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For middle-aged swingers, intemperate horseplayers and Cuban expatriates, it could not have been a more heartwarming occasion. Jose (Mantequilla) Napoles, who is all three of the above, struck a fine blow for immoderation when he outfought young, clean-cut, upstanding Hedgemon Lewis last Saturday afternoon to retain the world welterweight title, an outcome lustily applauded by some 16,000 fans in Mexico City.
Napoles is 34, going on 40. He has a strong and lasting affection for friendly women, horses that go off at 20 to 1 or worse and observing the dawn at the end, not the beginning, of the day. Lewis is 28, plays chess, studies real estate brokerage and stays in shape between bouts. He is going to be a success eventually; first in boxing, then in whatever else he wants to do. But he was unlucky enough on this day to run into a master boxer-puncher who, even in his athletic dotage, could call upon enough memories and remnants of physical talent to take over.
The fight was stopped just before the end of the ninth round, with Lewis out on his feet after a fearful beating that had gone on for almost three minutes. He had not been put down, but that was a tribute to his superb condition. He had been battered mercilessly around the tiny ring and it would have been inhumane to allow him to come out for the 10th.
Lewis had started well enough, moving quickly, flicking a left hand in Napoles' face, occasionally leading with a right hand, and once landing hard enough to raise a small lump over his opponent's left eye. A right-hand lead against Napoles used to be a no-no; his countering right over the heart was murderous.
"That counterpunch seemed to start almost as fast as the right-hand lead," said Eddie Futch, Lewis' trainer, before the fight. "It made anyone who fought him a one-handed fighter. But it's not that fast anymore. Lewis will lead with his right and not get hit."
Indeed, Lewis got away with it for four or five rounds. None of his punches did much damage but he was making Napoles miss with the counters and he was moving easily, and one had to think the weight of the years and late hours would tell on Napoles. But he was fighting a beautifully economical fight, not moving much, slipping punches or blocking them with a minimum of effort. And gradually sharpening his timing.
Early on, Napoles was countering the quick left jab with a left hook over the heart that was just missing. Then from about the third round the hook began to land, glancingly at first, more solidly as the fight went on.
Still, not all of Napoles' success was the result of his superior skill. The fight had originally been made for Acapulco, at sea level, was moved to Monterrey and, finally, at the behest of Napoles' camp, to Mexico City. At its mile-and-a-half altitude, oxygen debt besets a sea-level athlete sooner or later. The ring was not much bigger than a telephone booth, another advantage for the older fighter, and the ring floor was heavily padded. After those lefts to the belly sapped his legs, Lewis must have felt he was fighting in sand.
From the fourth round on, Lewis was through. More and more often Napoles caught him with a countering hook to the belly; then he began reaching him with hooks to the head, and in the eighth and ninth rounds with almost all of his considerable arsenal of punches. In the ninth he bent Lewis with a left hook to the belly, hooked him again to the head, followed him as he wobbled backward across the ring and hit him with an overhand right flush on the mouth. The bell rang, but the referee had already stopped the fight.
Later, in his dressing room, Napoles seemed tired, but not too much so. He had a tiny bump over his left eye, where one of the early right-hand leads had caught him, but otherwise his square, pudgy face showed no signs of damage.