Robert Silva kicks off his greatest bantamweights in boxing history list with Daniel Zaragoza. Read his essay below.
Nacho Beristain is regarded by most boxing experts as one of the five greatest trainers in boxing history. After great success as the Mexican National Amateur Team head trainer, Beristain began his professional boxing training career in 1980 guiding the career of a then 22-year-old southpaw Daniel Zaragoza. Under Nacho’s guidance and in combination with his heart and ability, Zaragoza fought a who’s who of 118 and 122-pound fighters, resulting in Zaragoza being the fifth greatest super bantamweight of all-time.
Zaragoza’s fighting style was a blend of an excellent counter-puncher who when needed, would engage in the “Mexican Style” of brawling. Beristain was the main architect of the new wave of Mexican boxers who abandoned their country’s traditional brawling style and instead adopted a much more scientific approach. Beristain’s training model consisted of working behind the jab and counter punching. This would be highly successful for young fighters under his tutelage at the start of their careers, as they would face brawlers who were tailor made for this style. Zaragoza, at 5’7 and a southpaw, had the perfect height and style to implement Beristain’s strategy of fighting.
After a brief three-month run as WBC bantamweight champion in 1985, Zaragoza moved up to 122 pounds. In his first fight in the division, Zaragoza suffered a one-sided defeat by decision to future Hall of Famer Jeff Fenech. The Australian Fenech was an incredible inside fighter who reminded both my father and me of a young Roberto Duran. Zaragoza couldn’t keep Fenech off of him and was forced to trade with the much quicker and stronger Aussie throughout the entire 10 rounds. It wouldn’t be the first time Zaragoza had to rebound from a setback. Resiliency would become the biggest trademark of Zaragoza’s career.
After the Fenech setback, Zaragoza went on a seven-fight winning streak which resulted in a shot at the vacant WBC super bantamweight title on February 29, 1988 against fellow Mexican Carlos Zarate. Zarate was one of the greatest punchers in boxing history as he tore apart the 118-pound division as WBC titleholder before getting fleeced in losing his title to Lupe Pintor in 1979. Zarate was so incensed by this highway robbery that he immediately retired despite only being 28. Seven years later he made a comeback and after defeating 12 straight cab drivers disguised as fighters, Zarate received a shot against the WBC 122-pound champ Fenech. Zarate, despite being an inch taller than the 5’7 Aussie, had no answers for the swarming style of Fenech and was destroyed in four rounds. Zarate immediately got to fight Zaragoza for the vacant belt after Fenech moved up in weight. At 37 years of age, Zarate was no longer a world class fighter. Needless to say, he was no match for Zaragoza’s pinpoint counterpunches as Zarate was totally outclassed before being stopped in the 10th round. Zarate wisely retired for good.
Zaragoza successfully defended his 122-pound crown five times before losing it to his greatest rival Paul Banke. Zaragoza had previously defeated Banke via split decision on June 22, 1989 in one of the greatest fights in the history of the division. The rematch was an even greater battle, with Banke knocking Zaragoza out in the ninth round to capture the title on April 23, 1990. Both of Zaragoza’s eyes were nearly swollen shut at the time of the knockout. Once again, Zaragoza’s resiliency was tested.
Banke would lose the title immediately in his first defense as the 122-pound title went from Banke to Pedro Decima to Kitoshi Hatanka all in less than a year. On June 14, 1991, Zaragoza traveled to Japan to challenge for Hatanka for the title he had lost to Banke. Zaragoza fought a very disciplined fight in out-boxing the Japanese champion in front of a raucous Japanese crowd to regain the WBC title. Then, six months later, Zaragoza once again faced Banke in the third fight of their trilogy. In one of Zaragoza’s finest performances, Zaragoza implemented Beristain’s teachings by masterfully out-boxing Banke to retain his title. Banke lost his next three fights before retiring in December of 1993. Banke was diagnosed with full blown AIDS in 1995. Twenty five years later, Banke is still alive battling the deadly disease.
Three months later, after defeating Banke, Zaragoza lost his 122-pound strap to Frenchman Thierry Jacob. Jacob was also a temporary titleholder as he lost the title three months later to former world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson’s son Tracy. Patterson’s first two defenses were against Zaragoza. The first fight ended in a draw while the rematch saw the much younger champion batter the now 35-year-old Zaragoza into a bloody pulp en route to a seventh round stoppage. Zaragoza looked old and fragile throughout his second fight with Patterson. Everyone in the boxing world all but wrote Zaragoza off. Zaragoza had other ideas.
Two years after being left for dead by Patterson, Zaragoza once again fought for the WBC 122-pound title and this time it was against Patterson’s conqueror Hector Acero-Sanchez. The 37-year-old Zaragoza out-hustled the 29-year-old Dominican throughout the entirety of the 12 rounds. Unfortunately, Zaragoza was robbed of the victory and title as the fight was incredulously scored a draw. Five months later, on November 6, 1995, Zaragoza eked out a split decision over Sanchez in their rematch to become a three time WBC super bantamweight champion. The question now for Zaragoza was how long before his old legs could no longer hold up. It wouldn’t be until almost two years later.
After four more successful defenses of his crown, Father Time finally caught up to Zaragoza on September 6, 1997 when he faced 21-year-old fellow countrymen and almost exact clone, Erik Morales. Morales, like Zarate, was 5’8 with incredible power in both hands. Although 18 years older than the challenger, Zaragoza fought with a heart and passion like an old gunslinger and emptied out his entire tank. Unfortunately, the youth and obvious greatness of Morales was too much for the old sage to overcome. Morales finished off Zaragoza in the 11th round and also ended Zaragoza’s career. One legendary 122-pound reign had come to an end while another began. More on Morales in a later article.
Daniel Zaragoza was a three-time WBC 122-pound champion between 1988-1997. During these eight years, Zaragoza successfully defended the crown 11 times while ducking no one. He was the first great fighter trained by the legendary Nacho Beristain and established a blueprint for the Beristain-style Mexican boxer. Zaragoza’s perseverance and mastery of counterpunching are two of the main reasons why he is the fifth greatest super bantamweight of all-time.