Yaqui Lopez: From Stockton to Philadelphia

By Robert Mladinich on June 18, 2014
Yaqui Lopez: From Stockton to Philadelphia
Lopez and Rossman trade punches outside the Eton Tabernacle Baptist Church. (Mladinich)

“I got hit solidly a lot less than people think. It might have looked like I was taking a lot of punches, but I rolled with most of them…”

Scores of fistic luminaries turned out for the funeral of former light heavyweight titlist Matthew Saad Muhammad in his hometown of Philadelphia on June 5. They included former champions and contenders Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Tim Witherspoon, Mike Rossman, Curtis Parker, Richie Kates, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Nate Miller, Mike Everett, Joey Ferrell, Kevin “The Spoiler” Howard, Tony Greene, and Steve and Joey Traitz.

While they all hailed from in or around the City of Brotherly Love, the man who commanded the most attention was Alvaro “Yaqui” Lopez, who traveled all the way from his home in Stockton, California, to say goodbye to his former nemesis with whom he had engaged in two epic battles.

Saad stopped Lopez in the 11th round of their first encounter, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia in October 1978. In their second fight, at the Playboy Club in Great Gorge, New Jersey, in July 1980, Saad, who by then was known as “Miracle Matthew” for his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, somehow survived a furious eighth round where the hard-charging Lopez landed 20 unanswered punches. Saad inexplicably survived, and went on to score a 14th round TKO.

“He got his second wind and I didn’t,” said Lopez, who still appears lean and fit at 63 years old.

The rematch was heralded as the Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine, and it will never be forgotten by anyone who witnessed to it. The fact is Lopez was an offensive whirlwind who continually threw punches and was never in a dull fight. 

Between 1972 and 1984, he compiled a record of 61-15 (39 KOs) against the likes of such championship caliber opponents as John Conteh, Victor Galindez, Michael Spinks, Marvin Johnson, and Rossman, who he stopped in the sixth round in New York in 1978.

Despite competing against those notables, and many others, it is he and Saad whose names are as indelibly linked to boxing lore as Zale and Graziano, Ali and Frazier, and Gatti and Ward.

“We mixed it up for 25 rounds, and we made history,” said Lopez. “Matthew was a great man, and we made many memories together. People remember me because of him. When I heard he passed, I had to be here. I’m here because I have to be here.”

What is most amazing about Lopez is the humility and subtle dignity in which he carries himself. Moreover, he was known for taking a lot of punishment, but the fact is he took far less than people realize. He was a master at rolling with the punches, which is why mythical boxing legend Archie Moore, who possessed a doctorate in defense, considered him his favorite fighter. 

“I didn’t just block punches with my arms,” explained Lopez. “I rolled with everything, and got hit solidly a lot less than people think. It might have looked like I was taking a lot of punches, but I rolled with most of them.”

“A lot of people don’t realize just how talented Yaqui was,” said Beatrice Lopez, his wife of more than 40 years. “He was like a ballet dancer in the ring. People remember all the blood, but that was because his skin cut so easily. He looked like he was hit hard, but he rolled with most of the punches and they slid across his neck. He slipped a lot more punches than he took, against many great fighters at their peaks. All you have to do is listen to him today to see that he didn’t take too many beatings.”

In the early 2000s, Beatrice’s father, Jack Cruz, who was Lopez’s lifelong trainer and manager, described Lopez as “brilliant” and said he could have easily been a doctor if able to further his education as a youngster.

“As smart as he is now, imagine if he never took any punches,” said Cruz. “He could have done anything with his life if he had the opportunity.”

Prior to the funeral services, Lopez and Rossman were recounting memories outside of the Eton Tabernacle Baptist Church. Before and after their televised bout, there was talk that Lopez had made anti-Semitic comments toward Rossman, whose father was Italian but had taken his mother’s maiden name to appeal to Jewish fans.

Because Lopez had a reputation for being such a gentleman who never trash-talked his opponents, he was asked about the verbal dustup. Lopez laughed heartily and explained that he had arrived in New York with his usual team, which included his manager and father-in-law Jack Cruz, cut man extraordinaire Hank Pericle, former featherweight Benny Casing and several of Casing’s countrymen from the Philippines.

Lopez said that someone in the Rossman entourage referred to his team as “monkeys” and Lopez, or a member of his team, responded with the comment. “It was nothing,” said Lopez. “Just talk, nothing more. Before a fight people say things. They said something, so we said something back. That was it.”   

