The CBZ Newswire

Touching Gloves with…Rafael Herrera

by on Mar.22, 2012, under Boxing News, CBZ Columnists

by Dan Hanley

Rafael Herrera hitting the speed bag.

Rafael Herrera hitting the speed bag.

Over the years, as I would rummage my addled brain over fighters of yesteryear, I would dwell on Rafael Herrera and would always think of him in terms of, ‘the Gene Tunney of the bantamweights’. Like the Fighting Marine, here was an exceptional talent who had the audacity to dethrone a beloved champion and endured life amidst the shadow of his titular predecessor, despite brandishing his own style of mayhem on the fighters of his day. With the help of Rafael’s wonderful bi-lingual wife, Leticia, we touched gloves.

DH: Rafael, tell me a little of your background as a boy.

RH: Well, I was born in Huascato, Jalisco, Mexico. We were not wealthy and with 5 boys and 3 girls in the family, things were tight.
DH: Did you have a family history in boxing?

RH: No, not at all. I had a brother who was a professional soccer player but that was it in sport. I actually wanted to become a priest, but my parents didn’t have the money to send me to school for what was required.

DH: A Priest?! Not really a close comparison. How did you enter the sport?

RH: Strictly by accident. I wandered into the gym at 17.

DH: How did you fare as an amateur?

RH: I did pretty good. I only had 23 fights, with a record of 21-2 and was National flyweight champion.

DH: The decision to turn pro at 18; was it love of the game or money?

RH: Actually it was just for fun. I didn’t think beyond it.

DH: Who was managing and training you in those days?

RH: Jesus Cuate. He was both my manager and trainer my whole career.

DH: I always knew of him as Chucho Cuate. Although I’ve been a fight fan for years I’ve never known the reference to fighters named Jesus being called Chucho.

RH: (laughing) It actually has no boxing reference. Chucho is simply a nickname for Jesus.

DH: Look at that! 40 years as a fight fan and you’d think I would have asked the question sooner.


Okay, your first three years as a pro you fought almost exclusively in the Arena Coliseo in Mexico City. Was this a top of the line arena?

RH: Oh, yes! The Arena Coliseo could hold about 8,000 and was very deep historically. Every great fighter in Mexico fought there.

DH: Were the crowds rough back then?

RH: I wouldn’t say rough as much as passionate. They knew their boxing and weren’t looking strictly to see a bloodbath.

DH: In ’67 you ventured north for the first time. What was it like fighting at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles?

RH: I couldn’t describe it any way other than it felt like a dream.

DH: 1968 appeared to be your breakthrough year. You stepped up in competition by beating Ronnie Jones and Memo Tellez. You then fought Lenny Brice who was on a nice winning streak. Tell me about that fight.

RH: This was a main event at the Olympic. It was a very tough fight. Very complicated. I won a decision, but I was improving. In the rematch shortly after that I knocked him out in three rounds.

DH: Around this time there was a Mexican clubfighter named Raul Herrera also fighting at bantam. I understand there was a lot of confusion at the time of who was who. Did you benefit by the confusion or did it hinder you?

RH: Oh, it definitely hurt me. Back then, while trying to get a title shot and years later when I wanted to be considered for the Hall of Fame. His poor record has followed me since.

DH: There has not been a lot written on your first fight with Chucho Castillo. We once spoke of this and you were very honest in your answer when I asked if it was stopped on a cut. Can you elaborate?

RH: This fight was for the Mexican bantamweight championship and Castillo was also the #1 contender in the world. I took this fight very seriously and thought that if I could beat Castillo then I could actually beat world champion Lionel Rose. But, there was no cut. This was the first fight that I was actually knocked out.

DH: As you began fighting more frequently in California, did you have a promotional agreement with the Olympic or Forum boxing clubs?

RH: No, we were just taking it fight by fight.

DH: I ask because you began appearing on the undercard of some very big Forum promotions. What was it like fighting on the undercard to the first Olivares-Castillo bantamweight championship fight?

RH: Unbelievable! I had never seen a crowd like that. I believe it was 18,000.

DH: Shortly after this and again on a Forum card, you beat the world-rated Famoso Gomez. Tell me about this fight.

