When the great Jose Napoles died this past August at the age of 79, the boxing world paused and mourned a truly great champion. No matter where you might rank him among 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 and elegant style won him the nickname of “Mantequilla,” which means “butter,” a reference to his smooth and refined moves in the ring.
Napoles (81-7, 54 KOs) was born in Santiago de Cuba on April 13, 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 and after he won the welterweight title from Curtis Cokes in 1969 his adopted home granted him full citizenship.
However it should be noted that the former lightweight had decided to campaign at 147 pounds not because he couldn’t make the 135 weight limit, but because he was so talented and dangerous he had to move up to get fights. His slick movement, crafty use of angles, and crippling power made him virtually unbeatable at lightweight. Welterweights didn’t fare much better and the legendary “Mantequilla” would go on to notch 14 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 Mantequilla’s balance and footwork, but in “Artful Aggression” he breaks down how the man who scored 54 knockouts in 80 wins, combined defense and attack in a truly artful way to become an all-time great. 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.
“In Cuba Napoles learned his trade and began his career, but he was forced to flee his native country when the Castro regime banned professional boxing. Napoles settled in Mexico where the people soon adopted him as one of their own. He campaigned through the 1960’s as a lightweight and junior-welter, but his skills and power were such that he had to move up to welterweight to get fights.” — From “Feb. 28, 1973: Napoles vs Lopez II” by Michael Carbert