As fierce as Lopez was in the ring, it is quickly apparent that there is not a mean bone in his body. Born in Mexico, his family moved to California’s Central Valley to find employment as migrant workers. Lopez’s dreams of being a bullfighter were scuttled when his leg was gorged by a bull when he was 12. He met Beatrice, a lovely woman who everyone calls Beno, and they have been together since they were teenagers. 

Jack Cruz, a colorful raconteur who was half Irish, was a small-time boxing promoter. When he took Lopez to his first amateur fight, which was held on an Indian reservation, someone asked Cruz what tribe Lopez was from. The first word that came to the quick-thinking Cruz’s mind was “Yaqui” and the moniker that lasts to this day was spawned. 

Lopez, Cruz and Pericle were together from the beginning to the end. They traveled the world, with Lopez fighting throughout the United States, as well as in Italy, Denmark and Australia. When they came home, they all lived within jabbing distance of each other. In fact, Pericle, a World War II Purple Heart recipient, turned 89 on the day of Saad’s funeral and is still in regular contact with Lopez.

A decade ago, when Cruz was battling congestive heart failure, Lopez made daily visits to his house to play dominoes, feed and walk the dog, take him to the bathroom, and give him medical injections.

“I don’t know what I did to deserve him,” Cruz wrote shortly before his death in 2005. “Yaqui is my angel in disguise.”

A few years later, when Lopez was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in California, he seemed genuinely perplexed by all the hoopla he garnered. “I can’t believe I’m going to be in there with the big guys,” he said.

When asked then if he harbored any disappointment about not being able to finish Saad off in their second bout, Lopez eloquently and sensitively recounted Saad’s troubled childhood, which included him being abandoned by his family on a Philadelphia street corner.

“After all he’s been through, maybe God thought it was more important for him to have the title,” said Lopez.

These days Lopez still seems somewhat perplexed by how fondly he is remembered. The pastor at Saad’s funeral service referred to him at least five times. Members of the public, as well as scores of ex-fighters clamored around him before and after the services. He was the only boxer the Philadelphia television station interviewed for their report.

Lopez spoke privately about how blessed he feels to be alive and living a fulfilling life despite having a back injury and arthritis that brings him a good deal of daily discomfort. In 2011 he opened the Fat City Boxing Club in Stockton, and not surprisingly was shocked at all of the positive publicity it generated.

“I still can’t believe they remember me,” he told Bob Highfill, the sports editor of the Stockton Record at the time.

Lopez will be remembered for a long time to come, not only by boxing people but also for the goodwill, humanitarianism and decency he has displayed throughout his life. His beloved mother Raquel passed away at 84 in March, but her spirit lives on in Yaqui and Beno’s seven-year-old granddaughter Gabriela, who was born with cerebral palsy and adopted by them when she was three-months-old.

“The nurses used to come and help her, but I told my wife to tell them not to come anymore,” said Lopez. “Many doctors said she would never walk, but I massaged her legs, feet and arms every day and proved them wrong. God helped me teach Gabriela to walk and run.”

As tears welled up in his eyes, he talked about taking Gabriela to the Fat City gym with him, as well as to see horses and on trips to the park. A few weeks prior to Saad’s funeral, Gabriela walked and ran a mile with her grandfather, who she someday will know as one of the most fan friendly fighters of any era and perhaps the most popular light heavyweight in history to never win a world title.

“Everything is possible,” proclaimed Lopez as he fought back the tears of a man’s man and a true champion in every sense of the word and by any standard of measure.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Matthew Saad Muhammad v Yaqui Lopez I

1980 FOTY Matthew Saad Muhammad vs. Yaqui López II

Yaqui Lopez vs Mike Rossman

Victor Galindez vs Yaqui Lopez

Michael Spinks vs Yaqui Lopez

John Conteh UD15 Yaqui Lopez

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  1. Martin Walsh 06:37am, 04/14/2018

    Would have been champ in many eras. Just one small point Conteh’s victory over him was reasonably comfortable. There was no controversy over the decision. Conteh’s peak was a short one because of his lifestyle, but this fight was in that period.

  2. Patrick Browne 10:48am, 09/12/2014

    Matthew Saad Muhammad was one of the TRUE GREATS in boxing history. He came along at a time when the light heavyweight division was at it’s absolute peak..there were SO many talented fighters in that division then!
    The one problem I have with the article is when the writer compares the truly GREAT fights between Muhammad and Lopez with Gatti-Ward. Gatti vs Ward (overrated) looked like AMATEURS compared to Muhammad and Lopez.

