For over 20 years, I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out boxing’s equivalent to Christopher Wallace. The Notorious B.I.G. had the greatest less-than-five-year-run in hip hop history. His albums Ready to Die and Life After Death were lyrical masterpieces released between 1994 and 1997. His death, right before Life After Death was released, tragically shortened a career that had yet to peak. Despite such a short time of brilliance, there’s no denying his greatness. Boxing’s equivalent was, in my opinion, not only the greatest boxer ever to come out of Mexico, but also the third greatest Featherweight of all-time.
Salvador Sanchez was an unknown contender from Mexico when a week after his 21st birthday, he battled WBC Featherweight Champion and future Hall of Famer Danny López for Lopez’s title on February 2, 1980. Right before the opening bell, my father mentioned that he had seen Sanchez fight a few times on Boxeo Desde Mexico, the longtime running weekly boxing show on channel 41, the Spanish International Network local affiliate. My father felt that Sanchez had a shot against Lopez because from what he saw, Sanchez was an excellent counterpuncher with great lateral movement. Lopez had become an Arturo Gatti-like brawler since winning the title in 1976. Even though López was only 27, he had engaged in many wars that made him look five years older.
Lopez’s brawling style was no match for the young future master. Sanchez boxed rings around Lopez and landed combination after combination, resulting in a 13th round stoppage to become the 126-pound champion. This was a masterpiece by Sanchez, comparable to Wallace’s “Juicy,” his first major hit. Like Wallace, Sanchez’s first hit made you want to see what was next. After successfully defending his title via 15-round decision against Ruben Castillo on April 12, 1980, Sanchez gave Lopez a rematch. My father and I knew Lopez had no shot in the rematch as he was a shot fighter. On June 21, 1980, Sanchez gave another virtuoso performance, landing at will against Lopez before the fight was once again stopped in the 13th round. You could say this was his version of Wallace’s “Warning.” His performances against Lopez was a warning to the boxing world. The best was yet to come.
Sanchez successfully defended his title three more times before signing to fight legendary 122-pound Puerto Rican legend Wilfredo Gomez on August 21, 1981. Gomez was the reigning WBC Super Bantamweight Champion with a superlative record of 32 wins, no losses, and one draw. Gomez was a superlative boxer/puncher who had, in his offensive arsenal, one of the great right crosses in boxing history. Both men were to get a then 126-pound fight record one million dollars each. It was and still is the biggest match in the famed Mexico/Puerto Rico rivalry. Promoter Don King coined the fight appropriately, the “Battle of the Little Giants.”
That night my father took us to see the fight on closed circuit at the South Bronx Puerto Rico Theatre. We both loved Gomez and felt his in-and-out movement would cause Lopez problems and eventually knock him out. Gomez came out firing in the first round, every one of his punches had murderous intent. Sanchez calmly boxed from the outside and he, being one of the greatest counterpunchers of all-time, used Gomez’s aggression to his advantage, landing his smooth as silk left jab at will. Towards the end of the round, Gomez had Sanchez trapped against the ropes when he walked into a booming left hook. Gomez went down and both my father and I yelled “Get up, Gomez!” Luckily for Gomez, this happened at the end of the round or he would’ve been knocked out by the cerebral Sanchez.
The next three rounds saw tremendous action as Gomez had a look of desperation coming out his corner for the second round. He abandoned his excellent jab and stalked and several times was able to trap Sanchez against the ropes. Sanchez, one of the calmest fighters I’ve ever seen, successfully fought off the ropes and would out-land Gomez while the two were inside. When the fight was outside, Sanchez dominated with his outstanding jab and counter punching. Sanchez was 5’6” and Gomez stood a half inch shorter, but in the ring that night, Sanchez looked considerably taller. After the end of the fourth round, Gomez’s right eye was beginning to close and his cheekbones were swelling badly.
Gomez was having an excellent fifth round until once again, late in the round, Sanchez while on the ropes, stunned Gomez with a sharp right cross and left hook combination. Gomez staggered back to his corner with his right eye all but closed. The fans in attendance at the Puerto Rico Theatre, along with us, were eerily silent. My father wanted to leave, but I refused. I was still hoping that Gomez would find a miracle. There were no miracles that night. After taking a thorough beating in rounds six and seven, Sanchez hurt Gomez with a devastating right cross in the eighth round and almost knocked Gomez out the ring after landing several uncontested shots. Gomez gamely got up at the count of five, but referee Carlos Padilla wisely stopped the fight. I couldn’t sleep that night as my fellow Puerto Rican took a beating and lost, but I had gained admiration and respect for the man who beat him. That was the night I saw the greatest Mexican fighter I’ve ever seen put on a magical display of boxing. Like Wallace’s incredible hit “Unbelievable,” Sanchez was unbelievable in the ring that night.
