Riddle, champion, fortunate son Alfonso Zamora turns 61
Mexican knockout artist Alfonso Zamora is a prime example of the mental tightrope world champions walk, showing how one loss can irrevocably affect the future of a still viable champion. At 24, Zamora was a spent force, warring with average fighters he would have destroyed two years earlier. Zamora should have been at his physical peak yet the former Olympic silver medalist was unable to overcome “something” that prevented him from keeping pace mentally or physically. His body, even at 70% of his prime, should have retained enough muscle memory to beat middling fighters who feasted upon his name. That was not the case; Zamora simply imploded after a historic showdown with legendary countryman Carlos Zarate in 1977.
Zamora still left an impression. Consider that he was rated the eighth best bantamweight of all time by the Associated Press, at the turn of the century, despite his prime only lasting two years. Enough time for Zamora to be rated the 47th best puncher of all-time (in 2003) by The Ring magazine as well. He sported power in either hand but Zamora’s right hand was undoubtedly the most powerful and sneaky weapon in his arsenal. On the surface, a prototypical Mexican pressure fighter but because of his top-level amateur pedigree and sharp ring instincts, Zamora set up punches expertly. It allowed Zamora to make up for a stout 5-foot-3 frame that left him the shorter boxer in almost every fight. When Zamora hurt opponents, it was game over, displaying a nearly unrivaled killer instinct. The problems for Zamora were on the defensive side, where he accepted punches in order to deliver his payload.
Unlike the majority of Mexico’s great champions, Zamora is from a middle-class family in Mexico City but his parents soon found that Alfonso had a wild streak. Young Zamora got into fights on the streets and at school, daring people in positions of authority to knock the chip off his already broad shoulders. Amateur psychiatrists would venture a guess that he had a Napoleon complex. Eventually, Zamora was kicked out of school and placed in a juvenile facility. Like many before him – and many to come – everything changed for the better when Zamora found discipline and structure through boxing.
An outstanding amateur, Zamora made a great run at the 1972 Munich Olympics where only Cuban stylist Orlando Martinez was able to outmaneuver his straight line attacks. Zamora’s father claimed the lackadaisical loss was due to taking laxatives to make weight. Not eager to turn pro, Zamora planned on winning the gold at the next Olympics but was insulted into the pro ranks. At first, Zamora was given a hero’s welcome, dining with Mexican President Luis Echevarria and promised a government car for his performance. Zamora assumed it would be new but instead received a used car with more miles on it than Zamora traveled to win Mexico a medal. It would not be the last time Zamora allowed pride to put him in harm’s way.
Zamora turned pro with aplomb (and word of his fan-friendly style spread to the point in which new cars were not a problem), signing with famed Mexican boxing manager Arturo “Cuyo” Hernandez, who guided national ring idol Ruben Olivares’ career. Hernandez had a second bantamweight hotshot under his managerial wing in future Zamora nemesis Carlos Zarate. Everything seemed to be working out as if scripted in a storybook, with young guns Zamora, Zarate and old pro Olivares in the same stable often sparring one another. Training sessions many would have paid to watch.
A fast learner, in a year’s time, Zamora was the co-feature of a Mexico City card against Japan’s Tetsuro Kawakami, who had never been stopped. What was expected to be a long night became an easy hurdle. Zamora destroyed Kawakami in three rounds, knocking Kawakami down three times in the process. Afterward, Zamora took out Shintaro Uchiyama, dropping the reigning Oriental champion four times before the end came in the sixth. A title shot was assured when Zamora destroyed world-rated Francisco Villegas. The Puerto Rican had notched stirring wins over future champions Rodolfo Martinez, Enrique Pinder and Samuel Serrano. Zamora was different, beating Villegas into submission in two rounds with a bullying performance worthy of the Juarez bullring it was staged in.