  3. Tex Hassler 03:26pm, 06/22/2014

    I watched many of Yaqui’s fights on TV. He fought the best or the best in his era and always gave a good account of himself. Rolling with punches and slipping punches is just about a lost art. Like Mike Silver said, “Such a beautiful tribute.” Fine article about a great fighter.

  4. Pete The Sneak 02:20pm, 06/22/2014

    “a true champion in every sense of the word and by any standard of measure.”.......Great Article Mr.Mladinich on Yaqui Lopez…but if you would have just written the above quote and just put Yaqui’s name in front of it, that would have captured the essence entirely…Peace.

  5. Eric 07:41am, 06/20/2014

    That era was full of great fights in the 175lb division. Saad and Lopez had great fights with each other and with other fighters as well. Saad vs. Marvin Johnson I & II are just as entertaining as the his fights with Lopez. Galindez had a couple of excellent fights with Kates and Rossman. The second Galindez fight with Rossman was entertaining even though it was stopped due to Rossman’s injured hand. Win, lose, or draw, every fight that Marvin Johnson fought seemed entertaining.

  6. FrankinDallas 08:00pm, 06/19/2014

    All those videos showed great, great fights. It’s good to hear
    that Lopez has all his faculties. Thanks for the report.

  7. peter 02:48pm, 06/19/2014

    Heavyweight writer Robert Mladinich steps back into the Boxing.com ring and makes a successful comeback by punching out another knockout human-interest story. Thanks.  Loved it.

  8. Jan Swart 11:54am, 06/19/2014

    Good to read that Richie Kates is still around. Won’t ever forget his two bouts in SA, one a points win over Pierre Fourie and the other a brave, brave losing stand against Victor Galindez. Classy guy, and smooth as butter in the ring.

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:46am, 06/19/2014

    Which reminds me….the NFL teams have play books (actually tomes) and the NBA has play sheets or pamphlets as it were.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:33am, 06/19/2014

    Great write up…..Yaqui is clearly a high class intelligent human being…..not unlike so many other fighters….pound for pound…..boxing outstrips the NBA with all of it’s “college grads” in that regard….not too many Bobby Czyzs there. Jerry Dunphy deferring to Cus D’Amato as they are doing commentary in the Lopez/Rossman bout….doesn’t get any better than that either.

  11. ch. 06:31am, 06/19/2014

    Yaqui Lopez is as classy and proud a man as there is. A terrific fighter, his first match with Matt Franklin had almost the exact scenario as #2. Yaqui hurt Matt badly in round eight and belabored him on the ropes with dozens of blows that Franklin somehow survived as Yaqui became arm weary and Matt finally rolled out of the corner and went on the attack. Everybody in the Spectrum were out of their seats going wild. What a night and what a fight.
    Thanks Robert M. for rekindling the memories.

  12. Eric 05:56am, 06/19/2014

    Oops. I always thought Yaqui was an Indian. Never knew that was made up. My bad. I only skimmed through the article the first time.

  13. Eric 05:47am, 06/19/2014

    The boxing HOF should’ve been placed in Philadelphia. If any city deserves a boxing HOF it should be Philadelphia.

  14. Eric 05:16am, 06/19/2014

    Great fighter, certainly one of the best to never win a world title. Many thought he deserved the title against Conteh, and at least one of his fights against Galindez, if not both. He came so agonizingly close. And if Lopez countered Rossman’s crude remark about Mexicans with a comeback of his own, so what. Isn’t Yaqui an Indian anyhow?  Dish it out, you better be able to take it. Much respect to Yaqui. Class act and a class fighter.

  15. Clarence George 04:06am, 06/19/2014

    Outstanding piece of work.  Smooth like Nat King Cole is smooth.

  16. Norm Marcus 03:27am, 06/19/2014

    Great story on Lopez.  Very interesting take on Rossman/Lopez bout too.
    My last piece was on Mike Rossman, who was a very complicated character. Your story really helped smooth out that part of the 1970s.
    I really enjoyed it.

  17. Mike Silver 10:00pm, 06/18/2014

    Not all champions wear a belt, and not all who wear a belt are champions. Yaqui is one of boxing’s treasures. He personifies all that is good about this sport. Thanks for writing such a beautiful tribute.

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