The Boy from Brazil: Eder Jofre
There was always something to admire, something to cherish, something to make the blood tingle in Jofre’s fights…
When it finally happened, nobody could quite believe it. Eder Jofre had been beaten. It didn’t seem possible and people had begun to wonder if it was even allowed.
Far from the sun-kissed shores of his native Brazil, before 12,000 wildly cheering Japanese fans at the Aichi Prefectural Gym in Nagoya, the masterful genius of a boxer who could do it all had lost his bantamweight championship to the perpetual little buzzsaw that was Masahiko “Fighting” Harada.
News of such cataclysmic events took an age to trickle through to the average boxing fan in the stark and simpler days of 1965. There was no Internet, no 24-hour news stations and no mention of boxing on the TV or radio unless Muhammad Ali had done something else to ruffle the feathers of the silent majority.
When I finally saw the result in the newspaper, tucked away at the bottom of the page in the form of a two-liner, I seriously wondered if the sub-editor had lunched for a little too long at his favorite watering hole and accidentally transposed the names.
Nobody expected Eder Jofre to lose to Fighting Harada, because Jofre was a genuine wonder of a fighter who didn’t lose to anyone. Not since the days of Panama Al Brown and Manuel Ortiz had a bantamweight champion looked so dominant or stood so toweringly over his peers. Eder had mastered his division with such a sublime and disciplined combination of skillful boxing and brilliantly timed power punching that old and new sages alike were hailing him as a Sugar Ray Robinson in miniature.
There didn’t seem to be an element of the game at which the Brazilian didn’t excel. As well as skill and power, Jofre was one of the ring’s great thinkers who combined excellent speed and timing with almost saintly patience. A tall man for a bantamweight, he never looked awkward or gangling in the semi-crouch from which he plotted and fired his artillery. Ever jinking, bobbing and weaving, he was able to coordinate his thoughts and actions seamlessly and with devastating effect.
It was Eder’s preference to play a chess match with his opponent, assessing the other man’s strengths and weaknesses and drawing his early fire before beginning the systematic process of breaking him down. But if the game plan went awry and an old-fashioned fight was called for, Jofre was no less efficient at biting the bullet and winning through. He possessed an uncanny ability to adapt and reinvent his style in the heat of battle, as his cool brain worked out the logistics and formulated the appropriate game plan.
Before the sensation against Harada in Nagoya, Eder Jofre had won 48 and drawn two of his 50 fights and had seen off such sterling challengers to his throne as Piero Rollo, Ramon Arias, Johnny Caldwell, Herman Marques, Jose Medel, Katsutoshi Aoki, Johnny Jamito and Bernardo Caraballo.
But the great man was wavering over his future, which was probably his undoing. Jofre could see the finishing line and funny things happen to even the greatest athletes when they hit the home stretch and race for the wire. They suddenly stop doing what comes naturally as the urge to bask in their glory takes hold. Jofre was undefeated, a sporting god of sorts and a hero to the Brazilian people, who paid him homage in much the same way they worship their sacred soccer players. There was no fighting man alive like their “Jofrinho.” The stage was perfectly set for Eder to retire and cement his legend as the great invincible. But then he began to talk about it, as fighters do. Before the final obstacle had been hurdled, he let it be known that he had other things on his mind.
Masahiko Harada was a furious fighting man, a former world flyweight champion who had moved up to hunt bigger game, but he was accorded little chance of defeating even a distracted Jofre. Most of those in the know reckoned that the Japanese warrior, for all his fire and fury, would be picked apart and dismantled inside five rounds.
The fight was a storming and exciting affair, in which Harada was fearless and relentless in his attacks. Jofre had gone to Japan to find one last dose of glory. Instead he found his nemesis. Eder’s studious, reconnaissance mission of the early rounds, the foundation on which he built his brilliant work, slowly turned to quicksand against this whirlwind of a challenger. Harada was tireless, punching all the time, a man who saw his big chance and believed he could grasp it. Jofre had always found a way of handling such impudent pretenders. Like an expert angler outsmarting the canny and slippery marlin, he would give them so much line and then reel them in.
