Source: Don King Promotions
Not often are there boxing matches that have the hopes and dreams of nations resting upon the shoulders of the professionals in the ring. It certainly seems that modern-day fights like that happen mostly at the amateur level.
With the current state of professional boxing, this writer would like to take a trip into the history of this celebrated sport. This article is the first in a series of retrospectives on notable, important or overlooked fights.
To begin, we will start with a fight of much importance in Latin America. ‘The Battle of the Little Giants’ took place in the everpresent Caesar’s Palace hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, on the evening of Aug. 21, 1981. The two giants in question were Mexico’s Salvador Sánchez (40-1-1, 30KOs) and Puerto Rico’s Wilfredo Gómez (32-0-1, 32KOs).
Coming into the bout, Gómez was the favorite. He had accomplished 32-consecutive KOs, and held the WBC featherweight title. Despite both of these impressive feats, casual boxing fans were unaware of his existence. Before the fight, Gómez boasted that he would defeat the champion in the first few rounds as he had done with most of his opponents.
This fight was a massive part of the storied rivalry between Mexico and Puerto Rico in boxing. Before fighting Sánchez, Gómez had defeated Mexico’s Carlos Zarate in 1978, and this bout was seen as a way for Mexico to redeem itself against its rival.
The fight that would be the cause of celebration of one nation and the cause of grim desperation for the other. The underdog, Sánchez, was able to floor Gómez within the first 40 seconds of the fight, and from that point, he was in control. He battered Gómez for the remainder of the round, almost defeating him with a sharp overhead right while Gómez was cornered.
Source: WBC Boxing
Gómez, however, was not about to let an early knockdown get the best of him. He continued to press the defending champion through the next few rounds, even making a valiant recovery in the third round. It was in the third round, however, when Gómez’s right eye had begun to swell. Sánchez noticed the swelling in his opponent’s eye and began to capitalize on it. Over the following four rounds, he had managed to almost entirely close Gómez’s eye.
The fact that he only had one eye left did not perturb Gómez. In the seventh round, he managed to connect with a flurry that took Sánchez off his feet. Sánchez was able to recover quickly, and he continued the fight with very little trouble from Gómez. The Mexican champion would then massively press his advantage in the following round, which proved to be the last of the bout.
Gómez was teetering from Sánchez’s barrage. Sánchez hit the Puerto Rican with a cross which sent him reeling. He followed this devastating blow with a combination that almost ended with Gómez flying out of the ring. Despite the ferocity of the attack, the challenger was not going to remain on the canvas. He rose to beat the count, but this was not enough as the referee, Carlos Padilla, who stopped the fight.
Source: WBC Boxing
As with any competition, there is a winner, and there is a loser. Gómez, who suffered his first professional defeat, was sent into a depression along with the nation of Puerto Rico. He was never one to stay down though, and eventually rose out of this defeat and went on to hold multiple championships in multiple divisions spanning super bantamweight to even winning the WBC belt that was once Sánchez’s in 1984.
Sánchez, Mexico and the world were abuzz after the Mexican’s victory. He had managed to reclaim Mexico’s honor, all the while attaining a legendary status in the country. Many boxers in his home country and abroad touted him as Mexico’s greatest ever champion. Sánchez could not enjoy the fruits of his labor or his newfound celebrity status for long, however, as the then 23-year-old died in a car accident less than a year after the fight.
Where Mexico had a day of celebration after the fight, Puerto Rico had a day of mourning. Sánchez’s defeat of their national hero sent the nation into shock and was a massive blow for the rivalry. Puerto Rico took a long time to bounce back, with some fans believing it took until 1999 when Félix Trinidad defeated Oscar De La Hoya. Sánchez’s victory was one of Mexico’s first major victories in the storied feud.
Despite the fight’s outcome, the two fighters were amicable, and at the time of Sánchez’s death, there were talks of a rematch. Sánchez granted many interviews to Puerto Rico news outlets. He grew to be so liked in Puerto Rico and the surrounding nations that millions mourned his tragic passing. His funeral was broadcast live in Puerto Rico and Mexico.
Gómez would pay tribute to his opponent by attending the annual festival held in Sánchez’s honor in the boxer’s hometown. Gómez has even earned the privilege of being named the festival’s grand marshal on multiple occasions .
This fight, which is part of the boxing canon in Latin America, is often overlooked in other parts of the country, which is the purpose of this retrospective. It is impossible to cover every significant event in the sport, but we can at least learn about impressive fighters like Sánchez and Gómez.