,” who scored fifty-four knockouts in eighty wins, combined defense and attack in a truly artful way to become an all-time great, without a doubt, one of the best ever at 147 pounds. Check it out:
“Any serious discussion of the truly great welterweight champions must include ‘Mantequilla,’ as gifted a pugilist as boxing has ever seen. His nickname means ‘butter’ in Spanish and this referred to the smoothness of his moves and his relaxed demeanour in the ring, but the moniker belies the fact Napoles possessed crushing power and ruthless finishing instincts.’ — From “Feb. 28, 1973: Napoles vs Lopez II” by Michael Carbert