One of the perennial frustrations of being a boxing fan is the fact so many of the most meaningful match-ups just never happen. It’s a shame Jack Dempsey never faced Harry Wills, or that Sugar Ray Robinson never took on Charley Burley. Why didn’t Ray Leonard or Thomas Hearns ever lock up with Aaron Pryor? How could they not make the Lennox Lewis vs Riddick Bowe fight? The list goes on and on. But every once in a while boxing manages to put together the perfect match-up, a confrontation that happens at the right time between two supreme talents. Such was the case with Sanchez vs Gomez, an historic battle between great champions.
Of course, as all serious fight fans know, any clash involving top talents from Mexico and Puerto Rico is a must-watch event, but this particular duel needed no historical context to amplify its significance. Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez and Salvador “Chava” Sanchez were two of the best in the sport, pound-for-pound; both were not just champions, but future Hall of Famers. That said, the decades-old rivalry between Puerto Rico and Mexico had only intensified since Wilfredo’s career-defining victory over the great Carlos Zarate in 1978.
Mexican fight fans looked to Sanchez to exact revenge, but the odds-makers figured Gomez a solid favorite. “The Battle of the Little Giants” they called it, and they could have filled any stadium they wanted in Mexico City, San Juan or Los Angeles. Instead, Sanchez vs Gomez took place, like so many other great fights of the eighties, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, while millions of Hispanics mobbed closed-circuit television outlets to watch what was, for them, the Superbowl of boxing for 1981.
For several years Wilfredo Gomez had been one of the sport’s best fighters, dominating the super-bantamweight division and in the process putting together an amazing 32 bout knockout streak. But Mexicans had faith in the talent of Sanchez. While not as proven a champion as Gomez, he had impressed everyone with his toughness, his excellent counter-punching skills, and his coolness under pressure. The 21-year-old rose from obscurity to defeat Danny “Little Red” Lopez and had gone on to defend his title six times, in the process becoming a fresh new star in the sport.
But Gomez appeared to view Sanchez as an unworthy champion and embraced the role of cocky macho man, taunting Sanchez at every opportunity, questioning his manhood and promising everyone a short night. The stoic Sanchez coolly ignored the baiting and went about making sure he was in the best shape of his life. For some reason, Gomez failed to do the same. At the weigh-in “Bazooka” was four pounds over the limit and had to visit the sauna for a while before finally making weight. It’s possible the contest was decided right then and there.
Or maybe it was in the very first minute of the fight when Gomez forced Sanchez into a blistering exchange on the ropes. Bazooka landed a sharp right hand but Sanchez countered with his own right that not only sent Gomez to the canvas but fractured his left cheekbone. Badly dazed, the challenger beat the count but then absorbed a vicious pounding for the rest of the round, almost going down a second time before the bell mercifully sounded.
Against a boxer as good as Sanchez, this was as bad a start as one could imagine, but Gomez showed incredible heart by battling back, even winning several rounds with his aggressiveness. It was exciting, fast-paced action all the way, with Gomez pressing and Sanchez countering, both men landing big shots. Unlike all of Wilfredo’s previous opponents, Sanchez took Bazooka’s best punches without ever buckling, while Gomez appeared vulnerable, his legs wobbling at times and his face soon sporting huge, purple swellings around both eyes.
By the start of the eighth, Gomez knew he was running out of time. His eyes were slits about to close and when they did, the fight would be stopped. And so, like a desperate gambler going all in on the last hand, he charged out, throwing wild, mean punches, hoping for a miracle. The crafty Sanchez saw his opportunity and landed a series of vicious counter left hooks to both head and body and then, just as Gomez shifted to anticipate more hooks, the champion forced him to the ropes and, with grim determination and beautiful timing, landed one wicked right hand after another.
The final right was a thunderous blow, buckling the challenger’s legs and rendering Gomez helpless, and a follow-up flurry put him down for a second time. Demonstrating amazing courage, the game challenger climbed to his feet but the referee took a long look at Gomez and then signaled that the fight was over. Seconds later resounding chants of “Me-hi-co! Me-hi-co!” echoed through Caesars Palace as a jubilant Sanchez was lifted up and carried about the ring.
So disrespectful before the bout, Wilfredo Gomez sang a different tune after it, admitting he had underestimated the Mexican sharp-shooter with the iron chin. He prayed for a rematch, but all hopes of avenging his first defeat vanished when less than a year later, Sanchez, after scoring wins over three more challengers including future champion Azumah Nelson, slammed his Porsche into a truck on a narrow Mexican road. For years after, a regular visitor to Salvador’s grave in the town of Santiago Tianguistenco was none other than the great Puerto Rican champion whose name will be forever linked with that of his legendary conqueror. — Michael Carbert