Classics: The Saldivar-Winstone Trilogy
By Mike Casey
Who can beat Vicente Saldivar? That was the question being posed
at the outset of 1967 after the tireless, barrel-chested Mexican ace had swept
away the challenge of Japan’s leading challenger, Mitsunori Seki.
It was a very pertinent question to which few could furnish a
valid reply. Saldivar was picking off his featherweight challengers with such
class and relish that the field of possible successors was shrinking to the
point of threatening to disappear.
He was relentless, this man Saldivar. He was smart, deceptively
skilful, pounded the body mercilessly and set a formidable pace. He was born to
fight and ultimately drank himself to death when he could fight no more.
Saldivar overpowered boxers and out-fought fighters. He was the
first truly great featherweight since the golden days of Sandy Saddler and
How I admired this glorious fighting man when I was a boy. For it
was Saldivar who set the exceptional benchmark for the Mexican fighters of the
future. Following hot on the heels of former bantamweight champion, Jose ‘Joe’
Becerra, Vicente was better and more durable than his predecessor and paved the
way for such future legends as Ruben Olivares, Julio Cesar Chavez, Erik Morales
and Marco Antonio Barrera.
“This is what I did,” Saldivar might well have said to his
successors. “Now see if you can beat it.”
Vicente, alas, was also responsible for severely testing my
allegiance. For there was another brilliant boxer in his world, a sublime and
gifted matador who came to test the bull in a magnificent trilogy of fights. I
speak of that wonderful wizard from Merthyr Tydfil, Wales: Howard Winstone.
What a beautifully gifted boxer Winstone was. He possessed the
natural skills that legions of men can’t acquire in a lifetime of trying. On his
best nights, his every move was so wonderfully fluid and perfect that even his
opponents couldn’t help but marvel at his talent.
I believe it was Jimmy Anderson, the former British
junior-lightweight champion, who remarked that his punches had repeatedly missed
Winstone by fractions of inches due to Howard’s innate ability to deftly move
his head at the right moment.
Watching the Welshman at his best was akin to seeing a top class
Brazilian soccer ace threading a ball through a sea of befuddled players. Great
soccer players and footballers don’t run, they glide. Great boxers don’t
consciously plan their moves, they simply let them happen. Every punch, every
tactical manoeuvre, comes across to the observer as a completely natural
reaction. Howard Winstone was such a boxer.
His left jab alone was a thing of beauty, a rapier-like weapon
that bruised and bewildered a succession of opponents. Combined with his many
other skills, that rare jab helped to make Howard unbeatable in Britain and
Europe from 1961 to 1967.
He became the idol of his native Welshmen, one of the few to bear
the honour of being compared to his legendary compatriot, Peerless Jim Driscoll,
whose brilliance had dazzled such titans of the game as Abe Attell and Owen
Moran some 50 years before.
The one ingredient missing in Winstone’s otherwise flawless
make-up was a knockout punch. Perhaps that was God’s way of giving his opponents
a fair chance. It was often said that if Winstone had been able to marry his
skills to true punching power, he would have been virtually invincible, perhaps
one of the greatest featherweights.
Yet there was another obstacle that prevented him from attaining
such heights, in the form of an omnipresent whirlwind of a man who persistently
surfaced to frustrate him. That man was Saldivar.
It was cruel luck on Winstone’s part that by the time he had
established himself as an outstanding contender for the world crown, Saldivar
was the champion. For Vicente was Howard’s nemesis.
The two fighters clashed three times over a two-year period, and
had their bouts been ten-rounders, Howard would have won them all. On each
occasion he had the beating of Saldivar in the early going, only to be
overhauled in the later stages. To this day, traditionalists still regard the
15-round distance as being the true test of world championship quality, and
Saldivar seemed to relish that crucial trio of closing rounds that mortal men of
his era dreaded.
The tough Mexican was a throwback to Henry Armstrong, a precursor
of Roberto Duran. Blessed like Armstrong with a slow heartbeat, Saldivar was a
tireless puncher who seemed to grow stronger as the rounds wore on. He defended
his title against Winstone at Earl’s Court, at Ninian Park and at Mexico City,
and all three fights followed the same pattern where strength and superior
punching power eventually prevailed over skill.
