The first thing you notice about Willie Ludick are the eyes. They are big and soft and brown, and they are buried deep between high cheekbones and dark, heavy brows. Willie's eyes had never been so big as they were in the days before he fought champion Curtis Cokes for the welterweight title in Dallas last week, for Ludick is from South Africa, where they do not drive around in big shiny Cadillacs and say, "Ha yew, Willie." Willie even got to ride in a Cadillac and a Lincoln Continental.
But now it is the fifth round against Curtis Cokes, and you cannot see Willie's eyes anymore. Blood streaming from cuts above and below his right eyebrow and from a gash along the side of his nose has transformed Ludick's eyes into twin craters of dark red.
"He couldn't even see me," Cokes said after he scored a technical knockout at 34 seconds of the fifth round. "The very first right hand I threw busted open his nose. That showed me he was a bleeder, and I set about cutting him up a little."
Curtis Cokes does not particularly enjoy the sight of blood. He says he gets sick every time one of his four small children cuts a finger, but in the ring Cokes is as skillful a surgeon as you will find. Boxers used to duck Curtis Cokes, because he put them on the shelf for so long, win or lose. But now Cokes is the welterweight champion, and anybody up to 147 pounds who wants his title will have to fight him for it.
Willie Ludick was such a man. A 26-year-old steelworker who still labors in a mill south of Johannesburg, Ludick came to Dallas hailed as some kind of South African Joe Louis, Willie Pep and Sugar Ray—all stuffed into a white skin. David Levin, a short, chubby millionaire from Johannesburg, had underwritten Ludick's career from the start, put up the $50,000 guarantee Cokes wanted for defending his title and even brought the famous Angelo Dundee from Miami Beach to be in Ludick's corner. This was for the "real" welterweight championship of the world, Levin said, for the WBA had no business declaring Cokes champion in the first place since he had not fought Ludick, a contender for the welterweight and middleweight championships of Europe. Levin said Cokes could have a rematch in Rhodesia, since blacks cannot compete with whites in South Africa.
"Willie is a very nice fellow," said Cokes, a small, tidy man of 30 who wears a mustache. "But, really, there will be no need for a rematch. I am going to win. The fact that he is white and happens to come from South Africa means nothing to me. Tonight we will fight, but afterward I'm sure we'll be friends."
Cokes is a thoughtful man, and he picks his words with care. His face bears a strong resemblance to Zora Folley's, but the body below it is more like that of Maury Wills. There was a time, years ago, when he wanted to play professional baseball, but he failed in a tryout with the Dodgers.
So Cokes graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas and started fighting "strictly for the money." He quit three times for various reasons and probably would have given up altogether if Emile Griffith had not vacated the welterweight title to become a middleweight in 1966. Cokes then won the championship by beating Luis Rodriguez and Manny Gonzalez.
Boxing has not made Cokes a rich man. He is a partner in a steak house that will open soon, but that is all he has. "I realize," he says, "that if I am ever to enjoy the easy life it must come through boxing."
On the day of the fight Cokes sat in the den of his modest home on a tree-lined street in a predominantly Negro section of South Dallas. The shelves were filled with trophies and the walls with pictures. No picture, however, showed Cokes cut or bleeding. "In 12 years of boxing I've never been cut," he said. "I do not like to get hit, and I'm sure that has hurt my appeal as a fighter. People come out to see the sluggers. But those who criticize me don't have to step in the ring and get hit. I want to win as badly as anyone, but it's just important to me that I protect myself. When I'm through fighting I don't want my children to be ashamed of how I look."