Jose Legra: An Exemplary European
By Ted Spoon - Some fighters use references to help buffer their lobby. For Thailand’s Khaosai Galaxy it was ‘Mini Tyson’. A decade prior somebody went by ‘Pocket Cassius Clay’.
Article posted on 01.06.2012
Jose Legra didn’t require the tag, not historically anyway. Few would contend that the swish featherweight was in the same strata as ‘The Greatest’, but with a journey that included altercations with Alexis Arguello, Eder Jofre, Vincente Saldivar, Howard Winstone and Johnny Famechon he was no less willing than that heavyweight who is partly worshiped for ducking nobody..
And surely, by any standard, just 11 loses in 148 fights isn’t half bad.
Born n’ bred in Cuban, Legra found himself in the same basket as Jose Napoles when Fidel Castro put a lid on professional boxing. Different to the man with the buttered moves he left Mexico and ended up in Spain where he eventually obtained citizenship. Once there his presence was not unlike that of the Inquisition, chastising opponent after opponent.
The majority of his key bouts he lost, but aside from a disastrous finale against a young Alexis Arguello (more a notable than important instance) Legra gave everyone trouble and each attendee their money’s worth. When Britain’s Howard Winstone barely salvaged a decision in Blackpool it was Jose who won the acclaim of a thousand foreigners.
Born in Baracoa during the spring of 1943 (Cuba’s easternmost city) Legra became part of a nation already proud in the art of trading blows. Kid Chocolate was, and forever shall be, treated like a god on those sultry, hurricane-prone shores, but there was a middleweight dubbed Kid Tunero who was three months from beating Holman Williams. The year prior he had beaten Ezzard Charles.
Tunero was one of those poisonous globetrotters who make it their job to make others hell. Once retired, little did the 38 year old veteran know he would go onto manage our then 5 year old protagonist.
Before the revolution the only way to reach Baracoa was via boat which didn’t improve Jose’s prospects which were fair game to end up supporting the banana and coconut industries. Boxing pleasantly intervened, and come his 17th year Legra had his first pro bout.
Taking place in Havana he travelled 540 miles west from home to begin punching for peanuts. Jose stayed in Cuba for as long as the government would permit and then fled to Mexico where he suffered a knockout defeat for his troubles. He briefly came back to drop a decision before returning to Mexico for the best part of two years.
A nice little run ended with another one of those insignificant defeats which youth is able to digest. It was time for a change however, and the Spanish capital of Madrid was the top choice.
Hardly a random move, Legra had come to find his master.
Tunero had been living in Barcelona; forced to leave Cuba when the prospect of boxing (and thus coaching) vanished. There was plenty to admire in Legra, not to mention his handsome, Broadway features; the connection with Muhammad worked on more than one level.
It made too much sense for them not to join forces, and there was no messing about. 19 bouts were neatly condensed into 1964. A single draw, later avenged, prevented a flawless year. Performing in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao and Tenerife, Legra gave the impression of a man who left himself just enough time between travels to jump in and out of the ring.
In the summer of ’65 Jose’s Spanish rally was interrupted with a trip to Merry Old England. The reason was Howard Winstone.
Wales determined boxer was one contest short of commencing his famous trilogy with Vincente Saldivar and so a stress-free encounter was preferred. After ten rounds blood trickled from his left eye and nothing was certain before the score was given.
Winstone kept his date with the champion, barely. Had it been judged on aesthetics Legra would have won hands down as he managed to ‘out-jap’ the jabber.
Possessing of a slim body, the majority of Legra consisted of limbs with long arms and a pair of amazingly long legs. It was a little jerkier but nonetheless a gliding type of movement reminiscent of Ali. His casual guard urged opponents to press the attack so he could flick the left. Particularly aggressive fighters found out how nauseating it was to catch him.
Back in Madrid, the one thing he lacked (a concussive blow) he started to develop.