RH: (laughing) I hit him hard and I hit him often.

DH: You and Rodolfo Martinez had careers that were running parallel to one another, except for the fact that he was gaining more notoriety with all the knockouts. Tell me about this fight for the North American bantamweight championship.

RH: Martinez was undefeated at this time, but it was not a difficult fight. I dropped him in the 2nd round and won a 12 round decision as well as the North American title.

Herrera (left) hitting Rodolfo Martinez

Herrera (left) hitting Rodolfo Martinez

DH: You were certainly benefiting by your association with the Forum. These were all high-profile wins, as was your following fights with Cesar Deciga and the avenged bout with Chucho Castillo.

RH: I was. George Parnassus, the Forum’s promoter, kept getting me these fights, but when we would ask for a title shot he kept telling us, “Oh, yeah, the next fight.” I knocked out Deciga and decisioned Castillo and was told each time, “The next fight.”

DH: In December of ’71 Ruben Olivares was defending his 118 lb. title against Jesus Pimental. I understand there was an agreement made between you and the Forum to be on standby. Could you explain?

RH: It was explained to us that Pimental suffered from allergies and that they weren’t sure if he would show up. They gave me $5,000 just to be in the arena ready to go. That was easy money, but not what I wanted. Parnassus had promised me that fight after I beat Castillo.

DH: In March of ’72 you finally received your well-earned shot at the bantamweight championship of the world. Tell me about your fight with Ruben Olivares.

RH: Well first of all, I wasn’t going to wait any longer on George Parnassus’ promises. This was not a Forum promotion. This fight took place at the El Toreo de Cuatro Caminos arena, which was a grand bullring in Mexico City. I was very sick on the original date chosen and the promoter, Yolanda Ochoa, set it back 20 days, but not until she came to my home to have a look at me. When she was convinced that I was ill she set the new date and I was ready. I was so sure and so determined going into that fight. I had a lot of respect for Ruben but I wasn’t going to be stopped and I knocked him out in eight rounds to win the title.

DH: You and Ruben were polar opposites. He was the vocal, colorful party animal and you were known to be quiet, religious and a family man. How were you received by the Mexican people?

RH: Oh, they cheered for me and were polite, but I felt the resentment for beating Ruben.

DH: A lot of boxing people, such as Mando Ramos and Jackie McCoy, stated they would never return to Panama under any circumstances after receiving what they felt was poor treatment. As champ, what did they offer to draw you down there to defend against Enrique Pinder?

RH: A little over $100,000. But we were treated well by the people and even the President of Panama held a reception in my honor. But I should have know what was coming when the President said to me, “Rafael, good luck, but Pinder will win this fight.” And I returned to Mexico without the title.

DH: After repeating your win over Ruben Olivares in late ’72, on another Forum card, you received an opportunity at the vacant WBC bantamweight title against old foe Rodolfo Martinez. First, what caused the split in the title?

RH: Rodolfo Martinez was now the #1 contender, but Enrique Pinder refused to fight him and instead defended against the much lower rated Romeo Anaya. The WBC stripped Pinder for failure to defend against his leading contender and they matched Martinez and myself for the vacant title in Monterrey.

DH: That was one helluva fight you two put on.

RH: It was brutal. I was down once and I had Martinez down four times. It was stopped in the 12th round and I was champion again.

DH: Who were you working with in the gym at this time?

RH: When I was fighting in Los Angeles I worked primarily with Danny Lopez, Bobby Chacon, Hugo Barraza and Yambito Blanco. Those were great sparring sessions.

DH: In ’73, flyweight champ Venice Borkorsor moved up to 118 and knocked out Julio Guerrero to earn a shot at the title. Tell me about that war.

RH: Ohhh! (laughing) Let’s talk about something else. Really, Borkorsor was very good but he destroyed my face with his use of the head. I dropped him in the 7th and and that was my margin of victory on a split decision. Afterward, the doctor had to cut below both my eyes to relieve the pressure.

Leticia: By the time we boarded the plane for Mexico and the discoloration set in with the swelling, passengers were simply staring. They thought he looked like a monster.

DH: Leticia, did you attend the fight?

Leticia: Oh, no! I never went to his fights. I could only listen on the radio.

