The All-Time Great Eight: Latin Rivalries
The Neutral Corner by Jason Probst FROM MAX BOXING
It seems like yesterday, but in truth it was nearly six years ago when I was on yet another drive from San Diego to Las Vegas, en route to the Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad fight, when I saw the epitome of how serious some matchups can be.
Blowing by me in the passing lane was an ancient, battered Buick, covered in Mexican flags and the rear right window missing. In its place was a cardboard sign that read: "Win or Die."
Very nice. Inside were two cholos en route to the big fight. Vegas, baby! Maybe they saved their money for the fight as opposed to automobile upkeep, but you have to respect the gesture of going that far into the well to support your guy.
That memory is always with me, as testimony to the core appeal of boxing-as-tribalistic-expression. Back in the Golden Eras of the prewar fight boom, your surname -- be it Irish, Jewish, Italian, Mexican, or whatever -- was the quickest guarantor of a fan base, especially if you had a modicum of skills and/or a crowd pleasing style (preferably both, but especially the latter). These days, the last remaining holdouts are Latin fans, who are easily the most knowledgeable and loyal to the sweet science. And they carry the gravitas of going deep for their heroes, bringing flags, their homies, high hopes and everything else they can gather up in support of their rooting interest.
That's why today, more than ever, all-Latin showdowns are especially important in sustaining the health of boxing. A crossover star in recent years like Mike Tyson will generate widespread interest but at almost all the lower levels, it comes down to fan base and the pluck and luck of getting or making the breaks. Take a fistic genius like Floyd Mayweather, who was nearly nine years into an unbeaten career before getting his first
pay-per-view show last June against Arturo Gatti. Sure, his style isn't the most exciting for casual fans but it's hard to envision him in an earlier era where he wouldn't have been more properly appreciated.
Potential fans have too many competing distractions, especially since postseason playoffs in baseball, the NBA and hockey seem to last half as long as their respective seasons themselves. The only boxing fan that doesn't have a considerable competing professional constituency are those of Latin descent, and as a result they are the most likely to follow the sport. And the showdowns between their combatants comprise a considerable chunk of boxing history. Today, their accrued market value is more important than ever, and that underlying support helps elevate great matches like Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales into the legitimate realm of at least mainstream coverage, simply because ten thousand screaming fans knew enough to buy tickets. Perhaps it's a fait accompli, but at least the break goes boxing's way in that case.
Tonight’s De La Hoya showdown with Ricardo Mayorga is the latest version of the all-Latin showdown. Galore with stylized pre-fight machismo, this one will have to measure up to some high standards to crack my rankings (albeit highly unofficial) of the greatest all-Latin rivalries. Here they are, judged on the weight of the match up and what interest it generated, how they brought in casual fans and possibly hooked them to want more, and the ferocity of the combat that ensued. For purposes of efficacy, only championship bouts or bouts between champions are listed (otherwise this list would take a lot longer to compile, and I'd have to conference call Lee Groves, Marty Mulcahey and Dougie Fischer to comb the archives).
Here's my list of "The Great All-Latin Eight." If Mayorga-De La Hoya comes remotely close to cracking this list (and one fight alone would have to be a real doozy to land a spot among this esteemed company), it's going to be one helluva Cinco De Mayo weekend.
8. Felix Trinidad-Fernando Vargas
Okay, so maybe some generational bias. It was only one fight, which Trinidad took by vicious 12th round stoppage in December 2000, but it was one memorable battle, pitting two undefeated champs against each other at 154 lbs. Both guys had considerable drawing power, and the Mexican-American vs. Puerto Rican angle is always a boost in my book. It puts so much more on the line. This one, I believe, will be remembered in history as one of the greatest championship fights of its era, merely for the stunning momentum changes that preceded the violent end.
Vargas is floored twice in the first twenty seconds, his head nearly removed from his shoulders by Trinidad's booming left hook. He survives a terrifying opening round, ducking, slipping and sashaying away from Tito's merciless follow-up bombs, and his head clears. Working himself back into the fight as he recovered his legs, and his bearings, Vargas springs the trap in the fourth, driving Tito halfway across the ring with a punishing left hook, dropping the slugger. Trinidad fouls him after rising from the knockdown, causing some controversy, but recovers down the stretch. Trinidad's eye
swells shut after catching a thumb, as both guys are forced to suck it up big time.
