Who Is The Greatest Mexican Boxer?

Michael Carbert: Several years ago I wrote up a Top 12 Greatest All-Time Mexican Boxers list and to my delight, it inspired some consternation. I’ve wanted to revisit the topic because I’ve since learned the list is missing at least a couple of important names. Now, for the sake of the discussion, Rafa, our focus will primarily be about the achievements and level of excellence demonstrated by the fighters, as opposed to a speculative who-beats-who ranking. Plus, we will only consider fighters whose careers are now etched in history, safely in the record books. Are we in agreement with that? Or do we need further, more stringent criteria?

Zarate is definitely in the top 5.
Zarate: definitely top 5.

Rafael Garcia: Given the fact Mexican fighters are—by everyone’s recognition—a distinct breed, I think there’s an important criteria missing from your statement, Michael. If we’re going to rank Mexican fighters, we sure as hell make sure that on top of achievements and level of excellence we also consider how well each candidate represented the Mexican Style of fighting. The Platonic Mexican Fighter is offensive-minded, a come-forward warrior who loves to mix it up. Deft at combination punching, he prefers infighting to a round-the-ring chess match, and never, under any circumstance, will he shy away from proving the quality of his exceptional chin. Call it machismo, call it #MexicanStyle, or call it cojones, but that’s exactly what everyone thinks about when they think Mexican boxing. Having said all that, we have to start somewhere, and your original list is as good a departure point as any:

1. Salvador Sanchez
2. Julio Cesar Chavez
3. Ruben Olivares
4. Kid Azteca
5. Ricardo Lopez
6. Marco Antonio Barrera
7. Carlos Zarate
8. Erik Morales
9. Miguel Canto
10. Juan Manuel Marquez
11. Lupe Pintor
12. Vicente Saldivar

Three things jump out at me right away. First, as you say, there’s at least a couple of significant names missing, the most prominent for me being Baby Arizmendi, who holds the distinction of having defeated the great Henry Armstrong not once, but twice, though he ended up losing to him thrice afterwards. Second, you go against pretty much every other Top Mexican Fighters list out there by placing Sanchez ahead of Chavez.

Arizmendi: notable absence.
Arizmendi: notable absence.

Third, the list is clearly outdated given “Dinamita’s” low ranking, especially compared to his contemporaries Morales and Barrera. Since you put this list together before Marquez dominated Pacquiao in their third fight (only to get robbed by the judges), and before he scored a knockout for the ages in the fourth, I think we have some fixing to do regarding Marquez’ standing.

Going back to the Sanchez vs Chavez debate, every time you and I discuss the issue I sense you prefer the kid from Santiago Tianguistenco based on his formidable ring prowess and the potential of what he could have become. But you overlook the fact that JC Superstar has the better record and more robust accomplishments. This seems to me to go against the parameters you mentioned in your opening comments that we should rank fighters based on their “achievements and level of excellence.” What am I missing here?

MC: Okay, let’s take one thing at a time. First, as noted, that list is several years old and I make no great claims for it. I don’t consider myself a great boxing historian or an authority on Mexican fisticuffs. So the first thing is to make sure there are no serious omissions. You bring up Baby Arizmendi, and maybe there’s some others who deserve due consideration. Names like Raul Macias, Baby Casanova and Rafael Marquez come to mind. So that’s at least four names which we need to assess against the others before making a decision on the final twelve. Second, I agree of course, Juan Manuel Marquez has to be higher. How high is the question.

Juan Manuel Marquez. Painting by Damien Burton.

RG: My namesake Rafa Marquez was indeed a great fighter, but I think his body of work falls just a tad short. He held titles at bantamweight and super bantamweight, and was at his absolute best in his unforgettable rivalry with fellow Mexican Israel Vazquez, where he showed not only his impressive boxing pedigree, but also incredible resilience and courage under fire.

However, while he certainly had an impressive career, I don’t believe he deserves a spot on our list, since you could make the case that someone like Jorge Arce should outrank him: “Travieso” earned titles in four weight classes and arguably partook in more classic slugfests than Rafa did. An important thing to consider is Arce’s #MexicanStyle credentials are certainly there, a true Mexican warrior who always gave it all in the ring, but does that mean we should consider Arce for our list? I think you’ll agree, despite Jorge’s accomplishments, his body of work does not stand up to that of the truly great Mexicans. So by the Travieso Standard, if Arce clearly doesn’t make the cut, then Rafa shouldn’t either.