But this man Harada was something else, the Aaron Pryor of his era in his ferocity and sheer persistence. He was chewing up the line and he wanted to eat the angler for good measure. Jofre sacrificed the early rounds in his attempt to analyse and compute his feisty challenger, a deficit he would never claw back. Eder was caught in a storm and the gifts that the gods had bestowed upon him were suddenly being snatched back. Never had his defenses been so penetrated as Harada found his chin repeatedly with rapid-fire shots. Like any great king who has reigned unvanquished for so long, Jofre’s mind couldn’t seem to accept that time was running out. He jabbed, he countered effectively with vicious punches, but never with sufficient urgency or consistency. He was waiting for that inevitable moment when his magic would make his challenger turn to dust. That moment never came.
Harada crossed the line to win a split decision and was suitably modest and sporting in the afterglow of his wonderful achievement. “I was lucky to win,” he said. “It was a very close fight. I was fighting hard all the time. If the boxing authorities believe Jofre is entitled to a chance to regain the championship, and he wants that chance, I shall give it to him.”
While the deflated Jofre was left to mourn the glorious retirement that never was, his manager Abraham Katzenelson dutifully excused him. Abe protested before and after the match about the Japanese gloves and had tried to import a pair from Mexico. The Japanese gloves, he argued, were too rough. But when was anything too rough or tough for the great Eder Jofre?
True to his word, Harada gave Jofre his return a year later in Tokyo. But the writing was on the wall for Eder six months before, when he was held to a draw by the tough Manny Elias in a tune-up fight in Sao Paolo. The genie had escaped the bottle, the magic was gone. Harada beat him unanimously and that was that. It was the spring of 1966 and the great career of Eder Jofre was over after 53 fights. Or so it seemed.
When a young boy is raised in the back room of a boxing gym, he is going to spend his life either loving boxing or hating it. Eder Jofre loved the game and yearned to be a great fighter. Standing before a mirror, he would imitate the world-class boxers he had seen and religiously practise every aspect of his chosen discipline. Studious and serious, he made excellence his benchmark. He couldn’t abide anything less and worked like a demon to expunge any weaknesses from his make-up. So many naturals of the sport waste their talent because they never fully grasp its rarity or significance. What made Jofre special was that he appreciated the value of the precious diamond in his locker and still wanted to heighten its gleam.
His progress was impressive when he graduated to the professional ranks in 1957. Eder won 10 of his 12 fights that year, showing early flashes of the power and grace that would enable him to cut a swath through two weight divisions. His early progress was checked by a couple of draws with Argentina’s Ernesto Miranda and a stalemate with Ruben Caceres in Uruguay. One could imagine the meticulous Jofre making a mental note of those two names for his further attention.
The Brazilian maestro ploughed through everyone else as he registered the first notches on a knockout tally that would reach 50 by the time he had completed his 19-year, 78-fight career. He quickly proved that he could overcome adversity, bouncing back from his first knockdown as a pro to stop the capable Jose Smecca in seven rounds in 1958. Eder met up with Ruben Caceres again in 1959, leaving no doubt as to who was the superior man as he knocked out Ruben in nine rounds.
Jofre was on the cusp of his first wave of greatness, and emphatically stamped his class on the division in his glittering campaign of 1960. He settled his unfinished business with Ernesto Miranda with two successive victories for the South American title and then waged one of the great modern bantamweight wars with the dangerous Jose “Joe” Medel at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles in August.
Medel was a highly accomplished ring mechanic. Cagey, cunning and a very hurtful puncher, the Mexican ace was a stalwart contender among the quality bantamweights of the Sixties. He simply had the misfortune to share his prime fighting years with Jofre and Fighting Harada.
But Medel claimed plenty of other top scalps. Coming into the Jofre fight, Joe was fresh from winning the Mexican bantamweight crown from Eloy Sanchez, who would cause such a sensation in his next fight by ending the career of world champion Jose Becerra on a shocking eighth round TKO.
Medel tried everything he knew against Jofre in a terrific, thrilling duel of power and wits. Both men were showing the marks of battle when Eder brought the curtain down in 10th round with a perfectly timed right cross to the jaw. Eder was already establishing his ability to assess and defeat opponents of any style. He could outbox the boxers and outpunch the punchers. Few bantamweights at that time could punch as hard as the wildly unpredictable Ricardo “Parajito” Moreno, who was swept aside in six rounds just a month later.
Jofre’s coronation was imminent. It had been his ambition to challenge the big punching champion Jose Becerra, but Eloy Sanchez had scuppered that plan by wrecking Becerra in their non-title engagement. The change of tack made no difference to Eder, who thrilled the fans at the LA Olympic once again as he secured the vacant NBA title with a ripping knockout of Sanchez in an exciting fight. Jofre’s growing universal appeal was easy to appreciate. Clever and shrewd operator that he was, his style was laced with just the right dash of vulnerability to make his dominance lovable rather than merely respected. Sanchez so nearly grabbed the glory from him in the concluding sixth round when he knocked the Brazilian’s mouthpiece out with a terrific blow. But Jofre always seemed inspired by such a test of his character and once again his slashing right cross ended matters with dramatic suddenness.
Just as every picture tells a story, so Jofre’s fights were becoming vibrant and colorful vignettes that lingered in the memory. There was always something to admire, something to cherish, something to make the blood tingle. The appeal of the little magician from Brazil didn’t require time to ferment and mature in the minds of those who sit in judgement. It was gloriously immediate and pulsating. Former champions like Barney Ross came to praise him.
One could understand the comparisons being made between Eder and Sugar Ray Robinson. Dan Cuoco, director of the Internal Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), still can’t get enough of the boy from Brazil who continues to spar for fun today in his seventies—and very efficiently so. Says Dan: “Jofre, like Robinson, was a supreme stylist and a picture book boxer with a big punch. Ray was more a stand-up boxer, while Eder used a bobbing and weaving semi-crouch style. Eder was very patient in the ring and liked to feel his way during the early rounds looking for weaknesses. He was adept at working the body to wear opponents down before moving upstairs and unloading his terrific left hook or straight right hand.”
When Eder gained universal recognition as bantamweight champion in January 1962, before his adoring fans in Sao Paolo, it was with a singularly vicious and systematic destruction of game Irishman, Johnny Caldwell. Johnny’s confidence was given a nice little boost when he won the opening round, but Jofre had now reached the point of near perfection where he could step up to a level that was simply beyond the reach of his opponents. Whatever tricks the other man had, Jofre had more. And he could perform them with bewildering dexterity. He rifled Caldwell with jabs and broke him down steadily with creasing left hooks. Johnny fought his heart out as any good Irishman does, but he was floored twice and badly bloodied before his manager had seen enough with seconds remaining in the 10th round.
Eder was heading for a return match with Jose Medel, which was eagerly anticipated by the hardcore fight fans. We say so often how perennial contenders of the past would now be champions in today’s more accommodating, multi-title ocean. Sometimes, of course, we exaggerate. Certain men would have been perennial contenders in any era because of some unfathomable mental chink in their armor. Yet there is a very valid case for saying that Jose Medel would be sitting atop some kind of alphabet throne today in the absence of the Brazilian shark that kept coming to feast on him.
For all his considerable talent, Medel simply couldn’t live with Jofre in their return go. Eder was at the top of his game and, incredibly, still looked capable of improving. He used the opening rounds to gauge the resistance his Mexican challenger and then went to work with the flashing jabs and fast hooks that his challenger couldn’t stop or simply couldn’t see coming.
