The Pugil List: Top 10 Puerto Rican boxers
Boxing’s favorite Puerto Rican son, currently the personable WBO junior middleweight titlist Miguel Cotto, brings a Hall of Fame career to an end (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) against competent underdog Sadam Ali tonight. Cotto turned professional, after a successful amateur career crowned by an Olympic berth, with much fanfare and even greater expectations as the heir apparent to Felix Trinidad. This gives me a plausible excuse to put Mr. Cotto into an historical perspective, in relation to his compatriots, with a Top 10 list focused on the island’s exceptional boxing pedigree. It is a long and distinguished list of greats that was difficult to boil down to 10, since I had to deliberate on such things as whether to include someone like Hector “Macho” Camacho. Since Camacho was raised in Spanish Harlem, that was not a given but Camacho reveled in being and identified himself as a Puerto Rican, so I gave in to his unverbalized wishes.
The New Yorican issue aside, there are a total of 46 Puerto Rican titleholders (to include “interim” and “regular” champions but excluding four women, whom have won world title honors) and some early boxers whom never won a world title that were worthy of consideration. Distinguished title reigns started with Sixto Escobar in 1935 and Alberto Machado was the latest to add his name to the roster earlier this year. Machado dedicated the inspiring come-from-behind knockout victory of Jezreel Corrales to his island nation, which still suffers from the aftereffects of Hurricane Irma. The way Machado arose from a knockdown certainly was a reflection of the Puerto Rican people’s spirit. Just missing the Top 10 cut are Jose Torres and Sixto Escobar. While I admire and extol the virtues of both, I find it hard to afford them entrance over three newer entrants from the 1990s onward. Torres and Escobar may have dealt with better overall opposition but I could not shoehorn them into the Top 10. As I stated earlier, it was no easy feat and, if you believe it is, please create a justifiable list for me to pick apart.
10. Wilfredo Vazquez: 1981 to 2002, 56-9-2 (41) – In a nation of extroverted salsa dancers, Wilfredo Vazquez was a mild-mannered waltz aficionado. Vazquez displayed resilience early, when he reeled off 23 wins (17 by KO), after losing his first pro outing. His first title fight ended bitterly, as well. Wilfredo knocked undefeated champion Miguel “Happy” Lora down but still wound up on the bad end of a unanimous decision. A quick study, Vazquez learned from this and won his second title attempt by stopping Chan Young Park. It would be an ignoble reign, with Vazquez drawing in his first defense, which was followed by a split decision loss to Khaokor Galaxy in Thailand. A proven road warrior, Vazquez won his second title, by beating Raul Perez in Mexico City, showing mental strength, reversing an earlier loss to Perez. This time, the title stuck and Vazquez successfully defended it nine times. The best win came against Orlando Canizales, whom he defeated on the road, as well. Antonio Cermeno took the title from a weight-drained Vazquez four months later. Proof of Vazquez’s debilitating weight drain came when he took the WBA featherweight title via 11th round technical knockout from Eloy Rojas, a win that made Vazquez the only man to win three WBA titles in as many divisions. He is also unique for winning all his titles via stoppage. After four title defenses, Vazquez relinquished his belt to fight Prince Naseem Hamed, a bad decision, in retrospect, as he lost by seventh round stoppage. Vasquez chased one last title shot, winning six of his last seven fights, but wisely retired when it did not materialize.
9. Ivan Calderon: 2001 to 2012, 35-3-1 (6) – Outside of Floyd Mayweather Jr., Calderon was the best pure boxer in the world, during his prime, and the best boxer under 110 pounds, since the glory days of Ricardo Lopez. That was before Giovani Segura stopped him and, with that, the certitude I felt about Calderon disappeared along with his undefeated record. Calderon was a great amateur, as well, representing Puerto Rico in the Olympics, defeating Miguel Cotto and Brian Viloria in the unpaid ranks. After turning pro, Calderon was not afraid to engage bangers like Rodel Mayol head-on, choosing to sit in the pocket and not work angles, as usual, when pressed. A slickster in the Joe Calzaghe mold, a southpaw overlooked and underappreciated, in his time, despite 17 title defenses. There is nothing Calderon could not do inside the ropes…well, OK, there is ONE thing… Calderon could not knock people out (or down, for that matter). However his skills frustrated opponents to the extent that he did not need a finishing touch, since Calderon’s opponents were KO’d mentally by round six. The only chink in Calderon’s armor was that a KO was not likely, were he to need it to rescue a fight. How Calderon was only rated by THE RING Magazine’s pound-for-pound poll (or anyone’s, come to think of it) for a short period baffled me, especially considering his longevity and dominance in two weight classes. A brutish Segura finally made Calderon look his age at 35, and Calderon suffered three losses to larger knockout artists, after most flyweights had long retired. The aging Calderon initially adapted to his loss of speed with timing, along with sublime anticipation, but it could not last. When evaluating a Calderon fight, conventional wisdom cannot be used. He was that mesmerizing to opponents and put up Hall of Fame numbers.