After a pair of successful defenses, Sanchez made his Madison Square Garden debut on July 21, 1983. When my father bought tickets for us to see Sanchez, the man who broke our collective hearts a year prior when he knocked out Wilfredo Gómez, fight an unknown fighter named Mario Miranda at MSG, I didn’t want to go. I had never heard of the Colombian Miranda and knew he didn’t have a shot in hell to beat the great Sanchez. My father kept hassling me to go, so I halfheartedly agreed to go. Then, a week before the fight, Miranda pulled out because of an injury. I figured the fight would be postponed to a later date. Instead, Don King brought in a replacement fighter from Ghana, Azumah Nelson, an even lesser known fighter. Up until the night of the fight, I really didn’t care about attending the fight. An hour before the fight, after being constantly harassed by my father, I decided to go with him to Madison Square Garden to see the fight. It turned out to be the greatest fight I’ve ever seen live in my lifetime.
Not only was Nelson a complete unknown, he only had 13 career fights. I told my father this guy had no business being in the ring with an experienced great like Sanchez. Although at 24, Nelson was a year older than Sanchez, his 13 fights paled in comparison to the legendary Mexican’s 45 fights. Sanchez was also making the ninth defense of his WBC Featherweight title. I was expecting a short main event. My father explained to me that every African he ever saw fight (Cornelius Boza Edwards, Dick Tiger, Ayub Kalule, etc.) was a tough warrior who always came to fight. As great as Sanchez was, my father stated that Nelson had one advantage; Sanchez didn’t know what type of fighter he was facing in Nelson. Nelson knew exactly what kind of fighter he was facing in Sanchez.
Despite dealing with the unknown, Sanchez dominated the first three rounds by staying outside and landing several crisp combinations. Late in the third round, Sanchez stunned Nelson with a right cross right down the middle. Nelson, despite losing the first three rounds, kept coming and landed some of his own hard right crosses. Rounds four and five saw Nelson finally cut off the ring and lure Sanchez into a slugfest. Nelson landed several cracking shots to the head and body. Sanchez landed several shots of his own but was unable to keep the relentless African off of him. When the fifth round ended, my father and I both came to the conclusion that Nelson was the real deal.
The furious pace continued in the next round. Sanchez was able to out-slug Nelson in a wild sixth round. Then, at the beginning of the seventh round, Sanchez stunned Nelson with a short left hook. Seconds later, Sanchez knocked Nelson down with another left hook. Nelson got up at the count of five and despite being hurt, continue to engage Sanchez in a slugfest. In the eighth and ninth rounds, Sanchez once again stunned Nelson with several left hooks and completely dominated both rounds. Sanchez was back to staying outside and was landing at will against Nelson. Both Nelson’s eyes were swelling and he was bleeding from the mouth. Despite all the punishment he was taking, Nelson kept coming like a Sherman tank.
The next three rounds saw Nelson storm back. In the 10th round, he out-hustled a tiring Sanchez and kept coming. In the 11th round, he once again engaged Sanchez in several exchanges and late in the round stunned Sanchez for the first time with a booming left hook. It was the first time my father and I had ever seen Sanchez hurt. Nelson again hurt Sanchez in the 12th round, this time with a wicked right cross. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Nelson had a legit shot at pulling off a major upset.
The 13th round was just an all-out war. Both men punished each other with one bomb after another. Then at the very end of the round, Sanchez once again hurt Nelson with a left hook. The action continued in the 14th round at a frantic pace. This time, Nelson landed a huge combination at the bell that seemed to hurt Sanchez. When that round ended, my father had compared this fight to the Thrilla in Manila war between Ali and Frazier. The 15th round was sure to be a great finish to a remarkable fight.
Nelson’s face going into the last round looked like it had been beaten with a baseball bat. He was bleeding from the mouth and both his eyes were almost completely shut. He came out reckless and was getting battered by Sanchez with one hard combination after another. Once again, Sanchez badly stunned Nelson with a ferocious left hook. After a few more hard shots, Nelson went down in the corner. Amazingly, he got back up before the count of two. Nelson was completely fatigued and in serious trouble. Sanchez battered him for another 10 seconds before referee Tony Perez wisely called a halt to the fight. The Madison Square Garden crowd gave both fighters a standing ovation. My father and I left the Garden that night feeling we had seen a piece of boxing history. It was even bigger than we thought. It was comparable to Wallace’s classic hit record “Hypnotize.” Sanchez’s work in the ring that night, even while facing adversity, was hypnotic.
Considering the incredible career Nelson would end up having as the greatest African fighter of all-time, Sanchez proved his greatness that night. Exactly three weeks later, on August 12, 1982, Sanchez was in a fatal car crash while driving his Porsche in Mexico. At the age of 23, Sanchez was already the greatest Mexican fighter of all-time and on his way to becoming the greatest Featherweight of all time. My father said he would’ve beaten all the great Featherweights that ever fought. In my 43 years of watching boxing, Sanchez’s death was the biggest tragedy to befall the sport I love. It is as eerie as Wallace’s cult classic “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Kills You.” Wallace was only 24 when he was murdered and this song was recorded before his death. Like Wallace, Sanchez’s tragic death added to his undeniable greatness as a fighter. Looking back, I’m glad my father was able to convince me to go with him to see that fight. I saw the final fight of one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport.