In 1977, boxing’s two best bantamweights were both tremendous punchers, both undefeated, both champions, and both Mexican. A showdown was inevitable. It was a match everyone knew could not go the distance given the lead fists of Carlos ‘Cañas’ Zárate and Alfonso ‘El Toro’ Zamora, their records combining for a phenomenal 72 KOs in 73 fights. The bout ended as everyone expected, with a flurry of hard punches and a concussed fighter on the canvas, in front of a raucous crowd at The Forum in Inglewood, California. But there was more to this match than just undefeated records and Mexican pride. Bad blood between the two camps added some extra intrigue.
Friends and former training partners, and both natives of Mexico City, Zarate and Zamora had a wedge driven between them by their feuding managers. They had once trained together under the guidance of Arturo Hernández, who decided to sell Zamora’s contract to the fighter’s meddling father. Alfonso Zamora Sr. was vocal about his dislike for Hernández and the antagonism only added to the volatile match-up, though the boxers themselves refrained from publicly turning on one another. Their rivalry was professional, not personal, since each wished to dominate the 118 lb division, even though they were not competing for a belt but instead for Mexican bragging rights.
By 1977 the roadblocks arising from different sanctioning organizations had become prevalent as the rival World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council competed for influence. Zarate was the WBC champion and “El Toro” the WBA’s, but neither governing body was interested in a unification fight. Fortunately, common sense triumphed over the whims of these so-called governing bodies. The match was sanctioned by the State of California and the boxers were handsomely compensated. Zamora was dismayed that no belt was on the line but his father was comfortable with the financial return, which guaranteed his son $125,000. “We fight Zarate for the money and the other contenders for the championship,” he said.
The bout was held at the Forum in Inglewood, a section of South Central Los Angeles that had hosted boisterous boxing events in the past, notably the 1969 Lionel Rose vs Chucho Castillo bout that ended in a riot. With impressive clairvoyance, the event organizers ensured a robust police presence on hand in case Zarate vs Zamora followed a similar trajectory. A largely Mexican crowd showed up for what was sure to be a scorcher, its loyalties divided between the two devastating punchers. The muscular Zamora, despite being younger and less experienced, was a slight betting favorite given his highly regarded victory over South Korea’s Soo-Hwan Hong for the WBA title.
This wildest of fights began tepidly. The two men circled for the first minute, cautious of the other’s power, and before any real engagement could happen a spectator, clad only in underwear, climbed into the ring as if seeking to speak for a moment with the referee. The bout was halted as the crowd roared its disapproval before the trespasser was thrown through the ropes and dragged from the ring by a squad of riot police. This strange event acted as a buffer between the fight’s careful start and its chaotic denouement.
From thereon Zarate and Zamora delivered what everyone had come to see, namely a brutal war, with “El Toro” being the more aggressive man in the early moments. He combined lively footwork with a terrific left hook, and his attack sparked a lengthy and furious toe-to-toe exchange, an amazing and reckless vortex of flying fists and elbows. Zamora missed frequently with his left but still managed to tag Zarate at the end of the round with a shot that sent him stumbling to the ropes. Afterwards, Zarate said of the first round, “He hurt me twice but he didn’t hurt me enough.”
In the second, Zamora continued to press, despite there being a dangerous flaw in his strategy. His lunging style made him susceptible to counters and twice Zarate hammered him with his left. Undaunted, Zamora fought back, attacking with the energy of a predatory shark that will sink if it ceases to move. Relying on raw energy, however, is not always tactically sound. Zarate’s calculated punching allowed him to land the more telling shots and he won the second. His height and reach advantages had become more pronounced as they allowed him to keep Zamora to the outside. The shorter boxer now had to lunge even more to reach his taller opponent, making him increasingly vulnerable.
In the third, Zarate began to dominate. He demonstrated his defensive abilities by frequently slipping Zamora’s left hand, smartly moving around and underneath it. Towards the end of the third, Zarate, more renowned for the knockout power in his vaunted right, hurt Zamora with a series of thunderous lefts before backing “El Toro” into a corner and forcing a knockdown.
Zamora again went to the canvas only 24 seconds into the fourth after another salvo of lefts from Zarate, the bout’s signature punch for both fighters on this night. Again “El Toro” rose, but his termination was imminent. A sustained Zarate flurry punctuated by a smashing right hand left Zamora crumpled under the ropes. Alfonso Zamora Sr. threw in the towel to halt what had become a one-sided beating and it landed directly on his dazed son’s face. Zarate’s celebration was sedate, but things turned nasty when Alfonso Sr. ran across the ring to confront his enemy Hernández, whom he accused of sprinkling a toxic substance on Zarate’s gloves. The two had to be physically separated as spectators and police flooded the ring and the frenzied crowd let off fireworks in the stands.
With his convincing knockout win, Zarate claimed supremacy over the bantamweight division and was elevated to the status of national hero in Mexico. He could now justifiably claim to be in the same class as fellow dominant Latin champions Carlos Monzon and Roberto Duran. In stark contrast, Zamora was never quite the same: he would lose his next bout and never again challenge for a world title. Thus, Zarate vs Zamora, “The Battle of the Z Boys”, as it would come to be known, served as a classic crossroads battle. On its own, the fight remains one of the most thrilling and rambunctious four rounds in bantamweight history, as well as the greatest victory in Zarate’s Hall of Fame career.
— Eliott McCormick