With beautiful movement and subtle turns of his head, Jofre almost casually avoided most of Medel’s return fire. The tough man from Mexico was all in by the end of the fifth round when he was sent to the canvas for the first time. Jofre lowered the boom in the sixth with a peach of a right to the jaw.
Jofre’s dominance of his division was now so emphatic that his vanquished opponents could only sing his praises in the aftershock of their destruction. When Katsutoshi Aoki had his early points lead brutally wiped out by Jofre in Tokyo in the spring of 1963, the shell-shocked Japanese star commented, “I felt the first knockdown wallop. But I still don’t know what hit me when he knocked me out. That man has a terrific punch.”
What hit Aoki was not Jofre’s pet right, but a pair of awesome left hooks that stunned the Japanese crowd into silence. Up to that point, the fearless Aoki had been hurting Eder with his brazen attacks, punching away at the mildly flustered champion and no doubt dreaming of championship glory. The sound of the crowd was deafening as the cheers and yells of Aoki’s supporters echoed around the Kurame Sumo Arena. Their joy lasted for two minutes and 12 seconds and then they were heading for home.
Simple black and white, with its many shades and subtleties, can be so much more devastating than color, as any good photographer will tell you. As a boy, I loved those pictures of my favorite fighters that showed them either partially obscured or lurking menacingly in a certain light. It added to their mystery and fired my imagination.
I saw one such picture of Eder Jofre in 1964, in which he was dramatically silhouetted by a single steak of light as he moved in for the kill on Colombia’s talented Bernardo Caraballo. In white letters above the picture was the simple heading, ‘Greatness in our time.’
Jofre was knocking out Caraballo in the seventh round after tormenting and deceiving his nimble and talented challenger for the previous six. Caraballo, like so many before him, must have believed he was about to crack the great Brazilian nut. He had reddened Jofre’s forehead and nose, shown impressive footwork and had put his punches together well. He was unbeaten in 43 fights and fighting before his hometown fans in the intimidating atmosphere of the Nemesio Camacho Stadium in Bogota. Then the roof fell in and the game little challenger could only sob in his dressing room afterwards. “I did my best,” he said between tears. “It was not enough.”
Who could beat this genius Eder Jofre? That was the question everyone was asking before the great shock in Nagoya against Fighting Harada. Yet the shattering of Eder’s air of invincibility would prove to be a curious twist of fate. Far from diluting his greatness, it would ultimately strengthen it. Thirty-three months had passed since the second Harada defeat when Jofre suddenly came back to win a decision at featherweight over Rudy Corona. Nobody paid much attention. Eder was 33, a dangerous age for a man of his weight, and seemed to be treading the sad and inevitably disappointing path of so many old fighters before him.
But this old fighter just kept rolling along and winning. Astonishingly, the Brazilian ace was about to do it all again. He scalped 14 opponents before winning the WBC featherweight championship from Jose Legra at Brasilia in May 1973, yet retirement still wasn’t on the great man’s mind. He was the old Jofrinho again, perhaps no longer as devastating or as downright mean in the violence of his attacks, but still too hot for the young guns to handle.
Clearly revelling in his new lease of life, Eder scored quality wins over Godfrey Stevens and Frankie Crawford and followed up with a successful title defense against fellow great Vicente Saldivar. Sadly, the WBC spoiled the comeback party by stripping Jofre of his title, and one had to wonder if Eder was being mischievous by sticking around to win a further seven fights before finally calling it a day. He was 37 when he outscored Octavio Gomez in the last hurrah in 1976. And after all that, Eder Jofre was still a man of mystery to the many thousands who had never seen his wonderful gifts in that stark era of too little information.
In ranking Jofre the fourth best pound-for pound fighter since 1950, my fellow writer and friend Ted Sares wrote: “Let’s just call him the greatest fighter who fought under the radar.” (Boxing is my Sanctuary, 2007).
Greatness in our time? Oh yes. Very definitely so in the case of Eder Jofre.
Mike Casey is a freelance journalist, artist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).