By: Hans Themistode
The key to a successful life is hard work.
No one exemplified a better work ethic than the newly minted New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Nelson Cuevas.
Growing up in New York, Nelson Cuevas, like many other kids, had big dreams.
Thoughts of seeing his name in flashing lights was all he dreamt of. Unlike many kids whose goals remain dreams, Cuevas turned his into a reality.
“ I loved boxing growing up. In 1959 I officially started my relationship with it. I was a pretty good fighter growing up. In 1962, I was a champion in a Spanish Club and had a lot of success. For me it was time for me to go to the next level and turn pro. Once I got there, things were a lot more difficult. I had a pretty rocky career winning 4 fights, losing 4 and settling for 2 draws. My career ended shortly after that due to the cuts that I had and so many injuries. Once I decided to stop boxing, I was pretty much done with the sport, but my good friend Cus D’Amato made sure that I kept going.”
Life is funny isn’t it? Just when you think one door closes, an abundance of other ones open in its place. While Cuevas decided to follow the advice of his close D’Amato, ironically enough, the conversation that they had was never even supposed to take place. In fact, meeting D’Amato was pure luck, but Cuevas is appreciative of it nonetheless.
“If it wasn’t for Cus I wouldn’t have kept going in boxing, but even more importantly, if I never got lost one day on my way home, I would have never even met him.”
Yes, you heard that right. The Hall of Fame career in which Cuevas was able to create came about by simply getting lost on his way home.”
“I had just moved into a new neighborhood in New York and one day I was on my way home but since I was still new to the area, I ended up getting lost. I wound up at a place called Gramercy gym on April 17th, 1959. I was talking to Cus outside and he invited me inside to come upstairs to the gym. I got a chance to see him work with a lot of fighters. Cus encouraged me to keep in the sport of boxing, he told me about so many other things I could do and I’m happy I listened to him. He treated me so well from the very first day that I met him. He was like my father. Cus was so kind, he hugged everybody and treated everybody well.”
With the help of Cus, Cuevas ventured into a new career. One that involved managing, training and becoming a cut man for fighters.
Cuevas worked with some of the most notable fighters in boxing history including perennial Heavyweight contender Earnie Shavers and two weight world champion Buddy McGirt. In addition to working with many great fighters, Cuevas also developed a close relationship with Muhammad Ali.
“Ali was a better person than a fighter. He always joked around with me. He was such a good man both inside and outside of the ring. Ali was a showman. He loved putting on a great performance for his fans.”
The career of Ali will always be remembered, but he wasn’t the only famous boxer in his family. His daughter, Laila, would go on to leave her own mark in the sport of boxing. Retiring undefeated after 24 fights.
It is almost impossible to fathom a fighter who was more popular than her father, but to Cuevas, Laila was able to do just that. Not only did she have the skills of her father, but she also had the good looks in which aided in making him an icon.
“His daughter was great, she was a very beautiful person and a great fighter. She was the best female fighter ever. She was like her father, in some instances she was more popular than her father which I know is hard to believe but it was true. She got so much attention because she was the daughter of the great Muhammad Ali but she made him proud with her great career. There are so many great female fighters today but I don’t think any of them would have beaten her.”
Amazing isn’t it? For many of us, just watching Ali fight on tape seems like a privilege but Cuevas was able to be in their presence many times over the years.
Stories with the Ali family are only the beginning for Cuevas. He has forged relationships with just about every significant fighter that boxing has seen in the past 60 years. The newly minted Hall of Fame inductee could sit down for hours and tell you stories about some of the best boxers ever, but there is one fighter in particular in which Cuevas perks up whenever he speaks of him. That would be none other than former Heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson.
Before Tyson became the youngest Heavyweight champion in history. Before he knocked out opponent after opponent and before he was referred to as the baddest man on the planet. Cuevas knew him simply as as the quiet chubby kid who could fight.
“I knew Tyson since he was 13 years old. When I first met him, Cus told me that he was going to be a world champion. I wasn’t sure if he had what it took because he was so short and chubby. He was also just a shy and nice kid. In my head I thought, this kid is just way too nice to really have that killer instinct to become a champion but man was I wrong. The first time that I saw him fight in my gym is when I knew he was special. He was so nice. You would think he was a sissy but when he fought, oh my gosh. He would destroy people. I remember Mike knocking out some kid that was 18 and he was 14 years old at the time so he was always just an amazing fighter. I used to advise him and he used to work out in my gym. Most of his amateur fights used to happen in my gym and he would put on a show every single time.”
Many fighters such as Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather are viewed as polarizing figures. Not to Cuevas. He has gotten a chance to know both fighters outside of the ring over the years, and heaps praise on not just their fighting abilities, but also on their characters.
“They were great guys. People looked at them sometimes like they were bad people but they did all of that for publicity, they are great people.”
With the extensive history Cuevas has with a litany of fighters, the question of just who was the best fighter he believes has ever graced the ring is an easy one.
“ I worked with a lot of great fighters. To me, Tyson was beyond great and but the two best that I’ve seen was Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather. Those two stand out the most to me.”
With so many memories tucked away, Cuevas now prepares himself for his November 14th NJ boxing Hall of Fame induction. It would seem almost impossible for Cuevas to pinpoint what he is most proud of right? After all, he did work with multiple world champions and has traveled the world. He also volunteers at Mendez Boxing in New York City. Cuevas is loved and respected like no other once he steps foot inside of that gym. Still, if you ask Cuevas what he is most proud of he won’t talk to you about the world champions he has worked with, nor will he tell you that traveling the world with his fighters was what he was most proud of over a 60 year career. Instead, the points to his upbringing and the young children he has aided along the way.
“I’m very proud of what I accomplished because I grew up by myself. Many people grow up having help but I didn’t. I became a man at 11 years old. I have worked with so many kids and helped them get off the streets and I am very proud of that.”
The handwork of Cuevas will come full circle come November 14th. The legacy he has created has impacted so many lives around the world and it will now live on forever in the NJ boxing Hall of Fame.