John H Stracey from Bethnal Green stood for 10 minutes on his own in the ring, in front of over 40,000 people who had paid their pesos to watch his massacre inside the world’s largest bullring in Mexico City on 6 December 1975.
“What could I do?” recalls Stracey. “Their champion was keeping them waiting, so I shrugged my shoulders and made a joke of it. They got it and laughed. It took him a long time to get there, when he did I led the applause. What was I gonna do? He was a legend.”
Jose Napoles was known as “Mantequilla” because he was smooth as butter and his nickname is from a time when only the best had a ring moniker. Napoles had been born and started fighting in Cuba but left in 1961 when professional boxing was about to be outlawed. By 1975 he was one of the world’s top fighters and arguably the best welterweight in history. Napoles was also a few years older than the 35 years he claimed and after 87 fights he was old in boxing years. However, good young fighters had been trying for years to make Napoles age under the ring lights, a forum where the master seemed capable of stopping sport’s ticking clock.
Stracey had travelled to Mexico City three weeks before his fight with Napoles, knowing after boxing at the 1968 Olympics, where he lost on points to the eventual champion, that he would need time to adjust to the altitude. “I had to let them know I was serious about beating their idol and getting there early got their attention.” Stracey also knew Napoles having sparred four rounds with him in 1972 when the champion came to London to stop Ralph Charles in a world-title fight. “In the fourth I used my jab and it worked.” In the car after the sparring, on the way home to the Whitechapel Road, Terry Lawless, who was Stracey’s manager and trainer, told the kid to remember that the jab worked against Napoles. Stracey never forgot.
Angelo Dundee, who was in Napoles’ team, was cautious about the fight and had his spies out in force once Stracey landed. “My guy was loved, the people loved him and it was my job to make sure that they kept on loving him. Sure, I had to keep an eye on John,” Dundee told me years later.
“They tried a few strokes and had one fella try and break my hand when he shook it, posing as a fan,” Stracey adds. “But it was in the gym when I sparred for the last time that they tried to take a proper liberty. I was sparring with a good fighter and every time he caught me with a right hand he followed though with his nut.
“He cut me and Terry called ‘stop’, he took my headguard off, hid the cut from prying eyes, put some vaseline and a plaster on it and told me to get out there and knock him out. That wasn’t exactly how he put it!
“I went out and smashed the fella and eventually dropped him and then I put my foot on him and raised my hands. It was a bit strong, but he had taken a liberty and the cut could have cost me the fight. After that, the fight got serious and was moved to the bullfighting arena.”
The bout went wrong soon after the first bell when Napoles sent Stracey to the canvas with an effortless left hook. The crowd responded to increase the hostility and the Briton did well to survive the round. However, in the third round the ring filled with cushions, the ones that are usually placed on the concrete seats, when Napoles touched down after Stracey connected with his own left hook. Three rounds later it was over and Napoles was led off to a predictably sad retirement, his title gone, his face swollen and bruised from Stracey’s steady beating. It was and remains one of the biggest shocks in British boxing.
Stracey successfully defended his title just once, at Wembley, and is now a fixture on the after-dinner circuit in Britain, a natural with a microphone and is as honest and humble now as he was 38 years ago when he pulled off the ultimate boxing heist in Mexico City.