The case of Olympian Raul “Raton” Macias is even more clear cut; his popularity and high-regard had a lot to do with the fact that he was one of the first Mexican fighters to benefit from the mass exposure television could bring. He had an appealing personality and an entertaining fighting style but the depth in resumé is simply not there to merit consideration. What do you think of Baby Arizmendi? Do you reckon we should bump someone else and grant him a spot?

Greatest Mexican boxers
Kid Azteca

MC: Arizmendi definitely has to be there. Just look at the names on his record. You mention the wins over Armstrong, but he also competed with guys like Lou Ambers, Chalky Wright, Sammy Angott and Freddie Miller. Considering the competition he faced, his 26 losses against 71 wins can’t be grounds to dismiss him, especially since many of those defeats were close decisions. What about Baby Casanova? Like Arizmendi, he fought during a highly competitive era and, interestingly, his battle with Sixto Escobar is regarded as the first chapter in the historic Mexico vs Puerto Rico rivalry. The next question is which names come off the list? I’m thinking Lupe Pintor and Kid Azteca maybe don’t quite make the cut.

RG: I’ve always thought Pintor’s standing in Mexican boxing lore is a bit overestimated, as his resumé pales in comparison to that of the other great Mexican bantamweights like Olivares and Zarate. This is especially so if we consider he became champion thanks to a highly controversial–and we all know what the “c” word usually implies–decision over Carlos Zarate, a verdict universally regarded as one of the most bizarre in boxing history. Thus, someone with the credentials of Baby Arizmendi deserves a spot on the list above Pintor.

Kid Azteca’s profile benefited from his fighting in an era of intense competition, though unfortunately for him, he lost against many of the biggest names he faced. He split wins against Ceferino Garcia over four bouts, went 1-3 with Fritzie Zivic, and lost to both Rodolfo Casanova and Sam Angott. While he was wildly popular in Mexico and in American states with sizeable Latino contingents, his stature stemmed from the fact he’d fight anyone, anywhere, at any time, even if it meant not winning almost a quarter of his fights. I think a bit more consistency is required for someone to make our Top 12 list.

Saldivar: deserves a boost.
Saldivar: deserves a boost.

Is it time now to move on to the ‘Dinamita’ question? Now that I look at it more closely, this is a trickier issue than I first thought. There’s no doubt Marquez needs to be placed above his contemporaries Barrera and Marquez, but the question is by how much? My first instinct is to put him on the fourth spot that Kid Azteca undeservingly occupied. I do think he is worthier of that spot than Finito Lopez, who may very well be the most technically accomplished fighter on the list, but who suffered from a relative dearth of quality opposition.

However, I don’t think we should go beyond that and put him above Puas, given Olivares’ outstanding domination of the bantamweight ranks against a murderer’s row of opponents. There was a time when the finest featherweights avoided Marquez and then there was a time when his dogged pursuit of nemesis Manny Pacquiao kept him from asserting himself as an Olivares-style despot either at super featherweight or even lightweight, as Juan Manuel was too busy jumping through weight classes trying to land the third and fourth shots at the Pacman. As things turned out, Manny Pacquiao is the reason Marquez climbs as high as he does now, but the Filipino is also the reason Dinamita will have to content himself with not getting to the top.

MC: I’m in agreement with all of your points. I know we’re both girding ourselves for the debate to come regarding who deserves the hallowed top spot on the list, but we have another vexing matter to deal with first, namely how to rank Morales and Barrera against each other. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that difficult. Barrera clearly bested Morales in their series, getting the better of it in bouts one and three, no matter what the judges’ scorecards said, and that may seem enough to give him the edge as the two men’s careers are fairly close in terms of accomplishments and level of opposition. That said, the thing which gives me pause is ‘El Terrible’s’ huge 2005 win over Pacquiao. That has to stand as one of the great triumphs in Mexican boxing history and I’m not sure Barrera has a victory on his ledger to match it.

I agree, when you look at the entire career, Marquez has a strong case for being in the top five. Maybe number four is a bit high, but no question, he deserves ranking above Barrera and Morales. As for Olivares, he’s unquestionably in the top five and I don’t think I was being at all generous slotting him at number three. Just look at the record and the guys he fought.

Olivares is a legend.

Here’s my suggestion then for numbers three to twelve in a revamped list with the two ‘babies’ making appearances and with two-time champion Vicente Saldivar — conqueror of Sugar Ramos, Ismael Laguna, Howard Winstone and Jose Legra and one of boxing’s greatest southpaws — getting a much-deserved boost. I’m open to changes here, though I can’t make a convincing case for anyone, including Marquez, deserving to be ranked above Zarate and Olivares. And unlike the earlier list, I think we aren’t leaving out anyone deserving of inclusion.