Those fortunate enough to have witnessed the three epic battles
will have their own ideas as to which was the best. For my money, the second
Saldivar-Winstone fight at Ninian Park on June 15, 1967, was the most thrilling.
It was the first world championship fight to be staged in Wales
for more than 20 years and marked the resumption of a rivalry that had first
exploded in glorious fashion nearly two years before at Earl’s Court in London.
Then the two mighty little men had waged war for 15 fierce rounds, with Saldivar
carving out a narrow points win.
I can remember listening to the radio commentary of that first
terrific fight and feeling a growing sense of elation as Winstone appeared to be
on the way to victory. Then came the decision and the disappointment that one
feels when a gamecock has failed by an eyelash.
By the time Howard had steered his way back into contention, he
had added six impressive victories to his record, including three European title
defences. During this phase of his glittering career, only Saldivar was a
superior featherweight and only then by the narrowest margin.
In more than 60 fights, Winstone had lost to only two other men
and even those blots on his record looked curiously unreal: a crushing second
round defeat to American puncher Leroy Jefferey and a points loss to the world
ranked Don Johnson.
To this day, the many men who struggled vainly to lay a glove on
Winstone must marvel at Jeffery’s achievement. The close and controversial
defeat to Johnson, whom Howard subsequently twice defeated, is easier to
comprehend since the Californian was an able and shrewd ring mechanic. At the
time, however, it was hard to believe that someone had actually outpointed the
Welsh boxing master!
From the time of embarking on his professional career in 1959,
Winstone had exuded that special quality that separates great fighters from the
rest. In just two years he sailed to 23 successive victories, and when he
mesmerised Terry Spinks into a tenth round defeat to win the British
featherweight title in 1961, Howard began his rapid ascent into world class.
He relieved Italy’s Alberto Serti of the European crown and
reigned supreme in that capacity for more than four years, turning back seven
challengers before eventually relinquishing the title.
Winstone dazzled the cream of domestic and international
competition during his peak years as a world title contender, defeating such
class men as Rafiu King, Yves Desmarets, Lalo Guerrero, Jose Legra and Richard
Some 21 months elapsed between the first and second instalments
of the Saldivar-Winstone saga, but for Howard the wait was worthwhile. For the
venue of Ninian Park presented him with a wonderful chance of revenge in the
land of his fathers. But even with home advantage, his task was daunting.
During the interim period, Saldivar had added to his already
glowing reputation, winning the respect of the critics as an outstanding world
champion. At first glance, his record looked lean and almost insignificant
alongside Winstone’s, until one measured the rate of Vicente’s progress and the
quality of the opponents he had conquered. Forty years ago, it was still fairly
uncommon for young fighters of limited experience to win world titles. And we
are talking about undisputed world titles here!
The boxing world stood up and took good notice of Saldivar when,
at the tender age of 21, he battered the featherweight championship from the
talented Sugar Ramos.
The young Mexican slugger was having only his 24th
professional fight on that night of September 26, 1964, yet he fought with
tremendous authority as he wore down and finally stopped Ramos in the eleventh
round with a punishing body attack.
Saldivar at once showed himself to be a highly accomplished
champion and a typically tough and menacing product of the Mexican fight school.
Powerful, rugged and a damaging puncher, he pressured his opponents with a
constant attack and his great stamina made him a dangerous man from the first
bell to the last.
His early record was studded with a succession of quick
victories. He stopped the dangerous Dwight Hawkins in five rounds, Eloy Sanchez
in one and needed less than two rounds to wrest the Mexican featherweight title
from Juan Ramirez.
In later fights, Vicente proved he was no less effective over
long distances. Indeed, he relished the marathon duel. Prior to lifting the
world title from Ramos, Saldivar outscored Lalo Guerrero and future lightweight
champion Ismael Laguna in hard-fought contests. In his first defence of the
world championship, Vicente came through a vicious war with the tough Raul Rojas
to post a stoppage victory in the fifteenth and final round.
