Jose Urtain: The Picturesque Puncher
He was pictured lifting up cars, holding enormous rocks over his head and casually draping goats around his shoulders…
Whatever the era, it’s always the same pattern with heavyweight prospects. Nothing happens for ages and then—like the legendary London bus—three or four come along at the same time.
Is Seth Mitchell the man to topple one or both of the Klitschko brothers? How far will David Price and Tyson Fury progress? Will the 31-0 Denis Boytsov finally do something daring before hair starts growing out of his ears?
Back in 1970, we were all getting excited by a couple of bombers who were destroying opponents as ruthlessly as Lee Marvin destroyed tequila.
Mac Foster, out of Fresno, California, and Jose Urtain, from the Basque region of Spain, began to tingle the blood of fight writers and fans alike. Both men had a suitable air of mystery and menace about them, but it was Urtain who captured the imagination of American scribes who had heard colorful tales of a super strong man lurking in the Spanish hills, waiting to burst onto the world stage.
The memories of Ingemar Johansson’s decimation of Floyd Patterson were still vivid. Would this slugger Urtain come to America and put a stick of dynamite under world champion Joe Frazier?
Everything bubbled up very nicely. Urtain made the cover of The Ring’s July 1970 issue and was hailed as the strongest man in boxing. It was mischievously suggested that he might even be a superman. He was pictured lifting up cars, holding enormous rocks over his head and casually draping goats around his shoulders. Even Oscar Bonavena and George Foreman couldn’t do that kind of stuff.
However, Ring editor Nat Fleischer cautioned us not to jump the gun until we had seen more of the Spanish sensation. For now, said Nat, the stone-lifting publicity was fun enough to be going on with. “It is singular and picturesque,” he wrote soberly.
Urtain piled up 27 consecutive knockout victories over tame opposition before his seemingly impregnable suit of armor suddenly began to rust and fall apart. He knocked out Germany’s Peter Weiland to win the European title, but the rather messy victory was no garden party for the Spanish puncher.
Weiland was a character but he was nobody’s pushover. He would sometimes wear his favorite hairpiece into the ring, said to weigh all of four or five pounds, which sat atop his head with all the grace of a cowpat. Peter was sufficiently weighty without add-ons, scaling just over 232 lbs. for Urtain and putting up brave resistance before going under in the seventh round.
But Jose had been found wanting and he seemed to tire very quickly. One could almost hear a collective murmur of “Ah-hah!” from those observers who knew their stuff. The move up in class against an opponent not afraid to hit back had not been the quick massacre for Urtain that many had predicted.
The tipping point had been reached. A desperate 15-round struggle followed against another German, Juergen Blin, who decked Urtain before Jose scraped home on a razor thin and debatable decision. Urtain showed courage and improved stamina, but the cat was out of the bag. He was struggling to beat fellow Europeans who, in the fiercely competive furnace of the seventies, were light years behind America’s elite.
World Boxing magazine reported, “The muscular Spaniard started in typical Urtain style; overpowering Blin and trying for a quick knockout. Blin reeled under the shattering impact of Urtain’s blows, but he was smart enough and cool enough under extreme fire not only to ride out the storm, but to drop Urtain for the first time in his career – in the eighth round, with a tremendous right to the jaw.
“Urtain’s eyes rolled like lemons on a slot machine as he took an eight count.”
Jose’s frustration was then compounded by an embarrassing third round disqualification defeat against modest Alfredo Vogrig, and worse was to come. A certain Henry Cooper was Urtain’s next challenger for the European championship in old London town.
It was time to cut through the hype and calm things down. After the close call against Blin, World Boxing ran an article in which it asked a timely question of Urtain: Can he really fight. “Sooner or later,” wrote the author, “every European heavyweight worth his salt has got to be tested by ‘Ol ‘Enry. And if the Spanish Lion could get past Cooper, well, then we’ll stamp him, ‘Approved’. But not until then!”
Urtain didn’t get past 36-year old Cooper. The Spaniard was constantly tormented and bashed by a slamming left jab that former challenger Billy Walker described as having the accuracy of a Greenwich Time signal. Jose came up for the ninth round, but his handlers pulled him out before another punch could be thrown. His right eye was shut and his nose was badly damaged.
After ‘Enry finally retired from the game, Urtain came again and regained the crown by stopping Jack Bodell in two rounds, but was then dethroned by old tormentor Juergen Blin.
Urtain was a game man and a thrilling puncher, but he was never the next superman of boxing. Nor was Mac Foster. Five months before Urtain was mauled by Cooper, Mac travelled from California to New York with a gleaming record of 24 knockout wins in as many fights to face his first acid test against Jerry Quarry. Chilling tales followed in Mac’s wake, such as the time he knocked Sonny Liston cold in a sparring session.
Quarry, it seemed, was the right opponent at the right time. He was glamorous, world ranked at number four, a box office smash, but perceived as “damaged goods” after his disappointing loss to Jimmy Ellis in the WBA knockout tournament. Ah, the best laid plans! It was big Mac who got damaged and badly so. Jerry wrecked him in six rounds.
“It has become the vogue to build fighters on weak stilts,” wrote ringside reporter, Dan Daniel.
Mac Foster and Jose Urtain gave us plenty of thrills for as long as the lasted, but they never disturbed the sleep of champion Joe Frazier. Now, sadly, all three men are sleeping. Jose died on July 21st, 1992 at just 49; Mac passed on July 19th, 2010, at 68; and Smokin’Joe, bless his glorious fighting soul, left us on November 7th last year at 67.
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).