12.Rodolfo “Baby” Casanova
11. Miguel Canto
10. Marco Antonio Barrera
9. Erik Morales
8. Ricardo Lopez
7. Vicente Saldivar
6. Alberto “Baby” Arizmendi
5. Juan Manuel Marquez
4. Carlos Zarate
3. Ruben Olivares

RG: The race between Barrera and Morales is an extremely close one to call. Barrera could never get an accurate read on Pacquiao, and was overwhelmed both times he faced him. Morales’ first meeting with the Filipino, on the other hand, was an outstanding performance from the Mexican: who can forget his daredevil act in the final round of going southpaw against “The Mexicutioner?” That was pure Mexican Style, my friend. When two bodies of work are so similar we need to find a way to decide who’s got the advantage, and in this case I think we’ll have to compare Morales’ biggest win that was not Barrera (i.e. Pacquiao) and Barrera’s that wasn’t Morales (i.e. his dismantling of Naseem Hamed). Both were brilliant pieces of work, but in retrospect it is clearly Morales’ victory which impresses more. Let’s leave him on spot number nine followed closely by “The Baby-Faced Assassin.”

Zarate and Olivares certainly deserve to be ranked higher than Dinamita, and that is not only based on the fact they accomplished everything they did against amazing competition, but also because they showed such Mexican Style in doing it. Their reputation as fearless warriors and fearsome punchers accompanied them everywhere, and their performances in the ring only enhanced them, laying waste to deep divisions. Marquez, however, struggled under the shadows of Morales and Barrera in large part because he didn’t at first show the penchant for warfare that Erik and Marco did. Violence has always been a big seller in boxing, and that is especially so with the Mexican audience. This fact alone is enough for us to place Marquez at spot number five and not one higher.

Erik Morales of Tijuana, Mexico (R) exchanges blows with Marco Antonio Barrera of Mexico City, Mexico in the first round of their WBC super featherweight championship fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada November 27, 2004. REUTERS/Steve Marcus JSH/SH Reuters / Picture supplied by Action Images *** Local Caption *** RBBORH2004112800074.jpg
Barrera and Morales.

Now that spots twelve through three are firmly decided, let’s get down to business: who should earn the coveted number one spot? Chavez or Salvador? What weighs more heavily: records or sheer talent? Accomplishments or potential?

Both J.C. Superstar and Sal Sanchez had plenty going for them. They were both accomplished champions with fight-ending power and tremendous chins, proven warriors who partook in violent battles, and both had natural talent to spare. That being said, there are some major differences to point out as well. Chavez loved in-fighting and always committed himself to attacking the body to make the head fall eventually. He was a come-forward fighter who always did best against relatively stationary targets, and was adept at cutting off the ring. However, if his game had a weakness, and it did, it was that talented, mobile boxers could give him fits.

Sanchez boxed more fluidly than Chavez, and with a more refined defense as well. His hand speed was better than Chavez’, and this allowed him to get off more punches each time he threw a combination. Also, in contrast to J.C. Superstar, Sal showed a higher degree of adaptability, as comfortable fighting on the backfoot if needed or moving forward if his rival accommodated him.

How would JCC have fared against Pacquiao?
The great JCC finds himself at #1 on most lists.

Taking all this into account, it maybe looks at first glance like Sanchez is the superior boxer. But what makes me hesitate is the fact Salvador’s career was cut short by a fatal car accident. Chavez’ career, on the other hand, featured as many ups and downs as the Sierra Madre mountains that traverse his native homestate of Sinaloa. “El César del Boxeo” amassed a record that, based on numbers alone, stands up to any of those of the all-time greats. He became a three-division world champion, while never dodging a challenge, and did it all while practicing the very essence of what we’ve come to define as “Mexican Style.”

Of course, Chavez’ boxing glory contrasted starkly with the suspicions of corruption and connivance that stemmed from his association with Don King, and from the fact he became one of the sport’s biggest cash cows. Maybe Sanchez’ case benefits from the fact he never even took the chance to play a role like the one Chavez did, given that there wasn’t time for him to climb as high as the Sinaloan did. However, it seems unfair to decide such an important matter based on this point.

In his final fight, Sanchez turns back the challenge of Azumah Nelson.

