Curtis Cokes held the welterweight title from 1966 to 1969. He was born and raised in Dallas,Texas, where he still resides. Curtis was a gifted all-around athlete in high school, excelling in baseball and basketball. He earned all-state honors in both sports and briefly played basketball for the Harlem Stars, a professional touring team.
Curtis first laced on the gloves at a local YMCA and was undefeated in 22 amateur bouts before turning pro in 1958. This was at a time when there were eight weight divisions and eight undisputed champions. (How quaint!) By the mid-1960s Curtis had become a top rated welterweight contender. Like all of his contemporaries he acquired contender status the old fashioned way—he earned it. (Also quaint by today’s standards). During his climb to the title he sharpened his considerable boxing skills against the likes of Stefan Redl, Joe Miceli, Kenny Lane, Manny Alvarez, Jose Stable, Stan Harrington, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, Billy Collins and in three memorable bouts with the great Luis Rodriguez.
The boxing world first took notice of Curtis Cokes when he upset future welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez in 1961. Rodriguez outpointed Curtis in their rematch four months later. The rubber match took place on July 6, 1966 in New Orleans. The bout was the semi-final of a tournament to determine a new welterweight champion. Curtis stopped Rodriguez in the 15th round, thus becoming the only fighter to stop the great Cuban welterweight in his prime. Less than two months later, in the final bout of the tournament, Curtis outpointed Manny Gonzales to win the crown vacated by Emile Griffith.
Curtis Cokes had an elegant and refined boxing style of a type that is all but extinct today. He was adept at both offense and defense but was primarily a counter-puncher— skills that were admired and appreciated by knowledgeable boxing fans. (Films of several of his fights are available on YouTube). After five successful defenses, including impressive KOs over Charlie Shipes and Willie Ludick, he lost the title to the great Jose Napoles on April 4th 1969. With both eyes nearly swollen shut Cokes’ manager told the referee to stop the fight before the start of the 13th round. The rematch, two months later, ended similarly with Cokes unable to continue beyond the 10th round. Curtis fought for three more years before hanging up his gloves. He compiled a 62-14-4 record, including 30 knockouts. Napoles and Hayward were the only fighters to stop him. In 1972 Curtis gave a credible acting performance in “Fat City”, a boxing movie directed by John Huston.
After he retired from boxing Curtis was involved in various business ventures but he always remained close to the sport he loved. In 1980 he wrote, with co-author Hugh Kayser, The Complete Book of Boxing for Fighters and Fight Fans. I consider it the best boxing instruction book of the past 70 years. The book has reportedly sold more than 77,000 copies. He currently owns and operates Curtis Cokes’ Home of Champions Boxing Gym in Dallas where the emphasis is on serving his community through an amateur boxing program geared to keeping young people off the streets.
Today, at the age of 76, Curtis Cokes is healthy and mentally sharp, with an amazing memory for the details of his career. Fortunately, he exhibits no ill effects from his 80 professional bouts—a testament to his superb defensive skills, physical conditioning and knowing when to hang up his gloves. Aside from being an old school fighter Curtis is also an old school gentleman. He is gracious, engaging and warm. Interviewing this Hall of Fame boxer was a delightful experience.
My thanks to mutual friend Ken Burke for providing contact information for Curtis.
Mike Silver: Champ, the purists loved your smooth delivery and emphasis on basic fundamentals such as the left jab, footwork, counter punching and defense. I count myself lucky to have seen you fight on television. When I told a few older fans (who also saw you fight) that I was going to interview you their first words were, “He was a good boxer”. That is how you are remembered—that and your tremendous victories over the great Luis Rodriguez. How do you go about conveying your storehouse of knowledge to the young students at your gym?
Curtis Cokes: Before we start teaching fundamentals that involve throwing and blocking punches, or how to get away from punches, I get their legs in shape. We work on walking and running forward and backward. Footwork is such an important part of the sport. When I played baseball and basketball I knew I had to get my legs in shape because the legs are what carry the body. I think today’s fighters forget about footwork. I worked every day on my footwork, turning left and right, backing up, going forward. I turned to my left to be outside of my opponent’s right hand, and then I’d swing to my right to be outside of his left jab. Learning how to box is a slow process but you try to learn something every day.
MS: Speaking of footwork, in my book, The Arc of Boxing, I asked the great ballet dancer Edwin Villella, who was a champion amateur boxer before he became a ballet star, to explain the similarities between the two disciplines. You cover the same topic in The Complete Book of Boxing. Quoting from your book: “The balance and rhythm of a dancer are also important, for a boxer must be able to move quickly and change his tempo and direction at will…maneuverability is of extreme importance. An almost ballet type of body coordination gives a fighter a distinct edge.”
