The good fight

Thirty years ago, Curtis Cokes was the world-champion welterweight. Now, he trains young boxers and just wants to be recognized in his hometown.

Marquez Reed was much the same way a few years before he came to Cokes. He was one step away from dealing drugs and throwing away his promise as a young boxer. But such is life south of the Trinity, where a kid can get rich quick selling crack--or die trying. Instead, Reed ended up at the Dallas Business and Management Magnet High School; instead, he's a national Golden Gloves champion. He became one of Curtis Cokes' most promising young fighters, a man-child who turned pro only a year ago and waits, with wound-up patience, for a shot at the title.

Reed hooked up with Cokes in 1992, when he was 16. He was just a scrawny, stumbling kid who had been a runner-up in some Silver Gloves contests but was still an average fighter. "I didn't know how to throw a punch without falling all over the ring," Reed says. Wells was his trainer then, and his legal guardian--the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal in the early 1980s for his work with the Boys Club. Even now, Reed refers to Wells as "my father"--his real dad long out of sight and mind.

In the late 1980s, Wells was running a gym in Oak Cliff called Reach for the Stars when this young kid from the projects wandered in and made himself at home. Wells, who had boxed a little but never as a pro, took the boy in and promised him the world. What he delivered was Curtis Cokes, who almost immediately taught the boy how to fight, and win. By 1995, he had won myriad national amateur titles--enough to find himself ranked seventh in the country among amateur junior middleweights.

"I thought I really knew about boxing before I met Curtis," Reed says. He is eloquent and surpassingly soft-spoken. The intensity he has while fighting leaves his voice, and he is, at this moment, just a 21-year-old student learning how to keep from getting knocked down. "Curtis taught me to be patient in the ring and how to look for the opening instead of trying to create one. He taught me how to work on my jab and be a boxer and not make the fight so hard."

Reed was 89-18 as an amateur and, for a while, ranked the top fighter in Texas. As a professional, he has a record of five wins and no losses; three of his victories came by knockouts. He did not know who Cokes was before the champ became his trainer. He was too young to know or care. But over time, he came to worship the title belt that sits beneath the glass case in the Home of Champions. He spent hours with the videotapes of Cokes' old fights, studying his moves, watching how he handled both victory and defeat.

"I don't just bring the guys tapes and show me beating up on someone," Cokes says. "I show them getting my ass kicked, because it could happen to them. You can't just stop because you get beat. You have to keep going. It's part of the game--winning and losing."

Curtis Cokes, Dallas' sole fight champion, is actually from Corsicana, where he was born on June 5, 1937; he did not move here until 1941, when his father was shipped off to fight in World War II. His mother, Emma--82 and still going strong, Curtis says--had family here and brought her son to what was then North Dallas, on Hall near Baylor Hospital. His father was an athlete, a center fielder on a freight-line company baseball team; young Curtis, when he was only 15 and a student at Booker T. Washington High School, often played shortstop alongside his old man.

Curtis went on to play a little semi-pro ball in Dallas for a while, barnstorming with the Dallas Bombers; they traveled all over the state and made nearly $25 per game. "I thought I was a hell of a ball player," Cokes recalls, but he didn't have enough big-league arm to rifle the ball from shortstop to first base. He only discovered that fact of life when, in 1955, he went to Fort Worth's LaGrave Field for a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who owned the Fort Worth Cats of the old Texas League. He did well enough during tryouts in Fort Worth to warrant an invite to spring training in Florida, but he was cut from the club after only a week.

"None of those guys ever thought I was gonna be a boxer, because I just didn't look like one," Cokes recalls. "I wasn't a big brute, a big mean guy."

Cokes was a fight fan--he adored Sugar Ray Robinson and picked up his moves--but he never even considered jumping into the ring until his baseball career ended. His parents abhorred the idea, and, at first, he was forced to sneak away from home to learn his craft, going to small South Dallas gyms where other black kids went to spar.

Although Cokes never fought in the Golden Gloves--blacks weren't allowed in the amateur competition until the 1960s--he did have a handful of amateur fights, if you can call them that: Most were in a dingy gym somewhere against another black kid. But once, right before he turned pro, Cokes went to Waxahachie and fought a Hispanic kid named Ortiz, a Golden Gloves champ, and beat him in a non-sanctioned bout.

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