MC: Unfair as it may be, how can one argue against a boxer who, in terms of competing at the elite level, offers us something close to perfection? That seventeen month stretch between “Chava’s” startling upset of Danny “Little Red” Lopez for the WBC title and his turning back the furious challenge of Azumah Nelson in his final fight is something very special indeed. The only thing missing was a unification match with WBA titlist Eusebio Pedroza, which can’t be held against Sanchez. He defended his title nine times in that span against the best opposition available and in those nine fights defeated stronger opposition than many current-day champions face in their entire careers. Lopez, Ruben Castillo, Patrick Ford, Juan LaPorte, Wilfredo Gomez and Nelson are a truly formidable assemblage of talent and I would challenge you to come up with three vanquished foes on JCC’s ledger to surpass the trio of Hall of Famers that is Lopez, Gomez and Nelson.

Additionally, as bizarre as it may sound, I have some serious reservations about Chavez’s “Mexican Style” credentials. In addition to your own qualms, this is a fighter guilty of quitting on more than one occasion, the ultimate sin for a macho Mexican warrior. He appeared seriously unnerved by the sight of his own blood and what’s worse, when he shook his head and signaled surrender in his rematch with Frankie Randall, he actually won the fight thanks to the WBC’s absurd rules, but then had the nerve to refuse to face Randall again for a full decade. That’s a major strike against him in my book.

The great Salvador Sanchez. Painting by Damien Burton.

Similarly, after defeating Meldrick Taylor by a highly questionable stoppage in 1990, he avoided a rematch for almost five years. He also had a regrettable tendency to refuse to give credit to opponents who got the better of him, for example, blaming his loss to Randall on the referee and refusing to acknowledge the absurdity of the draw verdict against Pernell Whitaker, who, it should be noted, completely out-classed him. Does not a true “Mexican Style” warrior avoid making excuses for losses, while instead seeking out the best competition? Taylor, Randall, and Whitaker all deserved greater respect, not to mention more timely rematches, from “El César del Boxeo.”

The bottom line is, the four faces on the Mount Rushmore of Mexican boxing are these: Chavez, Olivares, Sanchez and Zarate. I think any skeptic would be hard-pressed to put together a solid argument against that statement. Put them in any order you like, those are the top four. Add in the fact that we at The Fight City always like to stir the pot and resist the orthodox conclusion, and I have to pull the trigger for Sanchez at number one. He epitomizes “Mexican Style” boxing, he avoided no worthy challenger, he demonstrated amazing skill and toughness, and his win over Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez is without question one of the very greatest in Mexican boxing history.

Let the debate continue ….

4 thoughts on “Who Is The Greatest Mexican Boxer?

  • December 28, 2018 at 4:04 pm
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    Great debate guys but I’ve got to put Marquez over Zarate.No human being that ever lived would have done to Dinamita what Gomez did to Zarate.

    Reply
  • December 29, 2018 at 11:21 am
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    Very curious. In his times Sanchez was accused of being a “tiempista”, meaning that he used to play along with the judges; and also, he was not very popular with the fanbase because he was promoted for some rich folks. His last two years are the ones that count but I don’t know if that is enough to put him at the top, give me a break. Those were two amazing years and great defenses against solid opposition. But it was really at his prime and in his weight. I think Marquez, even losing a lot, did a lot more than Sanchez.
    Also, Zárate at the top five? No way. Barrera and Morales faced better competition. And if you want to include the oldtimers, you will have a hard time assessing the importance of Rodolfo Casanova. He was a force, an economic shift in Mexican boxing. Arizmendi is important because he is, in fact, the first Mexican world champion, but Casanova beat him. Casanova was the first really important idol of Mexican boxing, there no other way around. Only three boxers have been loved by all Mexicans, Casanova, Macías and Chávez.
    Anyway, amazing reading. Thanks.

    Reply
  • March 12, 2020 at 4:00 pm
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    The top 5 is flawless, except I’d switch Dinamita with Olivares. JMM has an impressive resume even though every relevant boxer ducked him in his early years, starting with Barrera and Morales. He’s number 3 in my book.

    Also, Sal Sanchez is the greatest Mexican boxer ever. His resume while short, is super impressive. He didn’t have any glaring weakness (his driving maybe). He had a great chin. He was faster than Chavez. He had stamina, defense, power, great body work.

    If his life wasn’t cut short we’d be talking about a top-3 pound for pound boxer ever.

    Reply
  • May 11, 2022 at 9:26 am
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    Finally, Salvador Sanchez is getting the recognition he deserves! No one can question what Sanchez accomplished in his short career. It was all there: the style, the power, the stamina, the heart. He had it all. Unfortunately alcohol and a fast car robbed us of his potential to beat any fighter of his era! Sanchez would have given Mayweather hell!

    Reply

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