CC: The balance of a dancer is tremendous, and like a dancer a boxer has to be able to move and dance while maintaining his balance. You have to be able to have good balance to throw your punches. When I played with the Harlem Stars basketball team I used to watch Goose Tatum, how he would get in position and block people out. It was amazing to see him do that so smoothly. Goose Tatum’s coordination and balance was outstanding.
MS: Aside from footwork, what do you see as the main difference between the boxers of your generation and today’s practitioners?
CC: Today it’s all about hitting and that’s all it is…just go out and hit, hit, hit. They don’t learn the fundamentals of boxing. They don’t get a Ph.D. in boxing—how to block, roll, duck, slip and get away from punches– to hit and not get hit. You have to learn the smart part of boxing, because you want to come out of it the same as you went in. Most guys just fight, fight, fight, but “fighting” isn’t “boxing”. It’s an intelligent sport and you have to be smart to be able to succeed in it. If you just go toe to toe it becomes a toughman contest and the toughman wins. It’s not a science anymore. You don’t have to be smart to box anymore. There is no sport called “fighting”, it’s called professional boxing. A big part of the problem is we don’t have the trainers that we used to have. There are not too many people that know how to train fighters.
MS: Who was your trainer?
CC: I had two trainers: Robert Thomas was my first coach and Robert “Cornbread” Smith was the coach with all the experience. He was back in Joe Louis’s day and he was a good trainer. My manager was Doug Lord. Doug was a good manager and he took care of me. He was not only my manager, he was my friend. I knew the boxing game and Doug, who owned an insurance company, knew about business.
MS: You became welterweight champion in your 53rd professional fight. Two months ago a fighter with only 19 pro fights won a welterweight title belt. The fighter he dethroned had all of 24 pro bouts.
CC: I don’t think there are as many fighters available as in my day. Most become champions before they are ready to be champions. To be a champion you’ve got to have fought some of the best fighters in the world. Even if you lose to some of the great guys it’s not a shame to lose to a great fighter. You can learn from the experience. You have to take it step by step. You go from first grade to the tenth grade and then you graduate. Instead of learning the game they want to fight for a title too early even before they learn to tie their gloves on. You’ve got 10 fights and you’re fighting for a title. Back in the day you had to have at least 30 or 40 fights to get the experience before you challenged for a title. Baseball players don’t go to the major leagues until they prove themselves in the minor leagues, then they go to the major leagues. It’s a step by step process. Just because you can hit a guy and knock him out doesn’t mean you can get up there and fight.
MS: As a young boxer did you have any role models that you wanted to imitate?
CC: I learned from two of the best—Joe Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson. I watched those guys when they were fighting. I tried to copy their style. I tried to copy Ray’s style but I worked with Joe Brown. I trained with him when I was a kid and he was lightweight champion of the world. I went to Houston and sparred with him and he told me that I was going to be a champion. Brown would show me how he would throw punches and miss them on purpose to make a guy move his head in the range of his right hand. And I started doing it—I would purposely miss a jab on the outside so my opponent would move his head to the inside where he was in my right hand range. I was a good right hand puncher. I don’t see anybody doing that today. I saw “Kitten” Hayward do it. So did Luis Rodriguez. Emile Griffith did some of that. Those fighters, they were smarter than these guys today who just go out there and hit.
MS: Did anyone else influence your style of boxing?
CC: I sparred with (former middleweight champion) Carl “Bobo” Olson in Honolulu, Hawaii when I went over there to box one time. (Note: Cokes outpointed Stan Harrington on May 21, 1963 in Honolulu). They all told me I was going to be champion of the world one day and they helped me quite a bit. I got Olson’s jab and I got Joe Brown’s movement and his right hand, and I picked up all this stuff from these guys. You have to learn how to box and you have to learn it well. You go to school to learn your ABC’s and you have to learn boxing the same way.
MS: Were feints part of your repertoire?
CC: Oh yes! One of my favorite feints was a silent right hand. I would feint the jab and throw the right hand. My trainer called it a silent right hand because you didn’t know I was going to throw it. You thought I was going to throw the jab, but I’d feint the jab and throw the right hand. Sometimes I would throw a double right hand.
MS: What about body punches?
CC: When I wanted to get your hands down I’d go to the body. I’d hook to the body and hook to the head, or throw a right hand to the body and a right hand to the head. But I wasn’t a vicious body puncher. I went to the head mostly. I was a counter puncher and I would hit guys when they weren’t ready to be hit. I was always in good shape and I could move and take a fairly good punch.