8. Esteban DeJesus: 1969 to 1980, 58-5 (33) – DeJesus beat a prime version of Roberto Duran, handing him his first professional loss. Need we say anything more to elevate DeJesus further into the boxing stratosphere? An accurate puncher of the highest caliber, who, unlike other big punchers, was best at decking opponents from counters, instead of leading with his bombs. Unfortunately, DeJesus also belongs in a long line of tragic Puerto Rican stars, whose lives ended under sad circumstances. DeJesus died in prison of AIDS-related complications at age 37, after being sentenced to life for killing a man in a road rage incident. In the ring, however, DeJesus never lost control, which he proved by twice besting superb boxer Ray Lampkin to become the No. 1 lightweight contender. When DeJesus beat Duran in their first fight, it was not for the world lightweight title and, in the title bout rematch, Esteban lost via KO after flooring Duran again in the first round. Three wins later (admittedly boxing most of his career, despite a cocaine addiction), DeJesus lost in a shot at the WBA junior welterweight title to another legend in Antonio Cervantes. After returning to his optimal weight, Esteban finally won the WBC lightweight title by beating Guts Ishimatsu over 15 rounds. Three defenses later, De Jesus faced nemesis Duran a third time, losing via 12th round TKO. DeJesus fought seven more times but lost in his only other title shot, when Saoul Mamby stopped him in the 13th round for the WBC junior welterweight title. Today’s 12-round title fights would have suited DeJesus much better, as he had a tendency to fade in the later rounds.
7. Edwin Rosario: 1979 to 1997, 47-6 (41) – “Chapo” was probably the second or third best pure puncher Puerto Rico produced, despite turning pro age 15, and a master at overcoming seemingly career-ending knockout defeats to return to his world-level best. Rosario gave the world a taste of what was to come by stopping Edwin Viruet, who had never been KO’d, before Rosario had turned 20. Edwin won his first 15 fights via KO and impressed many with the way he carried his power late into bouts. So it was a surprise when Rosario won his first title via decision but, considering he took it from tough-as-nails Jose Luis Ramirez, it is forgivable. It was a unanimous decision and Rosario would successfully retain the title twice. His best and hardest defense came over former Olympian Howard Davis Jr.. Like many KO artists, Rosario was also susceptible to a knockout, having been KO’d five times in his career. However, if Rosario broke through, it was almost always game over. The exception was THE RING Magazine’s “Fight of the Year” for 1984 when Jose Luis Ramirez came back from two knockdowns to stop Rosario in the fourth, regaining the WBC title in the process. Rosario then lost a heartbreaking decision to Hector Camacho for the WBC title before winning the WBA lightweight title in his following fight, destroying Livingstone Bramble. Again, it was a short title reign, as Julio Cesar Chavez savaged Rosario for the belt via 11th round KO, in a classic slugfest. Two years later, Rosario bounced back again, this time defeating Anthony Jones for the WBA title. The title was again lost, via cuts, this time to Juan Nazario in Rosario’s first defense. Not yet done, Rosario came back again, upsetting Loreto Garza, in his hometown, to win the WBA junior welterweight title. Rosario failed to hold on to the title and lost it, in his next fight, to Akinobu Hiranaka. There was no fifth chance and Rosario died of complications brought on by extended drug use (there were no drugs in his system at the time of his death), at age 36, while on another comeback attempt.
6. Hector Camacho: 1980 – 2010, 79-6-3 (38) – Many still shake their heads and ask, “How good could he have been?” The southpaw speed merchant had a brilliant early career, beating boxers like Melvin Paul, Greg Coverson, Rafael Solis, Rafael Limon and Jose Luis Ramirez with ease and in his flamboyant “macho” style. Then, fellow Puerto Rican Edwin Rosario ruined Camacho, even though the fight is recorded as a victory for Camacho. Hector’s slide to a safety-first defensive boxer can be traced to the exact punch. It was in the 11th round, when a left hook shook Camacho to his toes and left him reeling for the remainder of the round. His seven-year-old son Hector Jr. told him after the fight, “Daddy, you are lucky you’re alive.” Yes, he was but the life of a thrilling boxer-puncher was at an end. Hector told everyone what was to come, in an interview after the Rosario fight, “I fought a war and, I can tell you right now, Hector Camacho don’t like no damn wars.” Camacho was brilliant in the ring with his fists and a media darling outside of it, with his mouth, persona and undeniable charisma. After the Rosario fight, Camacho scored wins over quality boxers like Ray Mancini, Howard Davis, Jose Luis Ramirez, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Vinnie Pazienza and Greg Haugen but the magic was gone. Where Camacho used to thrill, he now bored and only in a loss to Julio Cesar Chavez, in which he took a bad beating, did Camacho earn redemption with fans. Sadly, Camacho was shot and killed, at age 50, in the midst of another rumored comeback attempt.
