In Salvador Sanchez, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek walks amongst men who died much too soon. Such deaths are tragic by definition, but in the case of the men depicted in the song’s lyrics, tragedy compounds upon the irony of the fact that they were professional boxers. These were athletes in their physical prime at the time they left us, which only makes their early departures that much more unfathomable and sad.
Death, it must be admitted, is simply part of boxing, just as it is for auto racing or skydiving or other highly dangerous sports, a painful truth we had to confront again with the death yesterday of Maxim Dadashev, days after his brutal battle with Subriel Matias. And sometimes it is art or music which helps us grieve and deal with the loss, and then find a way to move on. At the very least, Kozelek found a way to pay tribute to all the young fighters who chase their dreams and then, tragically, pay the ultimate price.
The song begins with the strumming of an electric guitar reverberating fat and full. The riff, which ends up making up most of the song, evokes a slow, epic march. It is the march of time, binding together the lives of the different characters brought back to life in the song. They shared a purpose in life, and they also shared a tragic ending. But time itself is eternal, and–by the law of large numbers–there is therefore a chance that we’ll yet see others like them.
Mexico City bred so many
But none quite like him, sweet warrior
Pure magic matador
The Mexican legend Salvador Sanchez is the subject of the song’s first two verses. His meteoric rise saw him win the WBC featherweight title when he knocked out Danny “Little Red” Lopez at just 21 years of age. By the time he was 23, he had made nine successful defenses of the belt and was considered a pugilistic prodigy. Sanchez was that rarest of gems: a boxer of finesse and ring-smarts who was also a must-watch, all-action warrior. His intelligence, power, toughness and counter-punching ability made him one of the best featherweights of all-time.
After he defeated Azumah Nelson in a dramatic and hard-won battle in the summer of 1982, there was talk of him moving up to challenge the great Alexis Argüello for the lightweight title. Unfortunately, the world never got the chance to see what would’ve undoubtedly been a fantastic fight, as that same summer, during a joyride in his Porsche 928 on a Mexican highway, Salvador Sanchez crashed his car and was instantly killed.
Pancho Villa would never rest
‘Til 1925 he closed his eyes
‘Til Manilla stars would rise
Francisco Guilledo, more commonly known as Pancho Villa, amassed a record of 80-5-3 throughout his career. He had lightning quick hands, and speed more than made up for his lack of power. With the left hand he threw wide, fast hooks and flickering jabs that landed before they were seen; the right hand he used for powerful lead crosses and weird-angled uppercuts from the outside. He rose from poverty to win widespread recognition as the best flyweight in the world at age 21. In 1923 he defeated Jimmy Wilde by knockout in seven rounds, becoming the first ever Filipino world champion.
But during his last fight ever against Jimmy McLarnin, he fought most of the match with one hand pressed against his swollen face, desperately trying to protect an ulcerated tooth from any possible further damage. That night he lasted the distance, but lost the fight on the scorecards. A few days later he died on a hospital bed after emergency surgery, as the tooth infection spread to his throat, killing him just days before his 24th birthday.
Benny “Kid” Paret came a good way
Climbed to the grey sky to raise his hands
Stopped by the better man
Cuba’s Benny “Kid” Paret was a two-time world welterweight champion, but is remembered more for his losses than for his wins. At his best, he was quick and powerful, but throughout his career, even in victory, he suffered tremendous physical punishment in the ring.
Paret’s trilogy against Emile Griffith, fought over the span of the last twelve months of his life, consists of forty rounds, some of which must be among the most brutal the sport has ever seen. In their first battle, Paret lost the title by knockout; the rematch saw him regain the belt via split-decision; but the third clash proved fatal for the young Cuban. At one point during the final round “Kid” ever fought, he was punched twenty-nine times without interruption. The moment the fight ended Paret lapsed into a coma and he never regained consciousness. He died ten days later.
Kozelek’s voice throughout this haunting song is somehow soothing. On the choruses, it climbs to a semi-falsetto that lifts the listener to a place where dreams and memory fuse, where we can visit with the ghosts of the fallen warriors. But it is the guitar work that really shines and enlivens the entire song. The main riff drives the track, and the flourishes provide color, while the abstract solo serves as a bridge between epochs, allowing us to reflect on the truths Kozelek sings.
And thus the song is somehow, despite the dark topic of death in youth, strangely uplifting. It speaks of memory and of the worthiness of revisiting past deeds. Greatness and tragedy are inevitably intertwined, and there’s a reason for that: neither has much of a meaning without the other. It is Kozelek’s achievement that he uses both music and boxing to remind us of this.
Why have they gone
Felled by leather
All bound together
— Rafael García Quiñones