By Jim Schutze
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The WBA never gave Cokes a belt. For some reason, they gave him only a certificate, despite the constant nagging from Cokes' former manager, Doug Lord. The WBC championship belt sits in a glass display case in the Home of Champions, Cokes' modest gymnasium on the intersection of Beckley and Saner. You might even miss the belt if you didn't know where to look for it; it's situated next to a few for-sale T-shirts and baseball caps advertising the gym, which Cokes opened a year ago with a few partners. The belt--green and gold and covered with the flags of every country imaginable--is actually smaller up close than you might think; it's hard to see because it disappears into the surroundings almost as if time had a way of shrinking his accomplishments.
Then again, Cokes' gym is not a shrine to the man who helped build it and who can be found there every day between noon and 7 p.m. training young fighters. A sign outside offers that the Home of Champions is also home to a certain world-champion fighter, and a painting of Cokes adorns one wall outside and another inside, but it's a rather sparse memorial to the man who was the first and only boxing world champion from Dallas.
Until the recent honor from the World Boxing Hall of Fame, history, for some reason, did not celebrate his achievements. And still, he is not a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in New York, though Napoles--the man who took away his crown in 13 bloody rounds in 1969--is. So are Kid Gavilan, Emile Griffith, Sugar Ray Robinson, and so many other men who held the welterweight title before and after Cokes. He is not a celebrated hero in his hometown, where lesser athletes than he are made gods overnight. Though he is recognized on the streets of New York City, he is not known on the streets outside his own gymnasium in Oak Cliff. "I felt I was just as good as a lot of those people," Cokes says. "I had just as good a record, kept the title longer."
There are a lot of reasons why Cokes has been passed over. He fought long before boxing became prime-time programming, long before HBO and USA Network and ABC-TV made millionaires out of punk-ass fighters; his two losing fights in 1969 against Napoles were televised--but only in Spanish. He was left to box in front of the paying crowds, which numbered anywhere from the 7,000 who came to see him win the title from Manny Gonzalez in New Orleans in 1966 to the 33,000 who showed up in Mexico City on June 29, 1969, to watch him try to recapture the championship from Napoles.
And back then, welterweights were merely stars, not legends like the heavyweights such as Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali. Those men were larger than life, 200-plus-pounds of muscle and dynamite. Ali's shadow weighed more than Cokes' whole 147-pound body.
Then there's the matter of location: Cokes came from Dallas, not New York or Miami or Los Angeles. He was a Texas boy, fighting in the middle of nowhere, becoming a hero in anonymity. He never drew more than 7,000 to see him fight here; and back then, the crowds were mostly white, mostly affluent. Some fight folks tried to get him to move east: Cokes says that Angelo Dundee--revered as one of the greatest corner men in the history of the game, having trained the likes of Ali and Leonard--once tried to persuade him to move to New York. But Cokes resisted--he was going to live right here, even if it meant nobody knew who he was. He and manager Doug Lord, an insurance salesman, had a deal: Lord agreed never to sell his contract, no matter how much he was offered for it.
"There were some other groups that wanted Curtis to come in with them, but he stayed here," says Lord, still in the insurance business well into his 70s. "He wanted to be with his people, his friends, and his family. On two occasions, I had the chance to sell his contract, and I didn't."
Lord, who bought Cokes' contract in 1958, got Cokes a shot at the title, but he was no Bob Arum or Gil Clancy, powerful managers with deep connections. "If he had a big promoter, I think Curtis would have done better," says Texas boxing commissioner Dick Cole, who has known Cokes since 1966, when Cole refereed one of his fights. "They wanted Curtis for the Friday-night fights and Wednesday-night fights on TV. He could have fought more frequently. A lot of promoters were interested in him, and he could have had a home in Dallas and prepared for fights with Angelo [Dundee] in Miami and fought all along the East Coast. That would have helped his career. But at the same time, if he had been unhappy, it wouldn't have been a blessing to him."
Cokes was almost inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame last year, but he missed out by only a handful of votes. It didn't matter to Cokes whether he was admitted into the WBHOF or the more widely known International Boxing Hall of Fame, which publishes The Boxing Register. After all, Cokes says, the same fighters are in both halls--Ali, Robinson, Louis, Marciano. "All the big names," he says. "All the champions. It doesn't matter to me. I'm in."