DH: Rafael, the pictures of your eyes swollen shut were plastered over every boxing mag of the day. How long did it take to recover?

RH: Two months. One month for the swelling to come down and another month to recuperate fully. My eyes were so swollen I couldn’t even see to use the stairs.

DH: In May of ’74 you were scheduled to defend your title against England’s Johnny Clark. Why did this fight not take place?

RH: We were scheduled to leave for London but we then heard Clark was injured. So, we then signed for former champ Romeo Anaya, who had just lost his WBA title in South Africa. He was very strong and could hit, but I knocked him out in six rounds.

DH: Why did this fight not take place a year earlier when you were both champions?

RH: Although we had different managers, we had the same lawyer. (laughing) I think he was happy that we were all making money.

DH: Tell me about your third fight with Rodolfo Martinez in Merida.

RH: There was a lot of controversy surrounding this fight. I was dropped in the 4th round. No big deal. I got up and leaned back to the ropes but misjudged the distance and it looked like I staggered. Well, the referee then stops the fight after asking me if I was OK. This was not a 4 rounder, this was for the bantamweight championship of the world. And do you want to know who the referee was? Octavio Meyran! The same referee we had for the second fight. This fight couldn’t compare to what I did to him in Monterrey. I dropped him four times in that one before Meyran stopped it. I didn’t lose my title to Martinez. I lost my title to the referee.

DH: Your final three fights was against Famoso Gomez, Jose Luis Soto and Jose Cervantes. All world class fighters, but not in your league. Were your reflexes fading?

RH: I didn’t think so. As a matter of fact, I thought I beat Gomez. I will admit that Soto deserved the decision over me. And as for the Cervantes fight, I had him down four times and at first they gave me the decision, but then turned it into a draw. That was in Venezuela and that’s what happens when you fight in the other guy’s hometown. I called it quits after that because I was suffering from an ulcer. I fought for years with an ulcer but I finally had to have it seen to.

DH: In 1986, at the age of 41, you came back along with Ruben Olivares, Pipino Cuevas and Carlos Zarate for one fight. Was this a charity show?

RH: Yes, this was to aid the victims of the earthquake that rocked Mexico in ’85.

DH: Your opponent, Alfredo Meneses. Was this the same fighter you fought 20 years earlier?

RH: Yes it was. I beat him three times actually. Just like I beat Ruben Olivares three times.

DH: Three times?!

RH: (laughing) Ruben once brought it up to me that I beat him three times. I said, “Ruben, we only fought twice.” He said, “Yes, but I once had a dream that we fought and you even beat me in the dream.”

DH: I have an amazing group photo of champions taken at a 2009 WBC convention down in Cancun. Looking at it I see yourself, Rodolfo Martinez, Ruben Olivares, Chucho Castillo, Alfonso Zamora, Carlos Zarate, etc. I must say that was truly an amazing era of Mexican bantamweights.

RH: It really was. At any time you could look at the top ten at 118 and eight out of the ten would be from Mexico.

DH: Rafael, what have you been doing with yourself since?

RH: I did well financially from boxing but the Mexican economy hurt everyone. I owned property up in San Jose, but things kept me here. I was the boxing commissioner for Mexico for 12 years and today I am President of the Mexican commission. I oversee all fights and all National title fights.

DH: Leticia, how long have you two been married?

Leticia: 41 years. And we have two beautiful daughters as well.

DH: Last question, Rafael. Any regrets from your career? Anyone you did not meet, anything you did not accomplish?

Herrera being inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

Herrera being inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

RH: Well, I was world champion twice and I’ve been inducted in the World Boxing Hall of Fame. So, there isn’t much else I could have done. No regrets. But…I’m still waiting to hear from Canastota.

—–

Rafael Herrera’s remarkable career should be harkening his arrival to the halls of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. However, just as he did years earlier, plugging away for that first title shot, Rafael has been waiting patiently. Nevertheless, the memory of him cutting a swath through the 118 lb. chaff is indelible. And one can only find reasonable solace in his pugilistic isolation by realizing that the Priesthood’s loss was the fight fan’s gain.

See ya next round

Dan Hanley

pugnut23@yahoo.com

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