The expectations were high this past Saturday when Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez answered the bell in Las Vegas and with good reason. Few countries can match Mexico when it comes to a long-standing national tradition of furious fisticuffs, and when two proud hombres from south of the Rio Grande lock up, you know it’s going to be special. So as the dust settles from an intense battle topped off by a vicious knockout, it’s time to look back and rank the greatest ever all-Mexican duels. These are the most significant and furiously contested Mexico vs Mexico rumbles of all-time. Has Valdez vs Berchelt earned a place alongside them?
12. Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles TD 12 Armando Muñiz I – March 29, 1975: When Napoles fled both Cuba and Fidel Castro’s unfortunate ban on pro boxing, he found asylum in Mexico and a welcoming public who knew talent when they saw it. Thus, “Mantequilla” became an honorary Mexican, amassing popularity in his new home with battles against the likes of Curtis Cokes, Emile Griffith, Hedgemon Lewis and Carlos Monzon, the last an unsuccessful shot at the middleweight crown. When Napoles returned to welterweight to defend his crown, he encountered one Armando Muñiz, a 6-to-1 underdog and former Olympian with a fervent desire to seize Napoles’ belt. But Armando found heartache and disappointment instead of fistic glory, as he saw his first battle with “Mantequilla” controversially stopped by the referee and, after a short talk ringside with WBC honcho Jose Sulaiman, a technical decision awarded to Napoles when Armando had clearly dominated most of the bout. As insulting and disgusting an outcome as it was, unfortunately it would be just the first of several disappointments the talented Muñiz would suffer. For the Napoles, it represented a wake-up call that his storied career was nearing its end.
11. Erik Morales KO 11 Daniel Zaragoza – September 6, 1997: It was the classic confrontation: age and experience vs youth and raw talent. The 39-year-old Zaragoza was the grizzled super-bantamweight champ. Opposite him stood Erik Morales, a 21-year-old sensation viewed as the next great Mexican fighter. The bout was viewed as Morales’ coming out party, his first chance at a world title and his introduction to American fans. The early rounds were close, but in the fourth a wild right hand from the champion landed flush on the younger man’s jaw, buckling his knees. But Morales eventually gained control, gradually losing respect for the champion’s power, and battering Zaragoza with inside uppercuts and hooks. In round eleven Morales landed a huge right to the pit of Zaragoza’s stomach, the force of the blow launching the proud, old warrior off his feet and onto his back. Rolling up to a sitting position, Zaragoza smiled and gestured at Morales to congratulate his conqueror and didn’t bother to try and beat the count.
10. Julio Cesar Chavez TKO 8 Mario “Azabache” Martinez – Sept. 13, 1984: Once again the L.A. Forum hosts an all-Mexican showdown, this time on the eve of Mexican Independence weekend. Nineteen-year-old “Azabache” Martinez, riding high after impressive wins over Donny Brooks and former champ Rolando Navarrete, gets his shot at the super featherweight belt that Hector Camacho had recently vacated. Mexican fans can’t wait for Martinez’ crowning, but in his way stands the then unknown 21-year-old Chavez. For the better part of eight rounds Julio mercilessly pounded on a game but bloodied—and ultimately outmatched—Martinez in a brutal fight. The end result was a vintage Chavez stoppage, the first of six world titles for Chavez, and the birth of a legend. Instant and widespread acclaim followed, with the boxing world rejoicing at having discovered the next great Mexican fighter.
9. Carlos Palomino TKO 15 Armando Muñiz I – January 21, 1977: Palomino arrived at his first meeting with Muñiz (incidentally, the first world title fight between college graduates) as the welterweight champ after beating Britain’s John Stracey a few months before, who in turn had dethroned the great Napoles. Muñiz, for his part, was taking his third shot at the title, after having twice fallen to the same Napoles. Largely due to Armando’s performances against “Mantequilla”–especially in their first fight–the challenger’s fan base had expanded considerably, his supporters expecting him to annex a world title in his third try. But after fourteen very close and very violent rounds, Palomino took charge in the fifteenth and earned a dramatic knockout win.
8. Lupe Pintor SD 15 Carlos Zarate– June 3, 1979: In 1979 Carlos Zarate enjoyed the adulation of his countrymen as the best bantamweight in the world. In Mexico he attended parties studded with celebrities and politicians, while in the U.S. he fought hard and often, earning paychecks the size of which he never dreamed of as a kid on the streets of his impoverished Tepito neighborhood. After a painful loss to Wilfredo Gomez, Zarate went back down to his preferred weight class to face Lupe Pintor, a former gym mate and rising contender. Contested at Caesars Palace, Zarate vs Pintor is still considered a Rorschach test for boxing fans: those who favor clean, crisp punching believe Zarate earned the victory that the judges awarded to the busier, but less efficient, Pintor. At the time many believed the outcome an obvious robbery, and the loss hurled Zarate into a downward spiral of indebtedness and drug abuse that took him years to get out of. For Pintor, it was the start of a championship run that would be filled with drama, excitement, and even tragedy.
7. Juan Manuel Marquez UD 12 Marco Antonio Barrera – March 17, 2007: Barrera defended for the fifth time the WBC super featherweight title he acquired in his rubbermatch with Erik Morales against Juan Manuel Marquez in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay. Marquez, who three years before had amazingly fought his way back from three first-round knockdowns to a disputed draw with Manny Pacquiao, was two-fights removed from a dubious points loss to Chris John and badly in need of a signature win. “Dinamita” took full advantage of the opportunity against the aging but more popular Barrera by showcasing a more offensive-minded style than usual, going toe-to-toe with “The Baby-Faced Assassin.” Technical and violent in equal measures, Barrera vs Marquez became a festival of flashy combinations and vicious power-punching in what would be Barrera’s last great performance. Amid all the heated action referee Jay Nady even missed a Barrera knockdown, but penalized Marco for punching Marquez when he was down. At night’s end the referee’s mistake had no bearing on the result since, surprisingly, all three judges had Marquez winning a comfortable decision in what many spectators deemed a fight too close to call.
