Puerto Rico: A Tapestry of Boxing
07.01.08 - By Ted Sares - Boxing has become America's tragic theater. --Joyce Carol Oates
Article posted on 08.01.2009
Boxing was on the one hand barbaric, unconscionable, out of place in modern society. But then, so are war, racism, poverty, and pro football. Men died boxing, yet there was nobility in defending oneself. -- Ralph Wiley
Both Craftsmen and artists have produced memorable tapestries. So has a beautiful and verdant Caribbean Island sometimes referred to as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The island, almost rectangular in shape, is the smallest of the Greater Antilles.. With an estimated population of close to four million people and slightly less than three times the size of Rhode Island, it likely has the most dynamic economy in the entire Caribbean. But unlike many other Islands (or countries for that matter), it has a disproportionate number of major league baseball players including Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda. This island nation has over 100 major league baseball players who are now active, thus making baseball one of the most popular sports, but Puerto Rico also has a disproportionate number of boxers who either have been World Champion or top contenders over the years.
The lineage of great boxers from Puerto Rico is a rich, dramatic and, often tragic one, as many of the fighter met with difficulties outside the ring or after they finished their careers. In this regard, Puerto Rico has produced a most compelling tapestry of sports in general and boxing in particular.
The first boxing match in Puerto Rico was held on January 15, 1899, and the first Puerto Rican to win a world title was the great Hall of Famer, Sixto “El Gallito” Escobar, who beat Baby Cassanova in 1934 to win bantamweight belt. Sixto was never knocked out or even taken off his feet during his career. He was inducted into the Hall’s Old Timer section in 2002. His career spanned the period 1930-1940. Much has been written about his life, but I’ll leave that most interesting story to be told by other boxing historians. Suffice it to say he remains a beloved figure in Puerto Rico and after his death in 1979, the town of Barceloneta honored his memory by a statue.
But when one discusses boxing in Puerto Rico these days, certain names always come to the fore,. Names that remind us of the espléndido y magnífico tradition of Puerto Rican boxing.
Carlos Ortiz (1955-1972)
This three time world champion, twice in the lightweight division and once in the Jr. Welterweights slot, ended his great career with a record of 61-7-1-1. Born in Ponce, he moved to New York like so many other Puerto Rican boxers. One of his great wins came against Duilio Loi in 1960. The skilled Italian was 102-1-7 at the time. The list of his opponents reads like an induction ceremony at the Hall. He beat Flash Elorde twice, fought both Sugar Ramos and Ismael Laguna twice, drew with defensive wizard Nicolino Looche, iced Battling Torres who was 31-0 coming in, split a pair with Kenny Lane, and lost his final duke to Ken Buchanan. He retired in 1969, but made a comeback in 1971 winning nine straight fights before Buchanan stopped him in six rounds and ended his memorable career.
His induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHF) came in 1991.
José "Chegui" Torres (1958-1969)
This superb body puncher finished with a fine mark of 41-3-1 with two of his defeats coming at the hands of Dick Tiger. Perhaps the best demonstration of his brutal body work came when he stopped Willie Pastrano at Madison Square Garden in 1965. No cherry picker, “Chegui” fought extremely tough opponents including the likes of Randy Sandy, Kid Paret, Tony Dupas, Wilbur McClure, Jose Monon Gonzalez, Florentino “The Ox” Fernandez, Bobo Olson, Gomeo Brennan, and many others. He was a New York City favorite and fought at the Garden no less than seven times.
An Olympian, world champion, author, and administrator (serving as chairman of the New York State Boxing Commission from 1983-1988), he was inducted into the IBHF in 1997.
Wilfred “El Radar” Benitez (1973-1990)
This triple champion became the youngest fighter in boxing history to win a world title when he decisioned Antonio Cervantes in 1976 to capture the WBA junior welterweight tile at 17 years and six months of age. He went undefeated in his first 39 fights until he lost to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1979. Known for his ring skills and defensive artistry, his nickname was “The Bible of Boxing.” His power was best evidenced by his crushing one punch KO of Maurice Hope in 1981 which was a highlight special for years to come. He ended his with a 53-8-1 slate but like all too many great fighters, he stayed around too long and paid an extremely serious price. Sadly, “El Radar,” who receives a small pension from WBC, suffers from an incurable brain condition and from diabetes as well and requires constant care. To make matters worse, his beloved mother, Clara Rosa Benitez passed away recently. He was inducted into the IBHF in 1996.
Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez (1974-1989)
This great triple champion, had the ability to render opponents unconscious with either hand. As well, he had one of the highest KO percentages in professional boxing, winning 87.5 % of his bouts by stoppage. His first fight in 1974 ended in a draw; he then reeled off 32 straight wins all by way of stoppage. His first loss came at the hands of the great Salvador Sanchez in 1981 in a much ballyhooed bout. He regrouped and won 9 more before being stopped by Azumah Nelson in 1984. His final record was 44 (KO 42)-3 (KO 3)-1. Reportedly, he had drug problems and issues with the law, but cleaned up his act and became a born-again Christian. The great Gomez was inducted into the IBHF in 1995. Documenting his many issues, a biographical film entitled Bazooka: The Battles of Wilfredo Gómez was produced in 2003 by Cinemar.
Edwin "El Chapo" Rosario (1979-1997)
This rugged bomber went 25-0 before losing in a major upset to Jose Luis Ramirez in 1984 in San Juan in a classic brawl in which both fighters hit the deck. “Chapo” had taken the Mexican’s measure a year earlier. His final mark was 47-6 with an impressive KO percentage of 77.36. After losing to Frankie Randall in 1993, he stayed away from boxing until 1997 when he won his last five fights. Sadly, he passed away that same year dying of an aneurysm in December, though some say suspected drug addiction played a role. He was only 36.
On January 12, 2006 "El Chapo" was inducted into the Hall, thus becoming the sixth Puerto Rican to enter the Hall, a remarkable feat when one considers the size of this Island nation.
But wait, the above mentioned fighters are only part of the story. There are so many others it is a most precarious endeavor to list them for fear of excluding some.
Arguably, Juan Laporte may have fought the toughest opposition of any boxer in history and arguably, he may have the best chin of any boxer. He fought Hall of Famers Salvador Sanchez, Eusebio Pedroza, Wilfredo Gomez, Barry McGuigan, Julio César Chávez, and Azumah Nelson. They don’t come any tougher than that.
There is little doubt that three time champion Felix “Tito” Trinidad also will become a member of the Hall. This great KO artist now looks to be retired with a fine slate of 42-3. Before losing to Bernard Hopkins in 2001, he was 40-0. He also made fifteen successful defenses of his welterweight title. With a suspect chin and bricks in his glove, he brought great excitement into the square circle, and in that regard, he was not unlike “El Chapo“.
Miguel “Junito” Cotto is another in a long line of Puerto Rican warriors who participated in of the great fights of 2008 when he lost to Tony Margarito with his WBA welterweight title at stake. “Junito” was 32-0 at the time and is now set to regain his status as one of the very best pound for pound fighters. Time will tell.
Juan Manuel "Juanma" López Rivera is the latest Puerto Rican sensation having exploded upon the scene with a 24-0 record and a remarkable KO percentage of 91.67. He served notice by icing Giovanni Andrade in one round in 2007 to win the WBO Latino super bantamweight title. In June 2008, he knocked out rugged Daniel Ponce de Leon in the first round by moving in between Ponce wide punches and taking him out with short and crisp shots the power of which were generated by super hand speed.. He the did the same with Cesar Figueroa, but this time it only took him 47 seconds to close the show. Two months later, he met Sergio “Rocky” Medina and ended this fight in 1.38 of the first stanza by rocking “Rocky.” In Juanma’s last 5 outings, he has gone only 8 rounds--which begs the question, is he that good or are his opponents that bad? We will soon find out.
Calderon, otherwise known as “El Niño De Hierro,” is currently at 32-0 and won the WBO minimumweight title in 2003. After defending it eleven times, he took the WBO light flyweight title in 2007 and has successfully defended that crown three times. He could well be another three-time champion.
Alex de Jesus
“El Pollo,” a native of San Juan, is currently undefeated at 19-0 and holds the WBO Latino light welterweight title and several other regional belts. He became the first Puerto Rican to win an Olympic medal since Daniel Santos won a bronze in 1996. He defeated Brazilain Myke Carvallo to win his medal at the 2004 games in Athens, but lost in the next round..
Daniel “El Pillin” Santos
A great amateur, Santos won his third professional championship in July 2008 by knocking out Joacchim Alcine to win the WBA Light middleweight belt. This was his third world title. Interestingly, he holds a TD win over rugged Antonio Margarito, a fight in which Tony received a bad cut forcing a halt to the action in the 10 stanza. His current record stands at 32-3-1 and he remains very much a factor in the light middleweight slot.