The title shot came against Korean stylist Soo-Hwan Hong, whose hit-and-run style frustrated everyone. It would be the best performance of Zamora’s career to date, dispatching of Hong with a right uppercut followed by a left to the liver in the fourth round. Hong reportedly remained unconscious for a couple minutes under the bright lights of the Great Western Forum. It was Zamora’s 21st win, with every win ending via knockout, and at age of 20, Zamora was the youngest bantamweight champion in history.
The Asian theme continued; Zamora’s first title defense was against Thai challenger Thanomchit Sukhothai and was nearly canceled after a mostly Mexican crowd rioted following an unpopular verdict against Salvador Torres. Sukhothai was a former kickboxer and a deaf mute, who did a lot of talking with his powerful right hand. However, Sukhothai was a slow plodder and to beat Zamora, speed of foot was key. Zamora exploited the challenger’s flaws, circling cautiously, but in the third, Zamora suffered a cut over his right eye forcing him to up the pressure for fear of the fight being stopped. In the next round, Zamora saved his title with a trademark left hook that put the challenger down. Sukhothai tried to escape but Zamora cornered him with a flurry that compelled referee Dick Young to stop the fight.
A second title defense was held in Mexico City; facing Filipino Socrates Batoto, an overconfident Zamora was caught with a shot to the belly that dropped the matinee idol. An obviously angry Zamora got to his feet and wailed on Batoto furiously. A “Here’s one for you” right hand to the ribs dropped the challenger; Batoto rose but was overwhelmed a second time and could not make it to his feet. With Mexican heroes Ruben Olivares and Jose Napoles (born in Cuba, Napoles found his following in Mexico) losing their titles, the people of Mexico flocked to Zamora as their new king of the ring.
As the calendar turned to 1976, Zamora was riding high, finishing third in The Ring magazine’s voting for “Fighter of the Year” behind Muhammad Ali and Antonio Cervantes. Zamora also placed third with Boxing Illustrated, who called him, “The good looking Mexican with TNT in both fists.” Both agreed Zamora was the best bantamweight, ranking him above second place Rodolfo Martinez and third place Carlos Zarate. Outside the ring, a rift formed between Zamora’s father and manager Arturo Hernandez. The crack became an irreparable divide when Hernandez told a Mexican magazine he thought Carlos Zarate was a better boxer than Zamora. After escalating arguments, Zamora’s father bought his son’s contract from an obliging Hernandez. “I liked the boy; I still do. But to get rid of the father, I would have sold Zamora’s contract for a sack of pinto beans.”
Zamora’s third title defense is the most impressive win on his resume, stopping future featherweight champion Eusebio Pedroza in the second round. Zamora overcame a five-inch height advantage with, of all things, a jab that kept Pedroza in a hesitant state. Zamora unleashed a long overhand right to the jaw after a blinding jab which put the 19-year-old Pedroza down for an eight-count. Pedroza got up but a swarming Zamora stopped him seconds later with a left hook. Two years later, Pedroza began a record setting streak of 19 defenses of his WBA featherweight title.
A title rematch with Korean cutie Soo-Hwan Hong in the challenger’s home country made a fifth defense of Zamora’s title no certainty. Zamora took the fight to Incheon for a reported $100,000 purse and was the aggressor while the crafty Seoul native countered well from the outside to win rounds. Hong kept the fight at center ring until Zamora finally cornered him in the 12th with a sustained rain of punches. Hong had taken a lot of punishment in the two rounds prior and this, along with the flurry, prompted referee Octavio Meyran to stop the fight. The crowd rioted and some fans even managed to climb into the ring where the referee had to be protected by police.
Pride drove Zamora into the pros and pride led Zamora to his first loss. Zamora faced former stablemate and now fellow champion Carlos Zarate in a non-title fight. It had become personal between Zamora’s father and former manager Hernandez and the fighters reacted angrily to the added tension. Zamora entered the fight with a 29-0 record and sported a 100% kayo ratio while Zarate was 45-0 with 44 KOs. The fight was made a 10-round non-title affair because boxing politics prevented their WBA and WBC belts to be put on the line (but few thought the bout would go 10 rounds anyway). Over 14,000 fans paid $375,000 total to see the bout and referee Richard Steele was selected to ensure an orderly affair in the battle of the “Z-Boys.”
