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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Gómez vs. Sánchez

There was never a greater small fighter than Wilfredo Gómez. Known as “Bazooka” for his awesome two-handed punching power, or “The Cobra” for his hypnotizing side-to-side movement, Gómez at his peak was an incomparable combination of aggression, speed and wallop.

His killer instinct was superb, as time and again he would get opponents into trouble and finish them off in seconds with dazzling combinations. Gómez cemented his stardom when he faced the legendary Carlos Zárate, a slim power-punching Mexican who boasted an incredible 55-0 record with 54 KOs. Zárate knocked Gómez down in the first round, but Gómez shook it off and proceeded to demolish the legend with a brutal 5th round knockout.

Salvador Sánchez rose quietly through the ranks, suffering an early loss in an opponent’s home city. Steady and methodical, training like a demon, Sánchez efficiently rose to become a champion and made himself one of the greatest small fighters ever seen.

Although Gómez was a bantamweight and Sánchez a slightly-heavier featherweight, it was inevitable that they would meet. On August 21st, 1981, the fight called “The Battle of the Little Giants” took place. Sánchez was then 41-1 with 31 KOs while Gómez was 32-0-1 with 32 KOs. (It bears repeating: 32 wins, all by knockout.) Gómez had developed the reputation of destroying Mexican fighters and his arrogance grated on Sánchez, who was normally unemotional about his opponents. Although Gómez was moving up in weight to challenge Sánchez, the Puerto Rican juggernaut was still a 2-1 favorite.

For the first time in my life, I bet on a fight: $100. I was so sure of the outcome, I even forgot to watch it. Small mercies.

Gómez landed the first knockout punch and anyone else but the Mexican would have gone down. Sánchez stayed upright, then knocked Gómez down in that first round and only heart kept Gómez from losing the fight in the first few rounds. Sánchez pressed his advantage and pummeled Gómez, beating him soundly until the fight ended on an eighth round TKO.

I lost $100. Much later, I learned how losing my bet was inevitable.

Sánchez was a gym rat, a dedicated athlete who polished his skills with discipline. Gómez was flying high, confident to the point of vanity about his abilities. Hell, he was even dating a distant cousin of mine and making a point of staying out until dawn, singing, dancing and living it up until a week before the fight.

Only one recognized expert called it. My dad’s closest cousin, Waldemar Schmidt, one-time Ring Magazine “Referee of the Year” and early holder of the record for most championship bouts, said it loud and clear: Gómez will lose. To Puerto Ricans, this was high treason, to have one of their own pick a Mexican over a boricua. ¡Al carajo con eso! I wish he’d told me.

The epilogue is both tragic and touching. In July of the following year, Sánchez won with a champion’s brilliance against a very strong Azumah Nelson in what turned out to be his last fight. On August 12th, 1982, less than a year after defeating The Cobra, Sánchez died in a car accident. One of the mourners at his tomb was Gómez, who brought flowers, shared the family’s grief and has stayed in touch with them ever since. The town where Sánchez was born, Tianguistenco, celebrates a festival every year in commemoration of their champion. Gómez has been the Guest of Honor 19 times.


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