IN THE ring in that distant city there was no panic when John H. Stracey was dropped in round one by one of the greatest welterweights in history.
It was late in 1975, Stracey and about 22 of his closest and dearest friends and family members had made the unholy pilgrimage to a bullring in Mexico City. It is still amazing that so many went and went so far to see their man fight. Most people in Bethnal Green in 1975 would struggle to get to Camden Town, let alone Mexico City. That is a fact, not an insult.
Last week at the Excelsior show in Cannock, I was sharing a ring with Stracey, and he was telling the amazing story about his fight against Jose Napoles. He was not just telling me; he was showing me exactly what Napoles did in that opening round.
Stracey set his feet and was suddenly transformed; he was back in that bullring in front of 40,000 and he was light on his feet, and he moved, and he started to let his hands go. Napoles had shown him a shot and then thrown a quick combination. John had not been ready, he was caught, but not flush and then he was down. It was just round one, he was a massive underdog and in a very hostile boxing land. “Blimey, I thought,” Stracey told me last week. “I better get up and a bit sharpish.” He did get up, but it was a savage baptism.
Last week it was a pleasure to watch Stracey move, throwing punches and keep up a running commentary. It was so smooth, so perfect and crisp. I would pay to watch him shadow box and others could learn about balance and timing; in the Cannock ring, he was Stracey the contender again. It was magic. We too often forget about John H.Stracey when we put together lists of great world title wins on the road and just great world title wins by British boxers.
Stracey got to Napoles, and the fight was stopped in round six. “I just fell to my knees when it was over,” recalled Stracey. He did. The scene in the ring at the end is a great contrast in glory and pain; Napoles is finished, broken, hurt and would never fight again and Stracey had realised a childhood dream. It is boxing in one picture.
Napoles never gets the attention and credit he deserves. Perhaps, his last decades in anonymity, often singing for his supper at restaurants in his adopted homeland add to his forgotten status. He made 13 defences of the world welterweight title and was champion from 1969 to the night he lost to Stracey in 1975. He lost the title on a cut in 1970 and got revenge and his title back the following year. He fought a hard and brutal fight with Carlos Monzon for the middleweight world title in 1974; he was tiny compared to the man-mountain Monzon. He was an extraordinary boxer. His forced exile to Mexico, on the eve of professional boxing being banned in Cuba, where he was born, is still one of boxing’s great unwritten tales. His sad and silent end is another. Make no mistake, Jose Napoles was a great of the ring.
The Napoles fight was Stracey’s 47th fight. Mad numbers. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, as he reminds me, he was just 18 when he lost to the eventual gold medal winner, Ronnie Harris. He had been 17 a couple of weeks earlier.
After leaving Mexico City as the champion, Stracey was taken to the offices at Madison Square Garden where he was offered a fight with Roberto Duran. It never happened, but just a few months later, Stracey twice sold out the Empire Pool at Wembley; stopping Hedgemon Lewis in one defence and losing his title to Carlos Palomino in the other. That is three major world title fights in just six months. “I must be mad,” he said. It was nearly the end for John.
The win over Napoles has a little side note: it was the first WBC title fight of the long, long reign of Jose Sulaiman, the true Don of the Sulaiman dynasty. Jose became WBC president the day before the fight. Stracey has a very special WBC belt that Jose gave him. There is a bit of history for you, nice.
Somewhere on the journey, Stracey and Marvin Hagler became very good friends. That lasted until the end. Stracey was ringside in Las Vegas for Hagler’s win against Tommy Hearns. “Nobody sat down, first punch everybody was up and they stayed up – it was incredible,” Stracey told me.
Stracey was sitting close to Sugar Ray Leonard. They chatted. Ray had watched the fight very closely and was reluctant to join in with the heavy praise. “I can beat him,” he told Stracey. “But, Ray, you have not boxed for a long time,” Stracey countered. “I know,” replied Leonard. “And I’ve not been hit for a long time.” It stopped Stracey in his tracks. I liked that story. It would be two more years without taking any punishment before Leonard beat Hagler.
After the world title fights, Stracey had a domestic showdown with Dave Boy Green and that was bloody and nasty. It finished in the 10th, Stracey cut and beaten. There was one more fight, the final night at the Michael Sobell Centre near Finsbury Park in 1978. Stracey had finally broken free of the Cartel, the legal profit-sharing gang of Mickey Duff, Mike Barrett, Jarvis Astaire and Terry Lawless.
It was Stracey’s 51st fight, he won, but his best fighting days were long gone, lost in a furious nine-year career. And, it was a hard career, and he deserves a lot more recognition. His night of glory in Mexico City should be a movie.