5. Miguel Cotto: 2001 – 2017, 41-5 (33) – Beats out Rosario and Camacho on consistency, even though I would pick both men to defeat Cotto, head to head, in a one-off fight. Retains this spot, even if he loses to Sadam Ali tonight. The classy Cotto graced boxing with a mix of skills and pride, which he personifies in and out of the ring. Cotto started boxing at age 11, establishing a 102-23 record in amateurs, and winning the Puerto Rican championship four times before topping it off with a trip to the Olympics. Cotto delayed turning pro because of a serious car accident, breaking an arm and separating his right shoulder in four places (still has a six-inch titanium rod in his right arm). A natural southpaw, Cotto fights in an orthodox stance, allowing him to lead with a jab from his naturally stronger hand. Showed flexibility, using his feet and sharp punching angles to avenge a loss to Mexican nemesis Antonio Margarito. It is safe to assume Margarito entered their first fight with manipulated handwraps and, because of that, the result has a mental asterisk next to it, by many boxing insiders. In terms of ability, Cotto had it all and, before a TKO setback to Manny Pacquiao, looked to have regained defensive astuteness he showed, winning a world title. A four-division champion, with a 16-5 record against fellow world champions, Cotto never avoided a challenge, hopping divisions to match himself against the elite. At his best, Cotto was one of the most well-rounded boxers in any weight class, for his era, and could win a fight in multiple ways, given his mix of quickness, strength and intelligence.
4. Wilfred Benitez: 1973 to 1990, 53-8-1 (31) – My Lord, imagine how good Benitez would have been, if he had ever trained diligently for a fight! Heck, for his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, he reportedly trained all of two weeks. Think about this, as well: How often does a boxer claim fans and adulation for defensive wizardry? That is how fluently beautiful Benitez’s art was. Muhammad Ali, Willie Pep, Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather Jr. had nothing on Benitez’s upper body movement. But we need to judge on accomplishments and not speculate as to what he COULD HAVE been. Benitez was a boxing prodigy (still the youngest champion ever, at 17 years, five months and 23 days), who turned pro at 15, racking up 22 wins before a title fight with Antonio Cervantes. In order to win, Benitez needed to be brilliant and earned a split decision win on the strength of accurate counterpunching. The party began here for Benitez and never really stopped. The wild nightlife affected him and, after two successful title defenses, Benitez was held to a non-title draw by Harold Weston. The WBA stripped Benitez for failing to defend his title in a rematch with Cervantes, which was of little concern to Benitez, who moved up to welterweight. There he defeated Carlos Palomino via split decision for the WBC title. To his credit, Benitez challenged the only man to hold him to a draw, Harold Weston, for his first title defense, winning a close decision. Then Benitez suffered his first loss, as Sugar Ray Leonard stopped him late after competitive early rounds. Four fights and two years later, Benitez won his third world title, in as many divisions, by stopping Maurice Hope (he knocked two of his teeth out) in a surprising show of power. An impressive win over Roberto Duran would be Benitez’s last hurrah before Tommy Hearns took his title by majority decision. From there it was all downhill, as Benitez lost to Davey Moore, Mustafa Hamsho and Matthew Hilton in title eliminators. At 24, Benitez was done at the top level, a decline as shockingly fast as his meteoric rise. He boxed until the age 32, suffering brain damage, and, despite earning over $7,000,000, lives off a small pension from the Puerto Rican government and the WBC.
3. Felix Trinidad: 1990 to 2008, 42-3 (35) – A muted rematch victory over Bernard Hopkins may have elevated Trinidad to No. 2, but that loss and a boringly controversial win over Oscar De La Hoya hold Trinidad back. Trinidad’s style was chillingly effective and reminiscent of Joe Louis’ educated small steps, that hunted down retreating prey. “Tito” had amateur grounding, winning five national titles, with a respectable 51-6 record. At 17, went pro and turned heads, with previously unseen power (only 12 KOs in the amateurs), knocking out 16 of 19 opponents before his title shot against Maurice Blocker. Felix took the American audience by storm knocking Blocker out in two devastating rounds. Sixteen men challenged for his title; all failed including quality fighters like Oba Carr, Yori Boy Campas, Hector Camacho, Pernell Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya. Sure, some managed to knock him down but thos occasions only served to awaken a beast and all whom knocked Trinidad down were knocked out. After the disappointing De La Hoya fight, in which De La Hoya faded and Trinidad was rewarded for pressing the action, Trinidad moved up a division. At junior middleweight, Felix effectively ruined youngsters David Reid and Fernando Vargas’ careers with brutal, late-round knockouts. A third weight division was conquered when Trinidad walked through William Joppy to win the WBA middleweight title, scoring knockdowns in the first, fourth and fifth rounds. Things went dreadfully wrong for Trinidad in a unification quest, starting with the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, which pushed his challenge back three weeks. Bernard Hopkins superbly fended off Trinidad’s hard punches and countered well enough to score a final round stoppage victory. After three years of retirement, Trinidad returned in a showcase fight against the naturally larger Roy Jones Jr. but the obviously rusty and stale Trinidad lost a unanimous decision, happily returning to retirement.