MS: Did you have a favorite combination?
CC: I had a good right uppercut, left hook, right hand combination. I used it to good effect when I knocked out (Luis) Rodriguez. That was one of my favorite punches.
MS: You spoke of learning the finer points of boxing technique from role models early in your career. Two of today’s best fighters are Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, both of whom fight in your weight class. Would you consider them good role models for young boxers to emulate in terms of their boxing styles?
CC: No, I would not. It would be difficult to learn anything from them. Both are unorthodox boxers with natural styles that work for them. But what works for them would not work for most other boxers. It would be difficult to imitate. They don’t have anything that they can put on paper because they don’t know what they are going to do next. They don’t have a plan. They just go out there and fight and whatever comes to their mind happens automatically. You have to have a plan and you have to have a style. I had a style you could learn from because it was based on solid fundamentals. I threw the one-two-threes, and I threw them correctly. And if you throw punches correctly you will score. And if you do it correctly you will succeed in boxing. Pacquiao and Mayweather are doing something that nobody else can do and you don’t have any trainers today that can show people how to offset what they are doing. There are very few fighters today with the type of skills I would want my kids to watch and imitate. There are some guys I’m impressed with but they are mostly fighting—not boxing. Some of my guys would come to the gym excited after watching a fight on TV and say “did you see that?” I’d say don’t watch that particular fighter. I’d tell them to watch tapes of Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard and see how they use the jab and footwork—certain things that I wanted them to pick up on.
MS: Floyd Mayweather Jr. has done very well with his unorthodox style and extraordinary speed and reflexes. How would he have done if we time travel him back to the 1960s to face the best fighters of your era?
CC: I think he would have done pretty well, but he would have had way more trouble in my day than today because the fighters were much better. They were more knowledgeable. They had a Ph.D. in boxing. These guys today just go in there and fight off the top of their heads. They don’t have a plan and they don’t know what they are doing. They haven’t gone to school.
MS: Could fighters such as Emile Griffith, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, Carlos Ortiz and Curtis Cokes—all of whom were outstanding orthodox boxers— defeat Mayweather and Pacquaio.
CC: I definitely think that. Today’s champions would have a much harder time to get to a title because they would have to come through fighters of my ability and I think the top guys back in my day learned everything you could learn about boxing.
MS: How would you have fought Floyd? How would you cope with his tremendous speed?
CC: His speed is nothing I hadn’t seen before. You can throw punches and have speed but if there’s nothing there you will hit air. His speed won’t bother me. Luis Rodriguez had tremendous speed and I slowed him down. I would fight Floyd the same way I fought everybody else. I would work with my jab–make him move away from my jab. While worrying about getting away from my jab I would hit with my good right hand and left hook and I’d go home early.
MS: Your first victory over Luis Rodriguez in 1961 was considered quite an upset. At the time he had only one loss in 40 fights.
CC: Rodriguez beat everyone but he had a problem with me. Angelo Dundee (Rodriguez’s manager and trainer) didn’t want the fight. But Luis, to his credit, wanted to fight me. He wanted to fight the best. I don’t blame him. I wanted to fight the best also. In our first fight I outboxed and outmaneuvered him. He was throwing wide punches and I was throwing straight short punches so I got inside of him and beat him to the punch. That first fight in Dallas (August 1961) was easy. I had him down and won a decision. I had a style that bothered him. Angelo tried to change his style to fight me. He wanted him to be more of a puncher with me instead of being a boxer, like he was. But that only made it easier for me to cope with. I was always good at luring guys into my style of boxing, and that’s what good fighters do. You make the guy fight your fight. In our third fight, a month before I won the title, I stopped him in the 15th round. He got hit with a couple of shots and couldn’t come back. Luis had a good chin but I had a good right hand.
MS: You lost the welterweight title to the great Jose Napoles in 1969 and failed to regain the title two months later. What happened in those fights?
CC: Napoles was on his way up and I was on my way out. It was time for me to sit down because I’d been there for a while. In the second fight I broke his ribs. I went to his body real good but it was time for me to go. I’d had my day. I took a few fights I should not have taken. It was time for me to retire. In both of our fights his punches caused my eyes to become very swollen. I couldn’t see. (Cokes’ corner would not let him come out for the 13th round of their first fight). He damaged my right eye real bad.
MS: What would have happened if you had fought Napoles in your prime?
CC: If I fought Jose in my prime we would both have to retire after that fight (laughs).
