“El Cubano Mexicano.” It took a few years, but that’s what Mexican press came to call him. Before that, he was simply, “El Cubano.” José Nápoles, the celebrated former welterweight champion, died last year in Mexico City following complications from diabetes and the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
As a fighter, Nápoles was truly great. From 1929 to 1936, seven welterweight champions couldn’t muster a single defense of the title between them. In six years and two title reigns, Nápoles made thirteen title defenses in four countries. But, as an immigrant, he left behind a far more important legacy—hope. As many of the world’s biggest nations, including the United States, have curtailed immigration and asylum claims, Nápoles’s reinforces the importance of compassion.
Leaving home to resettle in another country is a difficult thing to do, yet that’s precisely what Nápoles did after Fidel Castro’s government outlawed professional boxing in 1961. Nápoles had fought his way to a 20-1 record and earned the nickname “Mantequilla”—or, butter, as in slick as—when he defected in 1962.
A product of the harsh, efficient amateur system Cuba is known for, Nápoles fought with un estilo fino: a finer, more scientific style. That didn’t bother anyone in Havana. In Cuba’s capital, he’d become a local celebrity. But Mexico is a country that produces and loves fighters with aggressive styles. That said, the fact that Mexican boxing fans embraced Nápoles, a dark-skinned Afro-Cubano with a refined aesthetic, is remarkable.
His carefree attitude and style, however, presented bigger problems than his skin tone. Nápoles hated training so much he once waited until three days before a fight to start. And he wore sharp suits, sported a thick mustache, and loved women.
“Napoles derives pleasure from jumping onto the tail end of buses in the company of squealing schoolchildren in Mexico City,” said Sports Illustrated in 1969. “And he exhibits a sharp eye for the señoritas, referring to himself as ‘the hawk who gets all the chickens.’”
Nápoles’s manager, Carlos “Cuco” Conde, rescued at least five notable fighters from Cuba—Luis Rodríguez, Florentino Fernández, Doug Vaillant, Sugar Ramos, and Nápoles—and brought them to Mexico in the wake of Castro’s boxing ban. Rodríguez, Fernádez, and Vaillant were all sent to trainer/manager Angelo Dundee in Miami, and Conde hung onto Ramos and Nápoles. Ramos also assimilated into Mexican boxing circles without issue, mainly because of his immediate success in Mexico and Los Angeles.
When Ramos captured the featherweight title in 1963, tragically ending Davey Moore’s life in the process, it became the second time Ramos killed a man in the ring. Both ordeals deeply affected the Cuban, as he successfully defended the title only once in his adopted homeland before losing it to Mexican Vicente Saldívar the following year. He never returned to form.
Fortunately, Nápoles would face no such existential crisis, even if he was occasionally drawn to the bottle, which had cut Ramos’s career short. Nápoles, eager to pay homage to his adopted homeland, recognized the chance he’d been given.
When he faced welterweight champion Curtis Cokes at The Forum in Inglewood, California, in 1969, El Cubano Mexicano insisted that the Mexican national anthem be played for him. And after Nápoles destroyed Cokes in front of nearly sixteen thousand Mexican fans who shattered California’s indoor-gate record to support their man, Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz offered his country’s newest champion a car or a house.
Nápoles instead asked to be granted Mexican citizenship. Díaz Ordaz eagerly acceded. This move also had consequences. Nápoles had a mother and four brothers still in Cuba that he could neither see nor embrace and requesting Mexican citizenship meant Nápoles would never be welcomed home. “The defining legacy of Cuba’s revolution is the broken family,” says author Brin-Jonathan Butler. “No family escaped unharmed or unscarred. Anyone who left was tormented by the life they left behind in their home just as anyone who remained was haunted by the life they could have had.”
This grim reminder was no more apparent than in the aftermath of Nápoles’s victories, when the champion was at his loneliest, celebrating with conditional friends and no family. “He usually calls his mother after a fight,” Conde told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “I have seen him sit down and cry for a long time after he calls her.”
Unable to send money to Cuba while in Mexico, Nápoles spent his pesos at racetracks. But eventually he married a Mexican woman and moved to Guadalajara. In the 1990s, Nápoles moved to the border town of Juárez and made a selfless investment in Mexico’s future by training nearly any kid who stepped into Baños Roma gym and wanted to learn from a legend. And many did.
In Mexico, Nápoles wasn’t just a homeless refugee who fled Cuba when Castro’s government took away his future. He became a Mexican. Informex, Mexico’s first-ever news agency, set numerous news standards in the country. Among them was one that referred to Nápoles as El Cubano Mexicano. Nobody argued. Everyone followed suit. When Nápoles died in Mexico City, that’s what he left as.