Vargas showed a ton of heart and desire in this fight, and watching the tape is both exhilarating and saddening, as you can see him lose himself, piece by piece, giving a battle every inch of the way. Finally, in the twelfth, Trinidad crushes him with the same left hook, dropping him in a heap. Vargas amazingly rises twice more before being sent down for the third time, the picture of a battered warrior finally out of gas. Trinidad, teary-eyed at the post-fight press conference, showed what a great champion he was. This
one will always hold a special place in my tape collection and it's probably the one I watch more than just about any of them, as I'm still amazed Vargas gets through that opening round disaster. I'm half-convinced that someday, he won't, because what he did was about impossible to recover like that. He left much of himself in the ring that night, and that's why fans will always love him.
7. Alexis Arguello-Alfredo Escalera
Between 1974, when he won the WBC featherweight title with a gutty 14th-round stoppage of Ruben Olivares, and 1982, when he was turned back in that same round by WBA 140-lb. king Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello participated in 20 title fights and won them all, spanning three divisions en route. His two battles with Escalera were waged in 1978 and 1979, and were brutal affairs, with Arguello winning both by 13th-round stoppage. The vicious punishment he doled out and took in return from the tenacious Puerto Rican was vintage, with brutal exchanges and the kind of heart-stopping action that only comes in a 15-round championship fight. Beloved in Nicaragua, these two wins cemented his fame across the world as a true fighter to watch. For while he consistently blew out decent to middling challengers with relative ease, the Escalera bouts were indelible proof that Arguello could go deep to dig out the win. If they happened today, they'd probably be fights of the year. Back then, they were merely the expectable spoils of a Golden Era with so many tough fighters in the lower weight classes.
6. Carlos Zarate-Alfonso Zamora
The "Z boys" only met once, in 1978, and the setup was perfect. Both were unbeaten, with a combined record of 74-0 with 71 knockouts, incredible numbers for bantams. Both were Mexicans, beloved as heroes by adoring fans. Both were champions, with Zarate holding the WBC belt, Zamora the WBA. Something had to give.
After four rounds of intense combat, Zamora finally did, knocked out by a chillingly determined Zarate, who absorbed some bombs early only to walk through them and wear Zamora down. Fittingly, after the ref waved it off the two guys' managers got into a fight on the ring apron. Nothing spells "disgruntled" like the site of Zamora's chunky manager in a bad 1970s pantsuit trading punches with Zarate's guy. That, my friends, is keeping it
5. Robert Duran-Esteban DeJesus
Duran shockingly lost their first match, a non-title scrap, in 1972, getting dropped by a perfectly timed DeJesus left hook that finally made him look human. He got big payback, however, in successful defenses, stopping DeJesus twice, in 1974 (TKO 11) and 1978 (TKO 12). DeJesus always gave him trouble, and easily represented the biggest threat to Duran's lightweight reign when his skills made good fighters seem woefully overmatched. DeJesus brought out the best in Duran, making him use his hunter's savvy to break down the slick Puerto Rican over the distance. Duran's technical abilities are often overlooked due to his imposing aura, but it was fighters like DeJesus that revealed what an incredibly gifted artist "Manos De Piedra" was, when he had to be. And at lightweight he was never better than against Esteban.
4. Michael Carbajal-Humberto "Chiquita" Gonzalez
The class of the little men during the early 1990s, Carbajal had a natural foil in Gonzalez, a hard-punching fighter who generated impressive power for a 108-lb. man. Their first bout was clearly the class of the trilogy (Gonzalez took the last two by decision), as Carbajal rebounded from two brutal knockdowns early and starched Gonzalez with a massive left hook in the seventh.
