Dope on the Ropes
Boxing photographer George Kalinsky asked Angelo Dundee before Muhammad Ali’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” match with George Foreman, “Why don’t you try something like that? Sort of a dope on the ropes, letting Foreman swing away but, like in the picture, hit nothing but air.” Dundee and Ali adopted the strategy, and in effectively applying it, made use of a term coined by John Condon as the “rope-a-dope”. Had Kalinsky been aware of lightweight/light-welterweight Nicolino Locche, he may have realized that the “rope-a-dope” had been in practice long before 1974.
Locche may have well utilized this strategy greater than any pugilist that came before or after. He was as comfortable leaning against the ropes as most people are popping a squat on their living room sofa. He reveled in the idea and practice of mocking a man foolish enough to pour on the aggression and let fly with gloved barrages, all while he made those ring strings his temporary home. Some of the best men of the day ripped, slashed, and tore into the Argentinian with honey badger-esque ferocity; but Locche was Whac-A-Mole incarnate, and he hit back. Oftentimes the languid looking Locche would lay down the welcome mat to would-be ring generals by backing himself up. This proposition was all too tempting to reject for the overwhelming majority of foes, but no matter who initiated, the result was nearly always the same.
Carlos Cappella, who was reported at the time as 28-6-2 (20 KO’s), experienced this first-hand. Locche did little more than play defense until the 7th round, where “Nicolino backed to the ropes, and let Cappella punch away, while Nicolino bobbed, weaved and ducked, while avoiding every incoming punch.” The same report later stated that “Cappella tried to make the fight, but missed with nearly every punch he threw,” eventually tiring because of it.
In a bout with Brazilian Sebastian Nascimento, then ranked 10th in the world by The Ring magazine, Locche led comfortably through twelve rounds for Nascimento’s South American Lightweight Championship, allowing but “a ‘single’ measly hard punch on the elusive challenger.”
In the last two segments, “Locche simply backed into the ropes, and let Sebastiao punch away, as Nicolino used his tight-shell defense to block or avoid nearly every punch the Brazilian could fire.”
Embarrassment wasn’t confined to the outer reaches of the squared circle, however. Nicolino had little issue performing similar acts of fistic defiance in the center of the ring, as the 15th round of his first bout with Cervantes aptly highlights. Locche, well in front on the scorecards against one of the greatest 140-pounds ever, dismissed any notion of danger by standing in range of the Colombian’s potent but exhausted jab, and made good use of his nickname, “El Intocable” (“The Untouchable”), by slipping shots with uncanny ease. At one point Locche looked to handcuff himself, putting both hands behind his back.
A similar fate had befallen Joe Brown, who battled Locche in August of 1963, in Buenos Aires. In front of a crowd of nearly 35,000, the hometown fighter “put on a fantastic show and out-slicked former World Lightweight Champion Joe ‘Old Bones’ Brown over 10 rounds. Locche easily handled the durable veteran during in-close exchanges, and surprisingly out-boxed Brown from the outside.”
But what better example can be used of Locche’s innate capacity to frustrate those who opposed him then when he snatched the light-welterweight crown from Takeshi Fuji, a pugnacious battler who threw everything with ill-intent. The Japanese pugilist spent the better part of nine rounds looking like rapper 50 Cent trying to hit the catcher’s mitt during the ceremonial first pitch at a Mets game. The third round was particularly telling. Fuji’s forceful blows whizzed past Locche with the utmost regularity; so much so that he stumbled on one occasion and fell to the canvass on another. The following rounds proceeded in much the same manner, only the Argentinian’s contortionist moves weren’t the only thing leaving a lasting imprint. Locche’s educated left hand scored often enough to close Fuji’s left eye and prompt a forfeit in the tenth. The bout was so lopsided that Locche seemed scarcely unaware that a boxing match had transpired, as a reporter approached him after the contest, inquiring his feelings on the fight. “What fight?” Locche retorted.
The defensive maestro did this all with an accompanying 50-a-day cigarette habit and was known to take the occasional puff in between rounds. In fact, many times whilst perched atop his stool, Locche’s corner would shield the act with their towel. Reason tells us that sort of nicotine routine isn’t conducive to good stamina or longevity. Of course reason also seems to indicate that a “balding, barrel-chested and thick shouldered” man who “resembled a slugger or the kind of beefy trialhorse” wouldn’t be as slick as owl grease either. But he was, and watching him in action means you can’t reason otherwise.
Unfortunately, Locche’s smoking caught up with him long after his opponents couldn’t, but he left a lasting imprint on those who saw him. Angelo Dundee, who worked with many past champions, spoke of Nicolino Locche at his Hall-of-Fame induction ceremony in 2003, stating, “I had the pleasure of watching Nicolino operate. He was slick, smart and played the ropes. He was like Willie Pep, meaning he could stand in one spot and you wouldn’t be able to hit him. He was a very smart fighter.”
Ray Arcel, another well-known trainer who was involved in the fight game from the 1910’s to the 1980’s, who saw everyone from Benny Leonard to Larry Holmes, honored Locche by proclaiming him the best defender he had ever seen.
Historian Mike Casey said of the Argentinian in his fantastic article “Wonderland: The Genius of Nicolino Locche” that, “Locche could blind an opponent with science in every way imaginable. His box of tricks was bottomless. He would bend forward from the waist, sometimes locking his gloves behind his back, stick his chin up in the air and cheekily invite uppercuts and slashing punches of despair that never struck him. The meaty, protruding head would gently tilt one way and then the other as the incoming missiles passed by and worked up a cool breeze.”
The praise, the timeless skill—it amounted to an amateur record of 122-5 and a professional one of 117-4-14, bringing his total to 239-9-14. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone post-1960 who finished with triple-digit wins and single-digit losses. You would be further troubled trying to find a more confident and clever practitioner of self-defense—such a shrewd, savvy bargainer of the fistic trade Locche was.
It made him wildly popular among the people, too, because he did it with charismatic flair and supreme confidence. It was unique and allowed him to perform in front of crowds in excess of 30,000. From maintaining conversations with ringside observers to psychological banter with his foes, they loved it; and on numerous occasions can one witness Locche’s back against the ropes, so at ease with his work that he barely makes an effort to safeguard himself, turn and gesture to someone in the stands. After victories they would let rip uproarious applause and chants of “Nicolino, Nicolino!” until Locche was saturated with affection—and they remained loyal until the end.
That end, at least to his career as a prizefighter, came in 1976. The conclusion to his life, 2005. A sad day it was, for Argentinians and boxing fans alike; but Locche left his earthly abode as a king. Not only as the king of his people, but with the crown he had snatched from Fuji in 1968. Locche’s belt had disappeared after the perfunctory victory and the WBA finally got around to sending him a new one weeks before his death. Attached to it was a letter from Gilberto Mendoza, then head of the WBA, which said:
“For us, it’s an honour to present you with this belt, which you won brilliantly. You are not only one of the great idols of Argentinian boxing, but one of the great champions in the history of world boxing. Accept our recognition through this belt. The king is not the king until he’s crowned.”
Hail King Locche. He now sits among the pantheon of defensive gods.