As many assessed, the height advantage of 5-foot-7 Zarate played a major role but his shorter punches made the difference. Zamora took the first round on aggression but Zarate showed no signs of strain under the pressure. Then a deranged man wearing only a tank top and skimpy shorts slid into the ring and acted as if he were refereeing the bout. He was summarily dragged out of the ring and treated as roughly as Zamora was about to be. When the fight resumed, the fighters traded blows and with 15 seconds remaining, Zarate sent Zamora to the ropes with a brutal combination. Zarate’s takeover had begun. He started landing punches to Zamora’s body as he bulled his way inside, stunning Zamora with two hooks late to ensure a winning round.
The third was the beginning of the end. Zarate shot short, straight punches between the looping blows of Zamora, who was still trying to bore his way inside. Zarate timed the rhythm of Zamora’s head movement, landing perfectly placed uppercuts and left hooks. A right cross dumped Zamora in a neutral corner with 30 seconds left but Zamora got up at the count of four. Zarate built on his previous work, stalking Zamora with intent, landing three hooks that sent Zamora to the ropes. Zamora swung wildly trying to defend himself but missed badly. Zarate countered expertly and dropped an off-balance Zamora with a cross. Again, Zamora rose quickly. Zamora threw desperate Hail Mary punches, two of which landed, but Zarate shook them off. Another criminally precise seven-punch flurry capped with a left hook crumbled Zamora headfirst onto the canvas. As he rolled onto his back, a towel, which his father threw to stop the fight, landed on Zamora’s face as if to hide the shame of losing to a former sparring partner.
It was a bad night all around for the Zamoras; the father got into a fight with his son’s former manager, Hernandez, which ringsiders say he lost badly. Zamora may have found solace that his title was not on the line; the problem was he would lose his title in his next title defense. Fighting was a job for Zamora, openly stating he only boxed because of the money, a 180 degree turn from his enthusiastic amateur days. Zamora was only 23 and should have been entering his prime, not leaving it.
Zamora lost the WBA title when Jorge Lujan survived the early assault Zamora was renowned for. Lujan proved trickier than expected; he was a 10-1 underdog, showing an ability to avoid punishment along the ropes. In the middle rounds, Lujan upped the pace and Zamora was unable to respond, exhausting himself while attempting to keep up. After round five, it was all Lujan, cutting Zamora’s right eye and dropping Zamora in the 10th. It looked like Zamora could rise if he wanted to…but he didn’t. Zamora, a thoroughly beaten man, sat on the seat of his pants, staring into his father’s eyes, searching for answers as to where everything went wrong.
Excuses were made; Zamora’s father blamed the loss on a lack of preparation and taking the challenger lightly. Many agreed with the first point since Zamora was seen partying and drinking heavily before the bout. The future proved Zamora wrong; his son continued to lose despite better training habits. There was one last stand though, when Zamora reignited a hidden spark from the past and knocked out streaking contender Alberto “Superfly” Sandoval.
1980 was the last year fans saw Zamora box. He did not need to fight anymore as financial good fortune came to Zamora’s aid when he won the Mexican national lottery. Still, Zamora remained proud and wanted to exit with a win. It was not to be as journeyman Rigoberto Estrada knocked Zamora out in the third round. Zamora’s rapid decline remains a matter of confusion and speculation for his supporters and boxing historians but at age 26, Zamora had enough of fighting, relishing a comfortable and healthy retirement in Mexico City, even to this day. Now enjoying his 61st birthday, Zamora’s personal story is a fortuitous ending, all fans wish for the boxers they follow.