Carbajal was never better, and subsequent matches may have shown the effects of their first bout as well as a style he had that was not conducive to a long career in top form. But what really made these matches historically significant for their time was that their first showdown generated the first million-dollar purse for both combatants in their weight class, proving that great matchmaking can overcome perception that little guys can't bring in the bucks. It also, in this writer's opinion, was one of the key fights in the last fifteen years, showing promoters that Hispanic fans will back a good fight regardless of weight class, allowing the promotion to build into something bigger than a mere Latin vs. Latin niche attraction. The legacy of Carbajal-Gonzalez lives today, as Top Rank and other promoters offer up plenty of smaller Latin fighters in the hopes they will generate the kind of fan base these two had.
3. Ruben Oliveras-Chucho Castillo
At his peak, "Rockabye Ruben" was a physical phenom blessed with numbing power and wicked charisma that made him a huge fan attraction in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and through the mid-1970s. With a career record of 88-13-3, he registered 78 knockouts, a stunningly high stoppage rate for a guy whose best days were at bantam.
However, every phenom has his Kryptonite, and Castillo may have been his, at least at 118 pounds and at his peak. After besting the tough Castillo in April 1970 over 15 rounds, Oliveras was upset via 14th round stoppage later that year. It was probably every bit as shocking as when a seemingly overmatched Junior Jones blew out Marco Antonio Barrera in 1995. He absolutely, positively had to win the rubber match in April 1971, and did, taking another 15-round decision, regaining his title.
Olivares fights weren't just fights. They were sporting extravaganzas, as Mexican-American fans packed L.A. famed fight houses and often would riot if they didn't like the outcome, or just for the hell of it. That's pressure, and the atmosphere there was no doubt every bit as charged and passionate as those in old-time fight clubs decades earlier, where the whole damn neighborhood would show up to watch you represent.
2. Salvador Sanchez-Wilfredo Gomez
Aug. 21, 1981
Talk about a dream all-Latin match up. They only fought once, with Sanchez scoring a brilliantly delivered eighth round knockout. When they stepped into the ring, however, it was a match up between two guys that were top five pound for pound in the world. Gomez, the feared WBC 122-lb. champ, had a 32-0-1 ledger and had made 13 straight defenses, all by KO, and was emerging as one of the greatest Puerto Rican fighters ever. Sanchez was 40-1-1, having bested dangerous Danny Lopez twice with disdainful ease. It's hard to imagine how high the stakes were for both, especially as Gomez has destroyed the Mexican Sanchez' countryman Carlos Zarate.
Sanchez was never better in this fight, flooring Gomez in the opening round and clinically dismantling him, turning his usually smothering pressure against him. Impressively, Sanchez used his slick boxing skills while fighting in the pocket much of the time, giving a great example of how you can fight defensively while countering in close. When Gomez finally succumbed, it was as though you could feel the air go out of the Puerto Rican fans in the arena, so complete was his beating.
1. Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales
Morales-Barrera. It goes together like PB&J, don't it? What's great about this trilogy are all the subtle juxtapositions that fed into the rivalry. Morales, a Tijuana boy of Indio blood, is the diametrical opposite of Barrera, who came from a middle-class family in Mexico City (for you Gringo types who miss the distinction, that's the Mexican equivalent of a Southern cracker against a diehard Yankee).
Waged across three weight classes, Barrera was believed to be a shot fighter before their first and third matches. Coming into the first bout in Feb. 2000, he was seen as served-up fodder for the skyrocketing Morales, having lost to Junior Jones twice, only to give Erik 12 rounds of hell before losing a hotly disputed decision. The rematch was more tactical, with Barrera taking a disputed decision, perhaps a bit of Karmic payback.
For the rubber match in November 2004, Barrera had been brutalized a year earlier by Manny Pacquiao, while Morales was riding high off solid wins over Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez. But something about these two men always forced incredible parity to develop, and Barrera took another close decision. It almost seems criminal to make them fight again, but their three incredible clashes have arguably been the most significant fights below heavyweight to keep fans coming back. What's amazing about these fights is every time you watch them, especially the second and third, it's virtually impossible to score more than a handful of ones definitively for one guy or the other. Every minute, every second was a war, a battle of wills, and neither willing to give up no matter what the cost. There may have been better Latin fighters that met up in the squared circle, but never two like this that made for so many heated exchanges over the duration of a long, taxing, brutal war.