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He had trainers, guys who rubbed him down and held the punching bag and toweled him off; they were men named Robert Thomas and Cornbread Smith (a lightweight who fought in the 1930s and had a gym in Deep Ellum) and Bob Valencia. But "nobody could train me," Cokes says. "Nobody really told me too much what to do. I was a good student of boxing, but I knew what to do." Doug Lord, who met Cokes at Cornbread's gym in 1958, agrees: "Curtis was smarter about boxing than anyone in Dallas."
Emma Cokes only came to see her son fight during his title bouts; Curtis' father was there every single time his boy put on the gloves for money. In the end, Curtis' brothers also joined the fight game; one, Ernest, works as a trainer alongside his brother to this day.
Cokes' first professional fight came on May 24, 1958, in Midland against Manuel "Manny" Gonzalez, who was tough enough to have beaten future Hall of Famer Emile Griffith in a non-title contest. Cokes went to Midland expecting to lose; he was, after all, a ring virgin, and Gonzalez was undefeated in his handful of fights.
But no matter: Cokes beat Gonzalez in a six-round decision. They faced each other four more times over the course of Cokes' career, and Cokes lost only once, in a 10-round decision in 1959. They fought each other in New Orleans in 1966 for the World Boxing Association welterweight title, and Cokes defeated his old enemy in a battle that went the distance.
By the end of 1958 Cokes was undefeated--nine wins, one by knockout--when he punched Sammy Williams into oblivion in front of the hometown crowd on June 30. Over the next seven years, he fought and beat would-be legends (Cuban great Luis Rodriguez, a world champ himself for a brief while) and forgotten nobodies (Tombstone Smith and Joey Parks among their large lot). He lost only seven times, twice in nationally televised fights.
Cokes' favorite fight during that period came on February 11, 1963, against an unknown contender named Johnny Newman--who was trained by none other than Joe Louis, the heavyweight champ from 1937 to '49 and perhaps the greatest boxer of all time. Cokes had gone to Hollywood to fight Newman and ended up staying at the home of Louis and his wife. They fed the 25-year-old Curtis and cared for him before the fight, which ended almost before it began. Cokes knocked out Newman in two easy rounds.
"Joe was mad about that," Curtis recalls. "That was one of the happiest moments of my life, because that was big-time for me, knocking out one of Joe Louis' fighters. I used to watch Joe fight on Wednesday-night fights. I saw him fight Marciano. But that night, Joe walked out of the arena and got on a plane for Puerto Rico without paying me. I stayed in California two days to get my money from his wife."
Cokes got his shot at the title when Emile Griffith, the welterweight champ throughout most of the early 1960s, was forced to vacate his title after winning the middleweight title in 1966. The WBA held an elimination tournament in New Orleans in the summer of 1966 to determine the new welterweight champ. All the contenders and active past titleholders were invited, among them the Angelo Dundee-trained Luis Rodriguez (who had lost his title to Griffith in 1963) and Cokes' old foe Manny Gonzalez.
Cokes fought Rodriguez first, on July 6, and it was an easy fight, a 15-round knockout. "I was beating him every round," Cokes recalls. "I was just enjoying it." One boxing magazine referred to Cokes' win over Rodriguez as the "year's biggest upset." Six weeks later, he took Gonzalez in a 15-round decision, and he was crowned world champ. He retained his world welterweight title over the next two years, beating the likes of Frenchmen Jean Josselin and Francois Pavilla, and Argentinean hopeful Ramon LaCruz.
Both Doug Lord and Dick Cole agree that Cokes should have ended his career there, as world champ. His body had taken a pounding, his legs had begun losing their spring, and he had trouble keeping his weight below 147 pounds. Even worse, he wasn't mentally prepared to fight any longer: Cokes, who would never get rich off boxing, had lost a considerable amount of money by 1968. He invested $150,000 in a South Dallas club called The Arena, only to watch it burn to the ground. The insurance company covered only half the claim--nobody wanted to pay full coverage for losses in the ghetto.
With all this on his mind, Cokes entered the ring on April 18, 1969, in Los Angeles against Jose Napoles and was pummeled in 13 rounds. He was in the fight during the first few rounds, but toward the end, he was all but dead on his feet, a punching bag for the Cuban right-hander. Cokes' eyes were swollen shut, his nose bloodied, his face severely cut. After the fight, he spent eight hours in the hospital. He shouldn't have taken that fight.
But he needed the money, and Lord guaranteed he would make more than Sugar Ray Robinson's then-record purse of $75,000, which was at the time the highest amount ever paid any welterweight. Coke was guaranteed $80,000 for the fight, and he couldn't resist.