Yaqui Lopez Remembers
September 2, 2015
Please trust that people often used to tell me, “You have the best memory of anyone I ever met.” I could, and often still can, recall details of events decades ago and usually enhance the anecdote by noting the month and year: I moved to California in July 1958, I got my first car in February 1969, you got drunk at the party and fell on the floor in June 1970, and, yes, I was already down there.
Though I knew time had diminished my ability to rapidly memorize a roomful of names and faces, I was unprepared for the following display of forgetfulness during a recent fundraiser in Anaheim for former champion boxer Bobby Chacon, who is now impaired by dementia pugilistica. I was drying my hands in the men’s room when a light heavyweight contender from the seventies, Yaqui Lopez, entered.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Tom Clark and would like to tell you that your fights against, against, uh, your fights against….Marvin Johnson.”
“I never fought Marvin Johnson,” said Yaqui, a gentle man who kindly looked at me as I struggled.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I meant those great fights you had with…with…”
“Matthew Saad Muhammad. His name used to be Matt Franklin.”
“Of course. I just said Johnson to come up with someone from that era.”
What’s perplexing is why I couldn’t remember Muhammad, about whom I’d written just last year when he passed away: “Matthew Saad Muhammad Goes Home”
“I’d like to tell you that your second fight with Muhammad was one of the greatest fights of the century.”
Yaqui Lopez is a modest man but he didn’t deflect the compliment. He knows it was one of the most rousing slugfests in the annals of pugilism.
In their first fight, in 1979, Lopez and Muhammad had pummeled each other for eleven rounds until Lopez wilted while the supernaturally robust champion kept firing. The following year the men resumed their bombardments and in the eighth round Muhammad was hitting Lopez with power punches, backing him against the ropes, and commentator Gil Clancy prepared to bury Yaqui when, suddenly and with sustained ferocity, he landed a right and left and right and a left, some of the left hooks to the body, others to the head, the rights hitting Muhammad’s concrete jaw, and Yaqui continued unloading big lefts and rights, punching accurately, punching frenetically, knowing that now, after four unsuccessful title attempts, he was close, he was ready to become champion of the world. Matthew Saad Muhammad, as he’d so often done – but would not be able to do much longer – took more punishment than his opponent should’ve been delivering, and Yaqui tired late in the round and was stopped in the fourteenth. This collision was voted 1980 fight of the year and the immortal eighth was of course the round of the year.
“Thank you,” said Yaqui Lopez. He shook my hand in the soft style of boxers who protects their hands and those of others.
Yaqui Lopez had seventy-six professional fights, many against exceptional fighters – Michael Spinks, Victor Galindez, John Conteh, James Scott, and others – yet at age sixty-four his memory, at least at that moment, worked better than mine. I wasn’t a gladiator but ancient nocturnal habits may have damaged me and be why Yaqui scored a knockout in this meeting of minds.