From Carlos Ortiz in the 1960s to Miguel Cotto in the 2000s, Puerto Rican fighters and their passionate fans have been the backbone of New York City boxing. Therefore, it was understandable that the match between Hector Camacho and Edwin Rosario — two of the island’s finest — would be the center of attention on the evening of June 13, 1986. Almost overlooked on the undercard was the Madison Square Garden debut of future superstar Julio Cesar Chavez, who dispatched well-traveled veteran Refugio Rojas with consummate ease.
Chavez would not be an afterthought much longer. He eventually defeated and eclipsed Camacho and Rosario, adding fuel to the long-running feud between Mexican and Puerto Rican boxers, the roots of which go back to the 1930s. The rivalry has enhanced the sport immeasurably and will hopefully continue to do so Saturday when Mikey Garcia and Juan Manuel Lopez resume international hostilities at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
As a prelude to Garcia-Lopez — and as fodder for debate — I have selected my choices for the 10 best fights between Mexican and Puerto Rican boxers. The stature of the fighters, the quality of the fight and its historical significance were all factored into the decision. Whether Garcia-Lopez will become a candidate for inclusion on future lists will depend entirely on what happens after the opening bell rings.
1. Salvador Sanchez KO8 Wilfredo Gomez
Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
Aug. 21, 1981
“The Battle of the Little Giants,” in which the pride of two great boxing nations was at stake, more than lived up to its grandiose billing. The fight started and ended badly for Gomez, who was floored by a left hook in the first and never totally recovered. Nonetheless, he stubbornly fought on, throwing himself at Sanchez with a fervor born of desperation.
The relentless pace and two-way action never flagged, but Sanchez’s elegant movement and thudding punches eventually proved too much. Gomez was buried under an avalanche of right hands in the eighth, and although the Puerto Rican gallantly groped his way to his feet inside the count, referee Carlos Padilla waved off the fight.
2. Jose Luis Ramirez KO4 Edwin Rosario
Hiram Bithorn Stadium, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Nov. 3, 1984
The previous year, Rosario had won the vacant lightweight title with a narrow but unanimous decision over Ramirez in a bitterly contested fight. The rematch was even better, packing so much exhilarating action into less than four rounds that it was selected as fight of the year by the Boxing Writers Association of America and The Ring magazine.
Ramirez visited the canvas in the first and second rounds, compliments of the Puerto Rican’s lethal right hand, and it looked like it was only a matter of time before Rosario’s arm would be lifted in victory. Then something astonishing happened: Ramirez hurt Rosario with a right in the third and poured it on. It was more of the same in the fourth, as Ramirez pummeled his foe so severely that “Chapo” turned his back, forcing referee Steve Crosson to terminate the mesmerizing slugfest at the 2:52 mark.
3. Felix Trinidad KO12 Fernando Vargas
Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas
Dec. 2, 2000
This junior middleweight unification between a pair of undefeated titleholders was so ferocious and its conclusion so violent that many believe Vargas was never the same fighter he had been prior to the harrowing experience. But before he succumbed, “El Feroz” ladled out plenty of punishment, and both men suffered copious physical abuse.
Vargas miraculously survived two first-round knockdowns and was back in the fight by the fourth when he floored Trinidad with a left hook. Vargas had another big round in the fifth, and the slugfest continued unabated, with both men giving and receiving at an alarming rate. A tiring Vargas started the 12th well, but it was his last gasp. “Tito” took over and bludgeoned Fernando to the floor three times before referee Jay Nady belatedly stopped what had degenerated into a massacre.
4. Wilfredo Gomez KO14 Lupe Pintor
Superdome, New Orleans
Dec. 3, 1982
Gomez was making a record 17th defense of his junior featherweight title, while bantamweight champ Pintor was moving up in an effort to hand the Puerto Rican his first loss. From the start, Gomez’s stylish combinations repeatedly connected as Pintor applied unrelenting pressure, lashing out with heavy blows at every opportunity.
Pintor, the Mexican slugger, waded through everything Gomez had to offer and kept coming. He absorbed a thrashing early in the 12th but rallied late in the round and staggered Gomez at the bell. The 13th was another good round for Lupe, but “Bazooka” unleashed a withering onslaught in the 14th, flooring his adversary twice with wicked left hooks to the head. After the second knockdown, referee Arthur Mercante didn’t even bother to count.
