The Pugil List: Top 10 all-Mexican fights
When it comes to boxing Mexico has an established history of greatness so it stands to reason that, when two elite Mexican fighters meet each other in a fight of importance, it delivers on many levels. This list is not built upon excitement alone, as may be the case with offensively gifted Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., but, like the famed Mexican telenovelas, it requires passion, intrigue and malice in the buildup. Most of the reactions and anticipation are visceral to the actions inside the ring; other factors are more muted but no less intense, in terms of emotion. It is hard for highly-anticipated fights to deliver on every level and, when you factor in the pay-per-view angle, it carves out a large part of the populace partaking in a shared experience we would talk about on Monday mornings, during the Golden Age of Sports. Tonight’s Alvarez-Chavez pairing does seem to have emotion and true animus, so it has a leg up on some of the fights featured in this piece and gives us hope for a Cinco de Mayo weekend celebration with a bang!
What I can not agree with in this fight’s buildup is promoter Oscar De La Hoya, of Golden Boy Promotions, calling it “The biggest in Mexican history.” That right has to be earned, which it cannot do without throwing a punch. It is De La Hoya’s job to hype this event but, so far, it only features one boxer elevated by nepotism and another who has only defeated two aging Hall-of-Famers to date. However, it gives me a chance to reflect on the great history of all-Mexican bouts! For the sake of diverseness, I am only picking one fight from fight series between Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez, Ruben Olivares and Jesus “Chucho” Castillo, etc., since four rivalries featured would have produced enough fights to take up all 10 spots. Also, I did not include the great Armando Ruiz (only fought twice in Mexico) and Carlos Palomino (never fought in Mexico) clashes since Ruiz and Palomino grew up in America, with both also serving in the United States Army.
10. Erik Morales KO 11 Daniel Zaragoza (Sept. 9, 1997) – A classic changing-of-the-guard match-up between a venerable old champion and an up-and-coming young gunslinger with a point to prove. It was a link between the old and new as well, as Zaragoza had dispatched of legends like Carlos Zarate and Lupe Pintor early in his career to earn to his prestigious position. A nearly 40-year-old Zaragoza did not go down meekly to a 21-year-old rival and, for the first five rounds, fans favored Zaragoza’s counters, one of which buckled Morales’ legs in the fourth stanza. Then youth took over and speed of fist was able to counter the smarter man, who could no longer rely on his tricks, when forced into reverse gear. In the 10th round it was still an even fight on the scorecards but the momentum had shifted toward Morales, who now bulldozed forward behind long leads. A body shot in the 11th signaled the end for Zaragoza, who stayed seated knowing he had given all and nothing else was needed in his swansong fight. A new king had been crowned.
9. Juan Manuel Marquez UD 12 Marco Antonio Barrera (March 17, 2007) – This one slips bellow the radar because it featured more intellect then brawling but, for a consistent high level, back and forth, it is hard to beat. It was a point-counterpoint affair, with neither man able to impose his will for more than three rounds, and neither man strung together a series of rounds to establish a momentum. Both men wanted to assert themselves instead of countering, which made for some good exchanges but also lulls as they figured out their next moves. This was a coming-out party for a new Marquez, as, in previous fights, he relied more on defense and countering but was an aggressive force against a Barrera, who probably expected more of a tactical affair. The judges favored Marquez by a wider margin than most observers and a missed knockdown call by referee Jay Nady, in Barrera’s favor, gave this fight added intrigue and controversy.
8. Francisco Vargas D 12 Orlando Salido (June 4, 2016) – Admittedly this fight may have made the list because it is so fresh in the mind…however, it is hard to deny its greatness of action over historical import, given it was voted “Fight of the Year” by the Boxing Writers Association of America, ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, USA Today, and FightNews.com. Old warhorse Salido was a considerable underdog but shot out of the gates and pressed the action against the younger and electric Vargas, who had who just came from a war against the tough Takashi Miura. The younger and bigger Vargas held his ground waiting for a lull Salido never gave, so they stood toe-to-toe in mid-ring for large portions of the fight. That neither hit the canvas, given the rapid back-and-forth, is a testament to their determination and focus. It was an extremely close fight in which neither man could argue victory, with two cards cast as a tie at 114-114, with the third leaning toward Vargas, at 115-113.
7. Julio Cesar Chavez TKO 8 Mario Martinez (Sept. 13, 1984) – Of historical import, since this marked the beginning of Chavez’s legendary reign of greatness. Like the PPVs of today, this bout was fought on the eve of Mexican Independence day, for maximum exposure, and the duo delivered maximum impact and fireworks in the ring. People forget Martinez was a 19-year-old prodigy (having destroyed former champion Rolando Navarrete) many thought was destined for greatness, while Chavez was a relative unknown from the boxing backwaters of Culiacan. The two engaged much of the fight at center ring but, as usual, Chavez took over and wore his foe down at the start of the fourth round, in what would become his trademark style. The resilient Martinez battled through blood and hooks, doing his best to keep pace, but you could see his confidence ebb with every thudding shot to the body. Only Martinez’s fantastic shape allowed him to absorb and retaliate, for as long as he did, but as Martinez slowed, the angles became shorter and a brutal end was inevitable. The fight produced a legend, just not the one people expected, at the time.