6. Marco Antonio Barrera MD 12 Erik Morales – November 27, 2004: After two dramatically close encounters, Morales and Barrera met at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand for a trilogy fight. Morales arrived as the slight favorite as some were deeply concerned Barrera was in decline given that he underwent brain surgery following his rematch with Morales only to be stopped by Manny Pacquiao in 2003. Nevertheless, fans flocked to the contest entranced by the promise of non-stop action and the two proud Mexican warriors delivered. What would become 2004’s Fight of the Year yielded a ferocious encounter and a scintillating eleventh round that became the best three minutes of battle that year. In the end, Barrera emerged victorious via majority decision, putting an end to one of the greatest rivalries in recent boxing history.
5. Rafael Herrera KO 8 Ruben Olivares – March 19, 1972: A former seminarian and hopeful soccer player, Rafael Herrera wouldn’t be on most people’s list of candidates to dethrone one of the hardest-punching champions of his time. But in front of a rowdy crowd at Mexico City’s Toreo de Cuatro Caminos, Herrera not only dethroned Puas: incredibly, he actually put a beating on him. Showing no respect for Olivares, who at that point had fought in over seventy pro fights while losing only once, Rafael pounced away from the start, opening a cut over Puas’ right eye in the sixth, and earning a highlight-reel knockout with a beauty of a right hand in the eighth. While Olivares would afterwards blame the shocking loss on weight struggles, the truth is Herrera’s triumph effectively closed an era in Mexican boxing. Olivares–perhaps the greatest Mexican fighter up to that point–would battle on for over fifteen years following the loss to Herrera, but there’s little doubt he lost much more than his title that night.
4. Carlos Zarate TKO 4 Alfonso Zamora – April 23, 1977: In 1977 the two best boxers in the bantamweight division were both tremendous punchers, both undefeated, both champions, and both natives of Mexico City. A showdown was inevitable between these two friends and former training partners; even further, 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 knockouts in 73 fights. In front of a robust police presence to deal with a rowdy crowd, and notwithstanding the mid-fight intrusion of a largely unclothed spectator, Zarate vs Zamora delivered what everyone had come to see, namely a brutal war. After four chaotic rounds and two knockdowns, a flurry of hard punches from Zarate left Zamora crumpled under the ropes, effectively crowning ‘El Toro’ as the most fearsome bantamweight of his time and making him a bona fide Latino boxing superstar.
3. Israel Vazquez SD 12 Rafael Marquez III – March 1, 2008: By the time March of 2008 rolled around, Vazquez and Marquez had already passed a world title belt back-and-forth in back-to-back fights. The first bout saw Vazquez retire on his stool because of a broken nose, and the rematch saw Marquez stopped in the six by a bloodied Vazquez. Both encounters offered thrilling, non-stop action cut short by premature endings, so there was the feeling that Vazquez vs Marquez III could still top their already impressive displays. That is exactly what happened in their third fight, as the rubbermatch yielded an epic war between the two Mexico City natives. They exchanged knockdowns and fought with fierce pride through twelve grueling and rousing rounds, with Vazquez earning the split nod from the judges. It was thus that Mexican boxing saw yet another savage chapter added to its history books, one that stands apart from all others.
2. Jesus Castillo TKO 14 Ruben Olivares – October 16, 1970: The first Olivares vs Castillo confrontation, fought at the legendary L.A. Forum, broke Puas’ impressive KO streak, although Olivares still emerged victorious after proving superior to Castillo. But that was only the opening salvo of this classic Mexican rivalry, with expectations running high when the rematch was announced. The second fight between these bitter foes–held at the same venue as the first in front of a rabid crowd of over 16,000–saw the mighty Olivares suffer a nasty cut over his left eye early on, which made it all that more difficult to deal with his nemesis’ overly inspired fists. It was a historical loss for Olivares, since it represented the first blemish on the resume of the fighter then considered the greatest among all Mexican boxers. It also represented Chucho’s peak: after failing in two previous attempts to capture bantamweight gold, he finally earned the title by stopping a fearsome puncher in one hell of a battle, thus proving his mettle and his standing as a Mexican great.
1. Erik Morales SD 12 Marco Antonio Barrera – February 19, 2000: As far as all-Mexican fights are concerned, fans never had it better. At Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, two fierce, all-action warriors met in a super bantamweight unification grudge match that ushered in the era of the Fabulous Four. Morales brought an undefeated record, as well as impressive wins over Daniel Zaragoza, Wayne McCullough and the same Junior Jones who had twice bested Barrera. The “Baby-Faced Assassin”, notwithstanding his losses to Jones, wanted to prove he was every bit as good as the younger Morales; bookies begged to differ, some of them going as far as labeling him a 5-to-1 underdog in his first meeting with “El Terrible.”
Needless to say, Barrera vs Morales I more than lived up to its considerable hype, offering rancor-fuelled action from the opening bell and changes in momentum in practically every round. The violence reached an apex in a savage fifth stanza that earned Round of the Year honors. Controversy also arose, with Barrera earning a dubious knockdown in a dramatic final round. In the end, close scorecards awarded a split decision to “El Terrible” when most observers believed Barrera more deserving. The first Barrera vs Morales confrontation is a true boxing classic counted by many among the most vicious prizefights ever fought. –Rafael Garcia