MS: Luis Rodriguez and Jose Napoles were two of the greatest welterweight champions to ever wear the crown. You fought both of them. Who would have won had they met in their primes?
CC: I really don’t know. That would have been a good fight. Rodriguez didn’t hit as hard as Napoles, but he threw more punches.
MS: The other big superstar of today’s boxing scene is Manny Pacquiao. Would his unorthodox style have given you problems?
CC: He probably would, but if he ran into my good right hand then he would straighten up too. You know, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and that’s what I would do. I’d throw straight punches and he’d run into my good right hand and my jab. It would be a good fight because I’m not a wild swinger like he is. I throw punches straight and it would probably take me some time to hit him on the chin but when I did we could go home.
MS: Boxing has changed in many ways from the time when you were champion of the world. For example, many fighters have incorporated weightlifting into their training routines. What do you think of that trend?
CC: I used little hand weights of not more than two pounds. I would shadow box with them. I never used the big weights to make muscles. Just two pound weights. I would walk around the house with them. Big muscles slow you down. You don’t want your muscles to be tight and pumped up because you can’t use your arms if they’re pumped like that. Weightlifting is not for boxing. It’s for football players who need the muscles to tackle an opposing player or throw him down. You have to have smooth muscles like a basketball player if you are to throw your punches correctly. The heavy bag is an important tool for creating punching power, not lifting heavy weights.
MS: Speaking of strong punchers let’s discuss two of the best—Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran.
CC: Tommy Hearns was a good puncher but he didn’t have a real good chin. He needed to work on his defense more than he needed to work on his offense. He was easy to hit. I would have hit him. Duran had to come to you in order to score. He couldn’t stand on the outside and outbox anybody. I’m boxing. I could have beaten both Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran at welterweight.
MS: Let’s discuss some of your other opponents. Before you entered your prime fighting years you lost to Stanley “Kitten” Hayward and Jose Stable. Both fights were televised nationally.
CC: They said Kitten was a welterweight but when I fought him he looked more like a middleweight or small light heavy. He was the strongest boxer I ever fought. I could hit him all day long but he was so big and strong. He caught me with a good shot and had me down three times before they stopped the fight. But I had him down also. Jose Stable was a very good bob and weave pressure fighter. It was my first time fighting on national TV. I started strong but just didn’t fight enough during the last few rounds. Even so, it was a very close decision.
MS: The Hayward fight was a real barn burner and can be seen on YouTube. He does indeed look much bigger than you. In fact Don Dunphy, who was announcing the fight at ringside, comments about the disparity in size. The fight took place in Hayward’s home town of Philadelphia. Do you think there was some funny business with the scale?
CC: Well, it could have been. We were not allowed to weigh in at the same time. I complained about that because he got on the scale and was gone when I arrived. We never did get the chance to watch him get on the scale. I know good and well he was no 147 pounds. But I’m not using that as an excuse. It had nothing to do with him winning the fight because I had beaten big guys like that. He just caught me with a good shot that got me out of there.
MS: You knocked Hayward down with three solid punches just before the bell ended the second round. If you had caught him with those punches a minute earlier do you think the result might been different.
CC: It’s possible. I don’t know if he could have gotten up and recovered in time.
MS: What do you think of the current rule that has fighters weigh-in a day before the fight?
CC: I think it’s better to have a weigh-in on the day of the fight because you’d know for sure you have a 147 pounder against a 147 pounder. If you weigh-in the day before the fight you know you’re not going to get in that ring at 147—probably more like 157.
MS: In 1972 you had a significant role in “Fat City” a major Hollywood movie about boxing. How did that come about?
CC: John Huston, the director, knew about me as a boxer and asked me to audition for the part. It was hard work. You had to remember your lines. If somebody else remembered their lines and did it well and you missed yours they had to reshoot and the actors would get mad. I didn’t have to threaten any of them but they knew not to mess with me because I would shadow box while waiting for the next scene (laughs). It was a nice experience and I had a good time with Stacey Keach, Susan Tyrrell and Jeff Bridges. Those guys helped me quite a bit with my lines. They were tremendous with helping me. I got called for another part but I was in Paris with one of my fighters so I missed it. They wanted me to go to acting school but I was so busy doing my boxing thing with my guys.
MS: Do you have any regrets about your boxing career?
CC: Not at all. I did well in boxing. I started out wanting to be world champion and I accomplished that. I’m in the Hall of Fame. I retired from boxing because it was time for me to go. Nobody took advantage of me. Before I became a pro I attended college for two years. I had a good education. I knew how to take care of myself. I knew how to count my money too. I didn’t need a manager to count my money to me. I counted out my money to him.