Although Alvaro “Yaqui” Lopez of Stockton, California, never won a world title, he was one of the most popular fighters of the late seventies and early eighties.
Five times he fought for the light heavyweight title, and five times he came up short. While losing to such champions as Mathew Saad Muhammad (twice), Victor Galindez (twice), and John Conteh is nothing to be ashamed of, all of those fights were close enough to have gone either way.
“Hell, Yaqui arguably won three of them,” quipped veteran referee Marty Sammon, who officiated several of Lopez’s fights. Like everyone else who ever saw Lopez fight, he will forever be a fan.
The amazingly humble Lopez says he was “surprised” when he learned a few months ago that he would be inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame at its 28th Annual Banquet of Champions on Saturday, October 13, at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario, California.
Also scheduled to be inducted that day are boxers Larry Holmes, Ricardo Lopez, Efren Torres, and Gerald McClellan.
In the Expanded Category, trainer George Benton, Showtime announcer Steve Albert, and esteemed referee Joe Cortez will be honored, while Dick Sadler, Lily Rodriguez and Jose Vasquez Della Torre will be inducted in the Posthumous Category.
“I still can’t believe it,” said the 56-year-old Lopez, whose mental faculties are incredibly sharp for someone renowned for taking so many punches against the best fighters of an especially tough era.
“I never expected to be in there with all the big guys.”
“Yaqui keeps saying this is better than winning a title,” said his wife Beatrice, who is known as Beno, and says scores of relatives are making the trip to the ceremony from all over the country.
“We went to the event last year and Yaqui was just mobbed by fans wanting his autograph. He’s been retired a long time, but he finally feels like he’s going out on top.”
Campaigning from 1972-84, Lopez, a native of Mexico whose early ambitions were to be a bullfighter until his right leg was gored by a bull at the age of 12, compiled a 63-15 (40 KOS) record against a veritable who’s who of champions and contenders.
Besides the aforementioned champions, Lopez tangled with Michael Spinks, Mike Rossman, S.T. Gordon and Carlos DeLeon. The legendary Archie Moore often described Lopez as his favorite fighter of all time.
Although Lopez, who still looks to be in fighting trim, is afflicted with arthritis in various parts of his body, he looks back on his career with great fondness. Amazingly, he seems genuinely perplexed by all the hoopla surrounding his induction.
As joyous as Lopez is over it, his heart will be heavy because his three best buddies will not be in attendance. His father-in-law, Jack R. Cruz, who was his manager for his entire amateur and pro career, passed away in December 2005.
Hank Pericle, who served as his second, is now well into his eighties and too ill to attend. His other key assistant, former fighter Benny Casing, is recovering from a heart attack.
“I bet Jack is on top (in heaven) and he’s very happy about this,” said Lopez. “He always said I would get called. He always told me that would be the greatest ending to my career.”
“My dad said this would be the best finale,” reiterated Beno Lopez. “He loved Yaqui and Yaqui loved him. Boy, were they close.”
Lopez’s family immigrated to Stockton, which is located in California’s Central Valley, when he was a youngster. He and Beno met as teenagers and have been together ever since.
At the time, Jack Cruz was a small-time boxing promoter who started Lopez out in smokers on Indian reservations. During one fight, Cruz was asked what tribe the gangly, 6’2” Lopez was representing.
“Yaqui,” was the first word that came to the colorful Cruz’s mind. The moniker has lasted to this day.
About four years ago, I visited Cruz’s and Lopez’s homes, which were across the street from each other. They, as well as Pericle and Casing, regaled me for hours with tales from their boxing travels and travails. As wonderful of a manager and father-in-law as Cruz was, those skills didn’t hold a candle to his storytelling acumen.
He told me about watching a young George Foreman, who was fresh out of the 1968 Olympics, “putting his fist through the heavy bag” at an Oakland gym.
He told me about an early pro opponent named Van Sahib, who Cruz described as being “built like a gorilla with hair all over his body.” Knowing that he was a rusher, Cruz advised Lopez to sidestep him and knock him out. It was solid advice that worked to a tee.
Lopez was never in a bad fight, but none was better than his rematch with Saad Muhammad, which is still considered one of the greatest title fights of all time.
In the astounding eighth round, Lopez hit Saad Muhammad, who held the WBC crown, with 20 unanswered punches. He looked well on his way to being crowned the new champion.
Somehow, Saad Muhammad managed to stay on his feet and came back to stop Lopez in the 14th round. RING magazine called it the 1980 Fight of Year.
“He got his second wind and I didn’t,” said Lopez.
In the days leading up to his induction, however, Lopez was a bit more philosophical. He talked about Saad Muhammad’s troubled childhood, and recounted the well-publicized tale about how Saad had been abandoned by his mother on a Philadelphia street corner when he was a small child.
“After all he’s been through, maybe God thought it was more important for him to have the title,” said Lopez.
It is that inherent kindness and thoughtfulness that makes Lopez such a walking contradiction. As fierce as he was in the ring, there is not a mean bone in his body.
After my visit to Stockton, Cruz, who had congestive heart failure, was getting weaker by the day. He wrote me several letters to tell me how lucky he was to have Lopez as a son-in-law. On a daily basis, Yaqui would come to visit, play dominoes, walk him to the bathroom, and give him medical injections.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve him,” Cruz wrote me. “Yaqui is my angel in disguise.”
When Cruz died, a little bit of Lopez died with him. The sadness was palpable, but Lopez being the fighter that he is forged on. On Saturday he knows that Cruz will somehow be sharing his big day with him.
Even though he won’t be there in person, Lopez will hear his uproarious laugh and feel the love and trust that bound them together for nearly 40 years.
“He always told me he would probably be dead when this happened (the induction),” said Lopez. “But he also said that he would be with me when it did. He knew a lot about boxing and a lot about life. He taught me to roll with the punches in the ring and with the punches in life. I took a lot less punches than people realize.”
He talked about how he and Cruz had traveled the globe, only to come up short in a lot of fights they could have or should have won. All of that, however, was now inconsequential to Lopez who was going to cherish every second of his induction, as well as all the anticipation leading up to it.
“I feel like I just won the championship of the world,” said Lopez. “I still can’t believe people remember me. I really want to thank all the members for their vote, and all my fans for not forgetting me.”
Who will win? Wladimir Klitschko or Tyson Fury?