"Always, before the fight, the writers say how bad I look in the gym, how old, how hard it is for me to make the weight," he said. "Then, after the fight, they say how wonderful I am. Is always the same. Me, I feel great. The way I feel, I may be the first to fight on the moon."
Napoles had indeed experienced trouble making the weight, working hard and sweating copiously. He came in at exactly 147 pounds, after taking 15 minutes to work off a few extra ounces the morning of the fight. He was snappish with associates, probably thinking of all the fun he was missing at the track and other places. The fight was, in effect, something of a command performance set up by the World Boxing Council, whose officials had ordered Napoles to defend his title against Lewis, threatening to take it away otherwise.
Lewis weighed in at a little over 142 pounds; in the ring he appeared to be in marvelous condition while Napoles showed most of his 34 or more years.
"I'll know what kind of man I'm facing after the sixth round," Lewis had said beforehand. "I don't think he'll be around for the 10th. He'll be asleep on the canvas. I thought I won the first fight we had in Los Angeles in 1971 and I know I've gained a lot in strength and maturity since then. He's only gained 2� years."
"Mantequilla can fight forever," said Trainer Angelo Dundee after the fight. "He ages like fine wine. No waste, the old master, the great boxer. The left hand coming into the belly—boom, boom! Then, when he brings the hands down, the left hook to the head and the right and none of them missing. You just saw one of the real great ones."
Mantequilla is Spanish for butter, and the nickname was given Napoles in Cuba because of his smooth, slippery, effortless style. On this afternoon, he made up for loss of the speed and reflexes that gained him the name with an innate sense of anticipation. It allowed him to adjust his counterpunching to compensate. By the fifth round Napoles seemed to be reading Lewis' mind: the fearful left hook to the belly would start almost before Lewis threw the left jab.
Except for a six-month period when Billy Backus held the title, Napoles has been welterweight champion for six years. He learned to fight on the streets of Havana and eventually came under the tutelage of Alfred (Kid Rapidez) Cruz, who got his nickname from his hand speed when he was a fighter.
"I used to walk down the street in Havana with Kid Rapidez when I was little," Napoles once said. "He would pick out a boy maybe twice as big as me. If I could knock him out, I would get a silver peso, but I had to knock him cold. I got a lot of silver pesos and a lot of experience."
In those days, and occasionally since, Cruz was not above a bit of black magic to help his fighter. He would bring a white chicken into the dressing room, say a little abracadabra over it, then carry it to the ring. There Cruz wore a red kerchief over his head and poured cologne over his fighter's shoes just before the bell rang—all spells designed to propitiate whatever Cuban god looks after the welfare of welterweights. As an added touch last week, a couple of bongo drummers beat out weird rhythms as the fight went on. And while Kid Rapidez wore the red kerchief around his neck under his sweat shirt, he skipped the chicken and cologne.
This was a disappointing loss for Lewis, but the odds are that he will be back. He is an exceptionally pertinacious young man. "It has never been my whole ambition to be a fighter," he says. "I did not like fighting when I started. I was raised in Detroit, and when I was a kid a friend of mine was a fighter. Once he told me they needed someone to fight in the 105-to-110-pound class and I would get a trophy if I won. So I tried and I went to the finals and lost to some guy named Steve Miller. I didn't like fighting that much, but I couldn't stand losing, so I went back the next year just so I could fight Miller again and beat him. I won, but Miller did not fight that year. I never have found him."