So close yet so far, Jose could have taken defeat very personally, that he was never good enough; “It’s easy to be negative” as Buster Douglas would remind us. Instead he intensified his work ethic, appearing a whopping 23 times in ’66. Fighting with added venom, 14 of those bouts were terminated before the distance.
The dictatorship over Spain was back on, and nobody was safe. In ’67 Frances Yves Desmarets lost his European title in less than three rounds. Legra had little use for the strap and gave it up, starting ’68 with back-to-back victories over Ernesto Miranda.
Back in England Winstone had magically found himself in possession of the 126lbs WBC title, and 11,000 Welshman were keen to witness their man defend it with punctuation.
“Fortunately for Winstone” it was originally asserted about Legra’s punches, that they “lacked weight and authority.” Now stronger at 25, he let go with a right hand and down went Howard. Up he got but a successive barrage put him down for a second time. Vertical again, there would be no more knockdowns, but the champions left eye became swollen. And then it shut.
Making sure only to rise and stretch at the bell, Legra was meticulous in his conduct. Nothing was going to upset an almost certain victory which materialised in the fifth when referee Harry Gibbs waved it off.
There had been talk of Legra having developed into a superior fighter. The result implied ‘yes’.
The chances of Australia’s Johnny Famechon taking his title were 3-1 against and Legra stupidly agreed. Dropping his hands and refusing to be seated in between rounds, Jose taunted his opponent but began to feel the pace when Famechon wouldn’t budge. Having never been fifteen rounds the Cuban started to tire, allowing the big underdog to scoop the final heats.
Disappointingly, Legra fell from the podium.
A fractured right thumb wasn’t a bad excuse, and being awarded only three rounds was not very judicious, but a loss was as far away from the script as Clay beating Liston once was.
Meanwhile Vincente Saldivar had gotten restless in retirement and decided to make Legra his first target. Dumped in the third, it looked mighty promising for Jose as he stood over the revered Mexican. As the fight wore on a familiar story retold itself as Legra watched his lead deteriorate with each round.
It was a little too much humility to bear inside of a year, and so back he went to Spain.
The European title was snatched off Italy’s Tommaso Gali in 1970. It wasn’t quiet the clean slate of old, but within two years five defences were made.
Having outlasting all of his contemporaries Legra was presented with the opportunity to reclaim the WBC title against Clemente Sanchez. The Mexican had blasted Saldivar’s conqueror in Kuniki Shibata, but he was to inherit some of that bad luck.
Unable to make the weight, Sanchez lost his championship on the scales. An ‘over-the-weight’ match went ahead anyway in which Legra floored his opponent an incredible 11 times; twice in the 1st round, thrice in the 2nd, once in the 6th, four times in the 9th and once in the 10th where it was stopped. As if God himself had beef with the ex-champion, Clemente was charged $400 for refusing to shave his beard.
The two-time champion would have been aware of Eder Jofre’s ambitious comeback. Seven years his junior and a good four inches taller he happily trekked to Brasil for defence #1.
Surrounded by his adoring fans, the Samba idol looked dwarfed next to spindly Jose. Stabbing out his left and making spacious circles, the champion appeared as an elusive mountain, but Jofre had not lost that tight defence and fought in bursts appropriate for his 37 years. It was both entertaining and competitive, but when Eder put together some nice rallies in the closing moments Legra probably sensed a reoccurring theme.
A majority decision gave Jofre’s return the thumbs up. Jose gave himself another ticket back home.
The meandering Cuba was simply not cut out for the big stage, certainly not on a full-time basis. Still onward he went, not completely eradicated of that once strong desire which now flickered within like pocket-sized embers.
He wound up in Nicaragua facing an equally spindly fellow who hit like a welterweight. Within one round Legra was insensible, giving not the slightest hint of the fighter he had been.
In that humane moment which follows, when the fallen is tended to like some wounded geriatric, Alexis Arguello may have contemplated what sort of attitude was needed to reach the top.
When your 148th outing takes place 5182 miles away from home, it’s a good indicator.
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