6. Carlos Zarate TKO 4 Alfonso Zamora (April 23, 1977) – Two good friends trained by the same man in the same stable, who became embittered over familial rivalries and professional jealousies. One of the most anticipated fights of the decade, despite no title being on the line, as the duo had a combined record of 67-0 with 66 knockouts! As some anticipated, the height of 5-foot-7, Zarate played a major role, but ironically it would he his shorter punches that made all the difference. Zamora took the first two rounds on aggression, while Zarate showed little signs of strain under the pressure. The tide turned when Zarate landed precise body punches as the shorter man bulled his way inside. Zarate picked up on the rhythm of Zamora’s head movement and began to time him perfectly with uppercuts, as well as left hooks. Then Zarate switched to straight blows from the outside while as Zamora swung wildly trying to defend himself but missed too often. The more accurate Zarate scored two knockdowns before a criminally precise seven-punch flurry, capped with a left hook, caused Zamora to crumble headfirst onto the canvas. As Zamora rolled onto his back, a towel, which his father had just thrown in to stop the fight, landed on his face as if to hide the shame of having lost to his former sparring partner.
5. Lupe Pintor SD 15 Carlos Zarate (June 3, 1979) – Another fight between former stablemates and another case of two friends who grew apart because of professional antagonism. At this point, Pintor was on the rise and Zarate was coming off a brutal knockout loss to fellow Hall-of-Famer Wilfredo Gomez, when he moved up in weight. They battled in a close and controversial affair, in which fans’ preferences were judged as much as punches, with Pintor advancing behind volume punching while Zarate sat back and countered effectively and precisely. The final split decision tally, two 143-142s for Pintor and a hard-to-reconcile 145-133 in favor of Zarate, were decried by the majority of press row that saw Zarate as the clear winner. However, Pintor came forward to make the fight, while Zarate seemed to be in control but only when countering misses. A knockdown scored by Zarate in round four may have swayed the press in subsequent rounds. Pintor seemed stunned on a couple other occasions but rode the rough spots out by continuing to throw punches that landed wildly but ineffectively. Disgusted by the verdict, Zarate retired, while Pintor became a player in many great fights for the next half-decade.
4. Rafael Herrera KO 8 Ruben Olivares I (March 19, 1972) – It is hard to reconcile that Herrera had studied for the priesthood, given the penchant for violence displayed in this fight against famed wild-child and living legend Olivares. However, Herrera battled Olivares and his rabid fans with vigor, systematically countering the aggressive Olivares, slowly overwhelming and then enveloping his shorter opponent from a distance. A cut over Olivares’ left eye in the sixth signaled the beginning of the end, as it blinded Olivares to a picture-perfect right hand that dropped the legend for the count. Olivares claimed his partying and drain of making weight caused the defeat, which further infuriated Herrera, who felt as slighted after the fight as before. Even though subsequent wins, although, give Olivares’ claims some merit but, on this night, Herrera was the better man.
3. Jesus “Chucho” Castillo TKO 14 Ruben Olivares (Oct. 16, 1970) – The second meeting is the best of the pair’s trilogy. In the buildup, as Herrera later did, Castillo made it clear he was disgusted by Olivares’ playboy lifestyle and personality that made him the darling of many Mexicans. Olivares was the betting favorite, having knocked out 21 straight entering the showdown, but was not able to dent Castillo’s chin, making their first bout a fight of attrition. That favored Castillo, who relished hard work, and Castillo pointed out that he merited a points win after dropping Olivares in the third round I that bout. Olivares claimed, “I don’t like Chucho but he’s not a bad little boxer. He didn’t really hurt me. He just surprised me.” Castillo was more combative afterward, “I would love to have a rematch but it should be in Mexico City because it looks like the officials here are on my back. I knew (Olivares) was good but I thought I was better.” In their second meeting, also a rough-and-tumble affair, Castillo cut Olivares early and was able to get a doctor stoppage in the 14th round. In the third and final meeting, another knockdown of Olivares again failed to seal the win for Castillo on the cards that brought their combative trilogy full circle.
2. Israel Vazquez SD 12 Rafael Marquez III (March 1, 2008) – The duo damaged and slowed each other down so much that the third meeting, of four, came down to which man was better at absorbing punishment. Any of the four fights merit a place on this list, maybe more so because these two had no personal animosity, making this a purely sporting affair. Of all the fights, this one featured the most one-shot bombs with no exploratory punches or jabs to set them up. Punches were launched at will and often and I picked it because it was the only one of their bouts to go the distance. Vazquez was again cut over both eyes, not scraps but proper gashes, but battled through the blood to gain a decision, despite hitting the canvas in the fourth. Referee Pat Russell evened things up by taking a point from Marquez in the 10th for low blows, making a knockdown scored (controversial, as Marquez never went down but the ropes were only thing holding Marquez up) in the final seconds of the 12th round the deciding factor in Vasquez’s favor.
1. Erik Morales SD 12 Marco Antonio Barrera I (Feb. 19, 2000) – The best of their trilogy was Morales’ razor-thin and, of course, disputed decision victory, which began their blood feud. For me, this is the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier of Mexico. It features the same intense action inside the ring and the pair despised each other, with Morales disparaging Barrera for his middle-class upbringing. Then there was the Mexico City-Tijuana boxing rivalry. When the pair first met, Barrera was considered a bit of a spent force but the valiant and controversial way in which Barrera lost the split decision reignited his career and passion for boxing. Most thought Barrera earned the win with a 12th round knockdown but it did make for a lasting impression that may have forced the second fight. This is also a unique series of fights because each took place at different weight classes and none of the fights resembled the other (the first was simply brutal, the second more tactical and the third mixed the first two) because the two men were talented enough to adapt different strategies to try and win the ensuing bout. It was voted “Fight of the Year” by THE RING Magazine and round five got the nod for “Round of The Year.” All three bouts went the distance, as if both men wanted it this way in order to inflict the most damage possible. For sustained action combined with skill, this may be the most all-encompassing trilogy for fans of Mexican boxing.