The good fight

He taught himself how to fight, how to duck, how to win. He had his share of trainers, but nobody knew more about boxing than he did. Nobody could tell him how to dance in the ring; nobody could tell him how to throw punches, or how to take them. He never wanted to fight in the first place. His true love was baseball--he dreamed of playing alongside Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers; he fantasized about covering the infield at Ebbets Field. It almost happened too, but the pro scouts and coaches down in Florida in 1955 told him he didn't have what it took and sent the kid on his way.

So the teenager came back to Texas and found himself standing in the boxing ring. He didn't plan it that way--it just happened; and it made his mother so unhappy, she couldn't bring herself to watch her son engage in the sweet, bloody science of beating up and getting beaten. Her boy would never have an amateur fight. He was a pro from the beginning, when the first bell sounded and the first punch landed and the first fighter fell. He won his first 11 fights, two by knockout.

Eight years after his first bout, the boy with no experience, who taught himself how to keep from getting knocked out, was crowned world champion. In 1966, they proclaimed him king of the welterweights, and for the next three years, he defended his title, taking on all comers.

Fighting with grace and elegance, he was all sinewy muscle and deep soul, quick to get out of a punch's way, quicker still to land a few of his own. His old black-and-white fight films--some against tomato cans who challenged him for the championship belt and should have stayed home, some against men who beat him on their way to becoming fight game legends--don't do him justice. He was a dazzling fighter, always moving as though the ground were on fire; his arms were thin, but even now, watching him on grainy gray film, you can still feel the sting of his straight left or his right jab.

He was champ until 1969, when, for the first time, someone managed to turn his young face into a bloody mess. He retired then, came back for a few fights, retired one more time, then quit for good in 1972, putting to rest a 14-year career in the ring during which he won 62 fights--30 by KO--and lost only 14. That should have been enough to make him a legend.

But instead, that fighter's name is missing from so many of the history books, and he can't help but wonder why. He is, at best, a passing reference mentioned in between the names of legends of the game. Writers do not mention his victories, his three-year tenure as the World Boxing Association's welterweight champion. They write instead of his April 18, 1969, defeat by the Cuban-born Jose Napoles, who took away his title at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles.

Only Arthur Ashe's slender book A Hard Road to Glory: Boxing, written by the tennis star five years before his death in 1993, provides any substantive mention of Cokes, and even then, it's just a handful of bland sentences. But Ashe, who penned a whole series of books dedicated to revealing "forgotten facts" about the contributions of African-American athletes, did note that after the fighter retired, "there would be no more black American welterweight champions until Ray Leonard in 1979."

"Is that right?" Curtis Cokes says when that fact is mentioned to him. He considers this for a moment, then smiles a broad, honored smile and laughs. "I'll be damned. Hell, I guess that's something to be proud of, isn't it?"

For years, Cokes has waited for a little recognition; for years, he has bitten his tongue and said nothing, trying to contain the acrimony that comes with being ignored for so long. "It becomes frustrating," he says. "You become a little bitter." Some of that bitterness wore off only last week, when Cokes received a letter from the World Boxing Hall of Fame in California notifying the champ he would indeed be inducted this October. It's an honor that has been a long time in the coming.

Although boxing history had all but forgotten Curtis Cokes, he continues to teach its lessons to young fighters to this day. He remains in the ring at the age of 61, training would-be pros and novice amateurs and young children who wander in off the streets with no place else to go. Cokes has taken wayward kids and saved their souls by building up their bodies at his Home of Champions, the Oak Cliff Gym he co-owns and operates. But Cokes realizes that if he is to be granted the glory he deserves, it may be the reflected kind, coming from one of the promising fighters he is grooming to become the next world champion.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky