I went to the official opening of the Joseph “Joey” Lopes Park in West Sacramento last Friday. A couple of hundred people attended the upbeat ceremony to celebrate the years-long effort to create a 4-acre park off West Capitol Avenue and to honor a hometown boxer who achieved national recognition when boxing was riding high in the 1950s.
“I remember seeing him fight on black-and-white television,” said Lou Campos, a racquetball player at my athletic club and a mainstay of the Legends of Boxing youth program in West Sacramento. “He was the best fighter to come out of West Sac and fought for the lightweight title.”
From the accounts of speakers at the ceremony, Lopes stirred up excitement in Sacramento sports circles in the 1950s and early 1960s, back when pro sports were mostly a distant dream both locally and in the S.F. Bay area. Big crowds would fill Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium to watch Lopes as he fought his up through the lightweight rankings.
The television market was booming, and the “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports” spurred boxing’s popularity in an era when Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore and Floyd Patterson were big names.
In 1955, the up-and-coming Lopes shocked the boxing world when he won a unanimous decision over Sandy Saddler in a non-title fight at Memorial Auditorium. Saddler won the world featherweight title two times and was best known for four brawls in New York City against Willie Pep, rated the No. 1 featherweight in the 20th century by the Associated Press.
In August 1957, Lopes staked his claim to the big time when he went to Chicago for a non-title bout against lightweight champion Joe Brown. Lopes fought Brown to a draw and was rewarded with a title shot in December. The hard-fought battle, which was televised nationally, ended in the 11th round. Here’s an account by United Press:
Joe Brown put all his power in a few punches tonight to retain his world lightweight championship with a TKO victory over Joey Lopes at 1:50 of the 11th round of their scheduled 15 round title bout. Brown was hard pressed to stave off the aggressive tactics of Lopes. But it seemed that he was holding his power, awaiting an opening, and when it came he had the know-how, in his 92nd pro fight, to finish up the brawl. Lopes was knocked to the canvas for the first time in his 58 fight career, not once, but three times, and mercifully, he wound up on his feet tonight when referee Joey White stepped between the fighters to end his punishment.
Despite the prestige of a title fight, Lopes didn’t rake in big bucks. His share of the gate and TV money came to $9,920 while Brown received $15,840, according to stats from Boxrec.com.
Lopes continued his pro boxing career, which began in 1949, until 1963. His record, according to Boxrec.com, was 56 wins, with 22 knockouts, 26 losses, and six draws.
Lopes remained in West Sacramento, where his extended family, from the Cape Verde islands, had put down roots before World War I. He helped train Sacramento contender Pete Ranzany and worked in his corner when Ranzany fought for the world welterweight title in 1978 against title holder Jose “Pipino” Cuevas. Ranzany was knocked out in the second round before a crowd of 17,000 people at Hughes Stadium.
Active in the community, Lopes served as president and vice president of the West Sacramento Sanitary District, was a member of the West Sacramento Optimist Club and helped organize the local Babe Ruth Baseball League. He died in 1997 at age 66.
As a symbol of life’s full circle, the park, parallel to Sycamore Avenue, from West Capitol Avenue south to Evergreen Avenue, is very close to the neighborhood where Lopes was raised as a boy in the Great Depression.