2. Carlos Ortiz: 1955 to 1972, 61-7-1 (30) – Ortiz mixed defense with a devastating offensive accuracy. A truly well-rounded boxer-puncher, whose real enemy was an alcohol addiction, that dogged him sporadically. Ortiz was a bit like Benitez, in that he got the most out of himself, despite poor training habits. As it was, Ortiz was a thinker/technician, who gave legitimacy back to the junior welterweight division with his popular reign. Started his career 20-0, then ran into Johnny Busso, who outpointed him, but avenged the loss three months later. Carlos made his first of many impressions abroad, defeating English prospect Dave Charnley, impressing the London audience with an hit-and-evade style. Could not land a shot at lightweight champion Joe Brown, however, so his manager sought to bring back the junior welterweight division, which had not had a recognized champion in 12 years. Ortiz defeated southpaw Kenny Lane, who had beaten him six months earlier, for the vacant title, via second round TKO. Found a skilled boxing equal in Italian Duilio Loi, with whom he shared a trilogy of closely-fought contests. Either man could lay legitimate claim to victory for all three bouts, and the title changed hands once, but Loi was awarded wins twice. Seeking greater glory at lightweight, Ortiz finally got a crack at champion Joe Brown, a champion for almost six years, with 11 successful defenses. Ortiz was brilliant, with most newspapers judging Ortiz the winner in 13 of the 15 rounds. Carlos was a true world champion, defending the title in Tokyo, Manila, London and Buenos Aires. Those travels got the better of Ortiz, when Ismael Laguna beat him in Panama City. A rematch in Puerto Rico was one-sided, with Ortiz putting on perhaps the best boxing display of his career, outside of the Joe Brown victory. Laguna was beaten a second time, proving Ortiz’s superiority. Five more successful defenses of the title followed, the best two wins over Sugar Ramos, before Ortiz was unceremoniously upset by Carlos Teo Cruz, in the Dominican Republic. It spelled the end of Ortiz, on the world stage, though he engaged in an ill-fated comeback that ended brutally at the hands of Ken Buchanan. The quality of wins and grace with which Ortiz made them leaves a big impression on those who watch his films.
1. Wilfredo Gomez: 1974 to 1989, 44-3-1 (42) – If Gomez couldn’t knock you out – which was very rare – he would box your ears off. What separated Gomez from many other Puerto Rican stars were amateur credentials (which Cotto can also claim) that saw him win a world amateur title before turning pro. Gomez was given a tough lesson, in his first paid fight, drawing over six rounds with Jacinto Fuentes in Panama. A bit like Vasyl Lomachenko today, Gomez learned from the setback, never allowing overconfidence to lead him into trouble again. Gomez became a three-division champ, moving from junior featherweight to featherweight to junior lightweight, with devastating ease, scoring 32 consecutive knockouts. At junior featherweight, Gomez reached his scary apex, and was the best of all time. Gomez should have been a four-division titlist but was denied a shot at a bantamweight title before his body forced him to move up in weight. At junior featherweight, he held the WBC title for five-and-a-half years and made 17 title defenses…ALL by stoppage (still a record for any weight class, truly earning the nickname “Bazooka”)! If made to point at one fighter and say he was unbeatable at a certain weight, it may be Gomez at 122. His two best wins at junior bantamweight came over Mexicans Lupe Pintor and Carlos Zarate, both of whom were moving up in weight but tough challenges nevertheless. Ironically, Gomez suffered the same fate as Zarate and Pintor, after he moved up in weight and was badly beaten by an infallible Salvador Sanchez, who was in peak form. Gomez eventually won the featherweight title by outpointing countryman Juan Laporte easier than expected. He lost the title in the same year, when fellow Hall-of-Famer Azumah Nelson stopped Gomez in the 11th round. Not done yet, Gomez moved up in weight again and took the junior lightweight title from Rocky Lockridge, via disputed decision. But it was a hard-fought affair and the signs of wear-and-tear were evident and confirmed when an average Alfredo Layne destroyed Gomez in his first title defense. Rumors about Gomez’s lifestyle were soon confirmed and he was sent to jail on drug abuse charges. Reportedly turned his life around, aside from a dropped domestic violence complaint in 2015, after his jail sentence, often attending world title fights as an honored guest on the island.