The Pugil List: Ten whom left us too soon – Part one
The unexpected death of forever young (only 24 years old) Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez engendered feelings of shock and loss. In the aftershock, there is a thought process which plays out in cogent but bereaved minds that asks, “What could have been?” What fantastic things could a singular person such as Fernandez achieve, given the tremendous potential he possessed. An emptiness accompanies the uncertainty of not knowing; it leaves us to contemplate what his destiny may have been, had death not prematurely intervened. They are thoughts of unfulfilled greatness, which does not begin to compare with the actual lives lost in the cases I will cite in this forlorn article.
It would seem hard luck cases inhabit boxing at an inordinate frequency but, if you pay attention to other sports, they are there as well, if you dig far enough. Every vocation has its share of people born under a bad star. It may be that boxing just has a longer history from which to cull stories of man’s inability to escape fate. These men are boxing’s unfinished symphonies, if you will. They say life isn’t fair…but, damn, these men got fewer breaks than American voters this year. The following is a list of 10 fighters whose early exits from boxing, I believe, had the greatest negative historical impact on the sport, both in terms of talent lost and their potential for future growth.
As an aside, I did not chose anyone who died as the result of an injury suffered inside the ring, as that is a whole other sad chapter. I would also like to point out that, given over 140 years of Marquess of Queensbury-era boxing, from which to generate this list, our sport has produced a million times more positive stories than negative ones. In order to be considered, a boxer must have left us before the age of 30. So popular figures like Marcel Cerdan, Tiger Flowers, Harry Greb, Benny Lynch and Joe Gans were not available for inclusion.
Others whose stories deserved equal time but space does not permit are the 1980 USA National boxing team (a plane crash in Poland killed 14 boxers and eight staff members), Paddy Duffy, Johnny Owen, Young Stribling, Diego Corrales, Pedro Alcazar, Gilberto Roman, Davey Moore, Tyrone Everett, Stewart Hilton, Bill Brennan, Jim Barry, James Coker, James Schuler and many others, all of whom boxing fans would do well to research on their own, as their departures were no less tragic than the 10 on whom I have chosen to focus.
Salvador Sanchez (Died Aug. 12, 1982, age 23) – The analogy I revert to describing the impact of this Mexican icon is Sanchez is the Jimi Hendrix of boxing. A man whose inspired performances, unrepeatable licks and free-flowing movement was silenced well before it should have been. Despite Sanchez only being under the international spotlight for a little over two years, the full schedule and quality of fighters he defeated ensured eternal fame. Though capable of brawling when necessary, Sanchez was not a prototypical Mexican banger but a master at establishing the distance at which he wanted combat to take place. Took a good punch when his quality defense was compromised but Sanchez always sent a retaliatory punch within a second of riding out a blow. Knocked out the greatest junior featherweight ever, Wilfredo Gomez, in a career-defining victory, and twice defeated underrated Danny “Little Red” Lopez. Future champion Juan Laporte was repelled and future Hall-of-Famer Azumah Nelson was bested in Sanchez’s final ring appearance. In all, Sanchez made nine title defenses, over two-and-a-half years, and was one of the few Mexican stars of the era called upon to appear at the famed Madison Square Garden. Achieved enough to earn posthumous entry to the Hall of Fame on merit instead of the vast potential he had yet to fulfill. In reviewing the era in which Sanchez competed and the depth of great opponents available, continued success would have allowed him to challenge for the honor of greatest pound-for-pound boxer ever. Sanchez died when the Porsche he was driving was hit, head-on, by a truck as Sanchez tried to pass another vehicle on a bending mountain highway.
Masao Ohba (Died Jan. 25, 1973, age 23) – Meet Japan’s Salvador Sanchez. A brilliant boxer and reigning world champion, whose fists were prematurely silenced by an auto accident. Ohba’s life ended when he plowed into a parked semi-truck with his Corvette after he failed to navigate a sharp turn (he had gotten his driver’s license the month before) jumping the median, while driving back to his gym at an excessive speed. Much like Salvador Sanchez, rapid combination punches drove Ohba to success inside the ring. Those volleys were set up by a long, snappy, jab that invariably found its target or paved the way for a straight right hand. At 5-foot-5 1/2, he was a tall flyweight, who could use this to full advantage by getting on the balls of his feet and protect a lead when called for. Ohba was an astute boxer, who figured out opponents and styles to great effect, finding equal success against European stand-up boxer Fritz Chervet, Venezuelan boxer-puncher Betulio Gonzalez, Thai bruiser Chartchai Chionoi and Japanese stylist Susumu Hanagata in title defenses. In all, Ohba was 6-0 in title fights and seemingly entering his prime, having scored kayos in his last three fights. An ambitious champion in the midst of a title reign, Ohba was scheduled for a non-title bout on the West Coast, stateside, to gain more exposure. Otherwise, Ohba’s immense popularity allowed him to fight strictly in boxing-mad Japan. I wish there were more I could do too throw light on Ohba as a person. Like other great Asian champs, there is very little information to be gleaned from English boxing resources, which, as a whole, ignore the Asian boxing scene. Ohba’s quality is shown by the fact that three of the six men he defeated, in title defenses, went on to become world champions.