A miniature powerhouse of a man with the upper body of a
welterweight, Saldivar imposed his presence on opponents from the outset, daring
them to challenge his authority as he bulled and punched his way forward. Like
any great champion, he had his share of worrying moments during his reign, but
his strength and his great will always saw him through. Saldivar refused to be
denied in any circumstances, whether being tormented by the ringcraft of
Winstone or forced to the limit by that fiery Japanese warrior, Mitsunori Seki.
It was Seki who gave Vicente his most torrid fight, with a
performance that surpassed even Winstone’s spirited Earl’s Court challenge.
Fighting before Saldivar’s home crowd in Mexico City, Seki matched Vicente punch
for punch through 15 hard rounds before losing a unanimous but desperately close
decision. It was a verdict that many neutral ringside observers disputed.
Saldivar knew he had a point to prove to his critics, and in a
return match just four months later he removed any doubts about his supremacy
over Seki by stopping the brave challenger in seven rounds. In doing so, Vicente
gave one of his top performances, an exhibition of destructive punching that
re-established him as the undisputed leader of his division and left him with a
near perfect record.
He had avenged his sole professional loss, a disqualification in
the early part of his career against Baby Luis, and Vicente knew that a second
victory over Winstone would make that record shine even brighter.
When Saldivar and Winstone came together again at Ninian Park,
they were greeted by an emotion-charged crowd of 30,000 and the atmosphere was
pulsating. Wales had not enjoyed such a feast of boxing since Ike Williams
defended his lightweight championship against Ronnie James at Cardiff in 1946,
and while the many thousands of Welshman who longed for a Winstone victory
welcomed their hero with a tremendous roar, they sportingly cheered the mighty
little Mexican as he approached the ring. They knew they were in the presence of
a true fighting champion, a man who had defended his title against the best men
in the division and beaten them all.
Soon the fight was on: Saldivar, the 24-year old bull, against
Winstone, the 28-year old matador. The roles were well assigned, although on
this occasion the matador did his own share of charging.
Winstone must have surprised even his most ardent fans as he
immediately carried the fight to Saldivar in a confident and almost arrogant
manner. Three left jabs, released with speed and grace, snapped into Saldivar’s
face, and a following right brought a look of mild surprise from the champion.
It seemed that Howard’s intention was to play his cards aggressively and utilise
his full repertoire of skills to unsettle Vicente. And for the first half of the
fight, Winstone’s cards were all aces wild.
He had an almost contemptuous air about him as he swept forward.
Countless jabs found Saldivar’s face and perfectly timed right crosses reddened
Frustrated and angry, Saldivar lashed back with heavy hooks to
the body, but many of his punches missed as Winstone glided out of range with
almost balletic moves that took one’s breath away.
But Saldivar, wonderful Saldivar, always had that ominous look
about him. The few punches he was landing were solid and quietly menacing. There
were times when Winstone’s aggression forced Saldivar to the ropes, each attack
accompanied by a mighty roar from the crowd, but the determined champion was
always slamming back with those bronzed and perfectly muscled arms. Howard was
supremely fit, but even the fittest men were eventually weakened by the
masterful body punching that was Saldivar’s speciality.
The roar of a crowd can do funny things and certainly blur one’s
perception of a fight. Much of Saldivar’s quiet industry went unnoticed to the
many who were entranced by Winstone’s brilliance. Howard was ghosting around
Vicente, flashing out punches with amazing speed and not seeming to be greatly
disturbed by the return fire.
Had Winstone finally found the key to defeating his arch-rival?
Saldivar’s frustration was clearly visible in the fifth round as he momentarily
dropped his arms and stood still, as if taking time out to revise his game plan.
But Vicente was a rare bird, possessed of great mental toughness.
Regardless of how the gods were treating him, he just kept punching. He was
struck by a gorgeous left-right combination in the sixth round, but still his
piston-like arms kept pumping away and Winstone was forced to give ground after
taking a couple of hefty blows to the body.
