Danny “Little Red” Lopez had won the WBC version of the featherweight crown in 1976 and no one begrudged him the title. This was because Lopez, contrary to the stereotype of the merciless, one-punch KO artist, was as nice a guy as you could ever meet in boxing. Respectful and unassuming, “Little Red” quietly went about his business which involved dishing out some shattering right hands to his opponents, though often not before getting a bit roughed up himself.
The story of Danny Lopez is one we’ve heard many times before, one that almost redeems this brutal and heartbreaking sport. Boxing gave him the means to rise above living with seven siblings in a two-room shack on a native reservation and spending time in jail for assault and battery before being shuffled off to a foster home. His older brother Ernie boxed, had even challenged for the welterweight world title against the great Jose Napoles, so when Danny was 16 he simply made up his mind he would be a fighter as well. He embraced all the discipline, dedication and hard work the profession necessitates and ever after, there was no more trouble with the law. Five years after he turned pro there he was, in Ghana of all places, overwhelming David Kotey for the featherweight championship of the world.
The reign of this future Hall of Famer was marked by the thrills he gave the crowds both when he was taking punishment and dishing it out. A notoriously slow starter, Lopez usually looked terrible in the first round or two, eating punch after punch, before he found his rhythm and began to make the other guy pay dearly for his transgressions. More often than not, a thunderbolt KO soon followed, courtesy of his vaunted right cross. Prime examples are his title matches against Kenji Endo or Juan Malvares. Before facing Sanchez, Lopez had defended his championship eight times, in the process becoming one of the most popular boxers in America, his bouts featured regularly on live television. Everyone expected “Little Red” to notch successful defense number nine against the unknown Mexican, the contest Saturday afternoon fare on the CBS network.
But it didn’t work out that way. Few north of the border knew at the time, but the 21-year-old Salvador Sanchez was not just another contender. A gifted counter-puncher, Sanchez had patience and maturity beyond his years, along with quick hands and a rock-solid chin. As early as the second round, it looked like this would be a long and painful afternoon for “Little Red” as the challenger connected far too frequently with damaging power shots, especially the counter right. Lopez’s fans waited for his trademark comeback, but it never happened. By round four his left eye was swelling shut and by round six a bad cut had opened over the right.
The battle was fast-paced but one-sided. Constantly bouncing on the balls of his feet, Sanchez would move in with the cool efficiency of a remorseless assassin to land his left hook or counter right and then, just as quickly and smoothly, move out of range. Lopez never stopped trying, but he was too slow to connect with force and consistency. In round seven the action heated up as Sanchez, with no fear of the champion’s power, elected to stand and trade and “Little Red,” game as ever, eagerly took the fight to the challenger. But while both men were throwing big punches, the only person scoring clean hits was Sanchez. At the end of the round an overhand right buckled the champion’s knees.
It was more of the same in rounds eight and nine before Lopez finally asserted himself in the tenth, backing Sanchez up and timing his right hand better. But he couldn’t hurt the challenger and the following round saw a return to a one-sided beat down from Sanchez. The sheer number of clean, sharp punches Lopez was taking had to be alarming for both his fans and his corner, not to mention the millions watching on live television, but, as everyone knew, there was no quit in the proud champion. Danny’s only hope was that Sanchez might tire, yet, despite the swift pace, the Mexican appeared just as sharp in round 12 as he had in the first. He was hurting Lopez now in almost every exchange, but “Little Red” never stopped trying to find the one big shot that might turn it around.
Finally, in round 13, the referee decided Lopez had to be saved from his own courage. After two clean rights staggered the champion yet again, he stepped between the fighters and raised the hand of Sanchez, and thus one distinguished title reign ended and another began. The fighter they called “Chava,” perhaps the greatest of all the great Mexican boxers, would embark on a short but extraordinary run, ten title defenses in fewer than 18 months, including a rematch win over Lopez and victories against such formidable battlers as Ruben Castillo, Juan Laporte, Wilfredo Gomez and Azumah Nelson. Killed in a car accident in 1982, the title he took from Lopez was his until the day he died. Suffice to say, his reign lived up to its auspicious beginning. – Michael Carbert