Les Darcy (Died May 24,1917, age 21) – As Darcy climbed the ranks, he led a charmed life, capturing the hearts of Australians with movie star looks and charming demeanor. For comparison’s sake, Darcy was the Oscar De La Hoya of the 1910s, attracting heretofore overlooked female fans. Imagine a turn-of-the-century boxer with the looks of Rudolph Valentino and the athletic ability of Jim Thorpe, combined with a strength of character clergy members would envy. At the time of his death, Darcy was riding a 22-fight unbeaten streak against the best middleweights the world had to offer and Hall of Fame boxer Ted “Kid” Lewis said Darcy was the best he had ever seen. Darcy’s aggressive, straight-ahead style saw him suffer a lot of punishment but it also earned him countless fans. That fitness allowed Darcy to end bouts bloodied but nearly as fresh as he had started, 20 rounds before. World War I curtailed this rising star’s journey, with Darcy becoming as vilified as he was praised, only months prior. On the insistence of his mother, Darcy refused to be drafted by the military on religious grounds. Unable to fight (like Muhammad Ali, decades later) in Australia, he stowed away on an oil tanker heading to America. The headlines beat Darcy to the United States and American politicians prevented Darcy from getting fights because of his status of a deserter in Australia. Within months, Darcy yielded and joined the American army. During boot camp he collapsed and Darcy died a few days later of blood poisoning from an infected tooth.
Pancho Villa (Died July 14, 1925, age 23) – The first Filipino world champion (born Francisco Guilledo), Villa’s title reign propelled his proud nation onto the fistic landscape. As with the others, we may have never seen the best of this dynamo, as he died of blood poisoning before his 24th birthday. Managed to pack 100 fights into a six-year career, exciting fans with a take-no-prisoners style. Won two national titles, often fighting larger men, before venturing to America to make his mark. Success was not immediate; Villa lost close fights against future champions Frankie Genaro and Abe Goldstein. Genaro, in particular, had Villa’s number and defeated him two more times (once for the American flyweight title). No one else emulated Genaro’s success, as Villa tore through American flyweights along the East Coast. Gained international acclaim, defeating Jimmy Wilde, who was unable to keep the fight or Villa at a distance. An exhausted Wilde was rescued by the referee in the seventh round, with Villa still tearing into his body. Villa held the title for three years but, in his final bout (a non-title affair with a six-pound weight disadvantage), against Hall-of-Famer Jimmy McLarnin he lost a 10-round decision. Villa was obviously hindered by the after-effects of an infected tooth he had extracted the morning of the fight and he had three more teeth pulled two days later. Those operations cost Villa his life, as he would die of blood poisoning one day before his wife gave birth to Villa’s only son. She would loudly proclaim Villa was murdered by an intentional overdose of anesthesia, ordered by a gambling syndicate because of his loss to McLarnin. No proof of that has never surfaced.
Battling Siki (died Dec. 15, 1925, age 28) – The”Singular Senegalese” was a man of distinctions, among them, the first African world champion and perhaps the most flamboyant boxer to grace the world stage before Muhammad Ali. Ahead of his time, during Siki痴 brief reign as champion, he was a gregarious playboy (he outraged many by marrying white women on two continents), who dressed in a top hat and tails, parading around Paris with a lion cub, monkey, two Great Danes or other exotic animals. Even his winning of the title was ostentatious; Siki initially agreed to take a dive against beloved Georges Carpentier but became aggravated when Carpentier hit him too hard for a fight Carpentier was assured to win. So Siki turned the tables and aggressively stalked the shocked French national hero, knocking him out in the sixth round. What Siki lacked in finesse, he made up for in aggression, stamina and infighting. A raucous brawler who cut the ring off expertly, forcing opponents onto their heels, then adeptly moved them into the ropes for further punishment. Siki liked to party before he became famous; unfortunately he would become more famous for partying than boxing. Basically told to leave France after one too many run-ins with the law, despite being a decorated war hero. Did not show acumen losing his title by decision to an Irishman, on St. Patrick’s Day, in Ireland! Siki arrived in America amid fanfare but became lost to alcohol, looking awful in the ring losing more than he won. Without an upcoming bout, Siki’s attention wandered…usually into trouble. Worse yet, Siki went from a jovial lush to an angry drunk. In the sad end, Siki was found face down in a gutter in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York City with two bullets in his back.
Stay tuned for Part Two, featuring five more cautionary tales.