There are many ex-World champions or great contenders who have diret ties to Puerto Rico including Hector Camacho (79-5-2) who likely will be inducted into the Hall when his time comes.
After running into trouble with the law, Camacho also proclaimed himself a born-again Christian and is now towing the line. He even won a TKO over Perry Ballard in July 2008 for something called the World Boxing Empire’s middleweight title. But he also won titles n the Super Featherweight, Lightweight, and Featherweight divisions!
Jose Basora fought from 1939-1952 and ran up a record of 78-20-7 including a draw with Sugar Ray Robinson and a win and draw with Jake LaMotta. He also went 3-3-1 with the great Holman Williams. John Ruiz was the first Puerto Rican to become a heavyweight champion and is still fighting at a top level in the division.
The late and tragic Esteban “Vita” De Jesus was a world lightweight champion who won his first 20 pro fights. Addicted and detoxed multiple times, his record was 57 wins and 5 losses, with 32 wins by knockout and included a trilogy with Roberto Duran (1-2). As Ernest Morales wrote in a moving November 14, 2006 ESB piece entitled “The Champ” Nobody Knew:”
“Esteban would eventually be sentenced to a life term of imprisonment for a murder committed while under the influence in a traffic altercation. While in prison he would discover two life-changing things. First he discovered Jesus and became a devout born again Christian. And... he also discovered that he had AIDS.....
When Roberto Duran came to visit him on his death bed, the pathos and nobility of that moment will remain always with those who knew what took place. As Morales wrote, “The Champ [Duran] bid his farewell to the 'enemy' he always said he respected most with another firm but gentle and uncharacteristic hug and kiss. He waved to all and stepped outside. As he asked us to please send for the future widow, his eyes were noticeably watery and full, he gave her a generous offering of love and left as the press and cameras present followed. They were following The Champ, a true Champ….”
Carlos “Sugar” De León made history by becoming the first Cruiserweight to win the world title twice. Then he kept breaking his own record for the most times as Cruiserweight champion by regaining it two more times. His final mark was a fine 52-8-1.
The names continue. Alfredo “Salsero” Escalera had a 53-14-3 record and won the WBC super featherweight championship by icing Kuniaki Shibata in two rounds. His two bloody fights with Alexis Argüello are considered to be boxing classics by aficionados. Amazingly, the first Argüello-Escalera bout made The Ring magazine's list of 100 greatest fights of all time at number 31. Argüello-Escalera II made it at number 68.
Angel “Cholo” Espada won the WBA’s world Welterweight champion when he beat Clyde Gray in 1975. He later lost it to a then unknown named Pipino Cuevas to whom he would lose twice more by TKO. Ossie “Jaws” Ocasio campaigned in the Heavyweight division and became Cruiserweight champion by beating Robbie Williams in South Africa in 1982.
The list goes on and on. Louis Collazo still fights. Lou "Honey Boy" Del Valle last fought in July 2008, but appears near the end. Kermit “El Asesino” Cintron and Carlos “El Indio” Quintana are still factors as are Manny Siaca, Victor Fonseca and Orlando Cruz. But Sammy Fuentes, Eric Morel, Jake Rodriguez, and Felix Camacho are now only memories. Still, each was a world champions. And so were the very capable Sammy Serrano, Julian Solis, and multiple champion John John Molina. Victor Callejas was one tough hombre as was Juan Nazario who once TKOd Edwin Rosario after having been stopped by the same Rosario in an earlier duke.
Jose Monon Gonzalez, though never a world champion, fought virtually every tough guy available. He grew through each weight class beating some and losing to fewer. His final record was 42-21-2, but that hardly tells the story of the man who was built like an Adonis and who may well have faced the toughest opponents of any boxer I can remember other than perhaps the aforementioned Juan Laporte. In fact, five of his foes were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Antonio “Tonito” Rivera also was a great fighter who did battle in the ‘80s and had record of 36 wins, 13 losses and 3 draws, with 32 wins by knockout. After a long battle with an undisclosed disease, he died in 2005 of an asthma attack and became the first Puerto Rican athlete have his remains exposed at the famed Puerto Rican Sports Pavilion.
There are still others, but the real story here is that Puerto Rico has produced more great fighters than space allows.
Visit the author’s website at www.tedsares.com
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