Whether it be the consistently absurd behavior of the alphabet bodies, or the numerous promotional feuds that have prevented so many great fights from happening, the sport of boxing has a storied history of shooting itself in the foot. What might be equally or even more frustrating is the seemingly endless number of bad decisions that have occurred, with fighters getting blatantly cheated out of a deserved victory, the outcome leaving a vile and bitter taste in the mouths of all who witnessed it.
Few better examples of an egregious and confounding decision exists than the contest between former stablemates Carlos Zarate and Lupe Pintor at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas back in 1979. Zarate was making the tenth defence of his WBC bantamweight belt, which he had won three years earlier. With a pristine record of 54-1 and an incredible 53 victories by stoppage, the always dangerous Zarate was the rightful favorite. His only defeat had come the year before when he challenged the great Wilfredo Gomez for the super bantamweight title and was stopped in five rounds by the powerful Puerto Rican they called “Bazooka.”
Zarate vs Pintor was a spirited yet technical fight, both boxers pushing themselves and each other to the limit. While it started slowly, the pace picked up as the contest progressed. It was Zarate who had the first dominant moment, as he knocked Pintor down near the end of round four with a lead right-straight left combination. Despite it being the first knockdown of Pintor’s career, he got up unfazed and showed no sign of breaking mentally. The defending champion continued to do good work in the middle rounds, landing solid jabs and straight rights, while maintaining a tight defense. Pintor had his moments as well, the best being in the tenth, when he staggered Zarate with a crisp left hook. But in the end it was clear to all that Zarate had consistently landed the more telling blows and enjoyed more dominant stretches.
But after 15 hard-fought rounds, incredulously, a very surprised looking Lupe Pintor was awarded the split decision. Even more ludicrous was the disparity in the judges’ cards. Two of them had Pintor ahead by a single point, 143-142, while the third had it 145-133 for Zarate. Although Pintor deserved credit for being only the second man to last the distance with Zarate, the champion had clearly done more than enough to win. One wonders what judges Art Lurie and Harold Buck were watching. Maybe they were both distracted by the celebrities seated ringside. While I disagree with how wide the third card was for Zarate, at least that judge had the right man winning.
The day following the match, ex-champion Zarate gave his statement about what he regarded as a blatant injustice: “For some reason I have been robbed of my title by the officials in Nevada. I want the World Boxing Council to study a film of the fight. I should be given my title back. The decision was a terrible disgrace.”
But the skewed outcome damaged something more than Zarate’s record; it also wounded his pride. Even though Pintor and the WBC were willing to grant him a rematch, a dispirited Zarate instead decided to retire. And while he had already accomplished so much in the sport, one wonders what more Carlos might have done had he regained his title and stayed active. He was only 28, still in his athletic prime. Who knows how many more masterful performances he could have put on display?
Instead, he decided enough was enough. What many did not know was that prior to his battle with Pintor, Zarate had already been seriously considering walking away from the fight game. An article in the July, 1981 issue of The Ring revealed the sense of career fatigue that had actually set in before the decision loss to Pintor. In fact, Zarate had revealed to those closest to him that he had lost the desire to train, that after so many years of work and sacrifice, his drive had become stale. Zarate was one of the most successful fighters of all-time, undoubtedly one of the best bantamweights ever. His life was boxing but the sport had taken its toll, both on the body and the mind.
Thus, one can see how “losing” to Pintor was the proverbial final straw, prompting a proud warrior to decide he wanted no more of pugilism. After all, boxing is an unforgiving sport, and if you are anything less than totally dedicated, you risk getting seriously hurt. In that regard, Zarate made the best move for his future and given the risks involved, who can argue against the decision?
But five years later, like so many aging champions before him, Zarate made a comeback, winning 12 consecutive matches before losing in back-to-back super bantamweight title bids. And thus it’s unfortunate that the last memory we have of the great Zarate in his prime was when he was on the wrong end of an unjust and confounding decision. He deserved so much better than that. But at least we can always look back on the many great performances prior to the Pintor robbery, when his impressive skills and astonishing power were on full display, when he was one of the greatest Mexican boxers to ever compete. Unlike the Pintor fight and what should have been another win for the great “Cañas,” those can never be taken away. — Jamie Rebner