Howard’s pace didn’t slacken and he upped the tempo in the eighth
round as he jabbed fast and accurately to have Saldivar on the retreat. Both men
began to show the marks of the taxing encounter and Winstone appeared to slow a
little in the ninth round as the champion bulled forward and slammed him about
As the fight swung into its later stages, Saldivar began to catch
Howard much more frequently, but the battle was full of twists. Each time
Winstone appeared to be fading a little, he would rally gloriously. There was a
golden moment in the tenth round when he tagged the champion with a perfect
combination and quickly followed up with a burst of rapid-fire jabs.
However, the tide was most definitely turning. The crowd held its
breath in the eleventh round as Saldivar shifted into top gear and winged in
powerful hooks to the body. A big left hook hurt Winstone and a right to the jaw
sent him to the ropes. Suddenly Howard looked weary and Vicente seemed to pick
up the scent as he drew on his phenomenal stamina and increased his punch rate.
The following rounds were agonising for Winstone’s fans as
Saldivar pounded away furiously. Too often Howard elected to trade punches with
Vicente instead of retreating, and while these adventurous tactics had reaped
dividends in the earlier rounds, they were now proving to be Winstone’s undoing.
In his worst moments, though, the courageous Welshman refused to be overwhelmed.
From somewhere, during one of those hectic bouts of slugging, he produced a
stinging right that sent Saldivar reeling back, and the crowd thundered its
The fight was approaching its climax and had flared into an
absolute thriller, full of quality, courage and skill. While Winstone was
beginning to wilt, he had carved out such a commanding lead with his whirlwind
start that the battle was still an even affair. But the going was now tough for
Howard. Like a golfer trying to maintain a fragile, one-stroke lead in a major
championship, he was suddenly flagging and looking on the verge of being swamped
by the immensity of the task.
In the fourteenth round, Winstone nearly went under as Saldivar
stormed forward with a punishing two-fisted attack. A flurry of hard blows
suddenly cut Winstone down and sent his supporters into a state of panic.
Gutsily he scrambled to his feet, but the following seconds were tortuous for
the Welshman as he was driven every which way by Vicente’s ceaseless onslaught.
Lost in the wonderful romance that comes from boxing, I pleaded
silently for Winstone’s survival, trying to balance my bias with the contention
that any man who has fought so magnificently for so long doesn’t deserve to get
knocked out right at the death. Something or someone took Howard by the hand and
guided him through the wilderness, but the gut feeling was that the fight had
slipped from his grasp as he sat wearily in his corner and awaited the final
Somehow Howard managed to pull himself together during his
precious sixty seconds of rest. He fought valiantly throughout the last three
minutes, even though he was sent scurrying all around the ring by Saldivar’s
violent rushes. The champion was a revelation in that final round as he ripped
home punches with a rare ferocity, and it was a measure of Winstone’s mettle
that he was still able to fight back.
The crowd let out a deafening cheer at the bell and the optimists
prayed for referee Wally Thom to raise Howard’s hand. But the decision was
Saldivar’s, and for the second time in his career Howard Winstone was left to
reflect on the tantalisingly narrow gap in class that separated him from the
great little Mexican. This time the gallant Welsh maestro had failed by half a
point to seal that gap and win the one title that had eluded him.
Undeterred, Winstone chose to pursue his dream. Four months
later, his fascinating rivalry with Saldivar entered its third and final chapter
in the fierce heat of Mexico City. Winstone boxed brilliantly for ten rounds,
but Saldivar’s wave-like attacks proved even more debilitating in the heat and
high altitude. Brave Howard was eventually ground down and stopped in the
Three defeats against the same stubborn and ferocious man would
have broken the will of many other fighters, but the proud Winstone couldn’t
leave it at that. The unexpected retirement of Saldivar as undefeated world
champion imbued Howard with fresh ambition and encouraged him to try for the big
prize one more time. In January 1968 his persistence finally paid off when he
won the WBC version of the vacant title by stopping Mitsunori Seki in the ninth
round at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Much of the old magic was missing in Howard’s work that night,
but that was of little importance to his supporters. Winstone was at last a
world champion and nothing else seemed to matter.
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