5. Wilfredo Gomez KO5 Carlos Zarate
Coliseo Roberto Clemente, Hato Rey, Puerto Rico
Oct. 28, 1978
Although it quickly turned into a rout, Zarate, undefeated in 52 fights with 51 knockouts, was arguably Gomez’s most significant victory. The lanky Mexican had been bantamweight king since 1976 and was among the most feared punchers in the game. But it looked like he was moving in slow motion compared to the flashier Gomez, who took control from the start.
Gomez dropped Zarate twice in the fourth with crushing left hooks, and the Mexican was already in a bad way when he answered the bell for the fifth. Following another knockdown, Zarate’s corner threw in the towel when referee Harry Gibbs inexplicably allowed the brutal beating to continue.
6. Sixto Escobar KO9 Rodolfo “Baby” Casanova
Montreal Forum, Montreal
June 26, 1934
Escobar was Puerto Rico’s first world champion, and his bout with Casanova for a vacant bantamweight title was the beginning of an enduring feud between the two countries. Casanova was a big attraction in Southern California and Mexico, where his 1933 bout with Newsboy Brown in Mexico City attracted 30,000 fans. But he was no match for the technically superior Escobar, who punished him severely before ending matters with a left hook-right uppercut combination in the ninth round. When “El Gallito” returned to San Juan, the governor closed schools for the day so everybody could greet the returning hero at the docks and watch the ensuing parade.
7. Giovani Segura KO8 Ivan Calderon
Coliseo Mario Morales, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico
Aug. 28, 2010
Defensive wizard Calderon had remained undefeated since his pro debut in 2001, winning titles at strawweight and junior flyweight and tallying a combined total of 17 successful defenses. Most of his opponents left the ring frustrated by their inability to land solidly against the slick and speedy “Iron Boy.” Mexico’s Segura, however, tore into the local favorite with abandon, brushing aside Calderon’s offerings and landing with far more frequency than any of the Puerto Rican’s previous adversaries. In the eighth, Calderon crumpled to the canvas after fielding a crippling right to the body. Unable to rise, he was counted out by referee Jose Hiram Rivera.
8. Orlando Salido KO8 Juan Manuel Lopez
Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez, Bayamon, Puerto Rico
April 16, 2011
After streaking to 30 consecutive wins, “JuanMa” was considered Puerto Rico’s next major star, while Salido was thought of as little more than a rugged but beatable fringe contender. Lopez fought with his usual panache, but he found Salido a far tougher proposition than he had bargained for. Every time Lopez connected, “Siri” answered back with something harder. Lopez was down in the fifth, and by the eighth, he was getting hurt with practically every punch Salido landed. Stunned by a final salvo of flush blows, the local man was floundering around the ring, unable to control his legs, when referee Roberto Ramirez Jr. saved him from further punishment.
9. Julio Cesar Chavez KO11 Edwin Rosario
Hilton Outdoor Arena, Las Vegas
Nov. 21, 1987
Rosario had rebounded from his loss to Hector Camacho by upsetting Livingstone Bramble with a one-punch knockout, regaining credibility and garnering a lightweight belt in the process. Unfortunately for the resilient Puerto Rican, Chavez was at the peak of his powers and held a wide lead on all cards when he trapped the weary Rosario in a corner during the 11th and hammered him unmercifully. As referee Richard Steele stood idly by watching the carnage, Rosario’s corner threw a towel into the ring and the fight was stopped.
10. Jose “Pipino” Cuevas KO2 Angel Espada
Plaza de Toros Calafia, Mexicali, Mexico
July 17, 1976
More of an execution than a fight, this welterweight title bout ushered Cuevas onto the world stage, where the Mexican’s four-year reign of terror encompassed 11 successful defenses — all via knockout. Cuevas’ frightening power was highlighted by an earth-shaking left hook, with which he floored Espada twice in Round 2. After staggering to his feet a second time, the dazed Puerto Rican held on tightly to the top rope with both hands, clearly reluctant to continue. But instead of stopping the fight, referee Larry Rozadilla ripped Espada’s hands free and sent him back into the teeth of Cuevas’ meat grinder. It was all over a few seconds later when Pipino sent him crashing down again.