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45 Greatest Fighters Of The Last 45 Years – 19: Wilfredo Gomez

wilfredo gomez

As I’ve stated several times in articles and podcasts on this website, Carlos Ortiz is the father and innovator of the Puerto Rican style of boxing. This is the style of a boxer-puncher who moves in and out and adjusts his style according the the opposition. While Ortiz was the architect, Wilfredo Gomez improved upon that style. Gomez possessed one of the great right hands of his era and was a very underrated technician in the ring. Add to that a six-year reign as WBC super bantamweight champion while also winning world titles at featherweight and super featherweight and you get the 19th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

As a young child, my father kept emphasizing how great of a fighter Gomez was. In only his 17th pro fight, the 22-year-old Gomez survived a first round knockdown to eventually knock out the reigning WBC super bantamweight champion Dong Kyum Yum to begin his historic run as 122-pound champion in front of a raucous crowd at San Juan’s Roberto Clemente Coliseum. I was nine-years-old at the time and had just started watching boxing, so I had yet to see Gomez fight live on television. I could only go by what the boxing magazines and my father were stating about how great “Bazooka” was. I was too young to see Gomez’s greatest triumph 17 months after winning the title.

It wasn’t until 1979 that children under the age of 14 could attend boxing matches in New York State. This included fights shown in theaters and closed circuit. On October 28, 1978, Gomez would defend his title against the monster puncher and WBC bantamweight champion, Carlos Zarate, once again at Roberto Clemente Coliseum. This was the initial contest in the now famous Puerto Rico versus Mexico boxing rivalry. Going into the fight, both men were undefeated. Gomez had 21 knockouts amongst his 21 wins and Zarate was an incredible 52-0 with 51 of those wins coming by knockout. Both men were a combined 73-0-1 with 72 knockouts. This was a battle of arguably the two biggest power punchers in boxing at the time. Many so called experts felt Zarate was too tall and too powerful for Gomez to stand a chance as Zarate stood 5’7 to Gomez’s 5’5. My father gambled heavily on Gomez as he felt Gomez was the much more skilled boxer and that Zarate was a one dimensional bully. Pop was also biased based on both he and Gomez being Puerto Rican. My father wanted to take me to see this history making fight, but I was too short and scrawny as a 10-year-old to pass for a 14-year-old, so my father attended the fight by himself. I stayed up well past midnight that Saturday evening to see if our boy Gomez had won.

As soon as my father walked through our apartment door, I knew Gomez had won. My father was both drunk and happy. He also had a bouquet of flowers he had bought for my mother that he purchased with the money he won wagering on Gomez. My father happily demonstrated how Gomez completely schooled the Mexican slugger. I finally got to see a tape of the fight a little over 20 years later and it was exactly how Pops described it. For the first three rounds, Gomez boxed Zarate’s ears off, going in-and-out and side-to-side while landing with his jab and crisp counter punching. Zarate was walking towards Gomez with absolutely no jabs being attempted. You cannot defeat a great fighter like Gomez without a jab as part of your repertoire. Then, in the fourth round, Zarate walked into a faultless check left hook that dropped the Mexican warrior. Gomez was one of the greatest finishers whoever lived. He jumped on Zarate after he got up and dropped him again as the bell sounded to end the round, this time with his vaunted right cross. After Zarate got up and staggered to his corner, Gomez stood the entire 60 seconds rest period, anticipating the finish. As soon as round five began, Gomez raced across the ring and dropped Zarate with another left hook. Zarate’s corner immediately threw in the towel. The Puerto Rican fans in the capacity crowd of almost 10,000 in the coliseum exploded with cheers not unlike a World Series celebration.

Although he continued to reign supreme as the 122-pound king, Gomez began slipping into bad habits inside the ring. He became less of a technician and more of a puncher. While he destroyed one opponent after another, his reliance on pure punching power cost him dearly when he moved up to face WBC 126-pound champion Salvador Sanchez in August of 1981. Gomez was completely dominated by the Mexican legend before he was finished off in the eighth round. Gomez was unable to secure a rematch with Sanchez as he died a year later, just nine days short of the anniversary of their fight, in a car accident. Gomez decided that he still needed to redeem himself in the ring after the beating he suffered at the hands of Sanchez. He signed to fight the reigning WBC bantamweight champion Lupe Pintor in the third and final Puerto Rico versus Mexico super fight Gomez engaged in. In an incredible war that I wrote about as one of the greatest fights in boxing history, Gomez outlasted the game warrior to win via 14th round technical knockout. It was the 17th and final successful defense of Gomez’s dominating six year title reign as 122-pound king. His next step was to move up to 126 pounds and once again attempt to win the WBC title, this time held by fellow Puerto Rican and the successor to Sanchez as champion, Juan LaPorte.

On March 31, 1984, in front of a sold out san Juan Roberto Clemente Stadium, Gomez fought the last great boxing performance of his career. LaPorte was unable to register any offense of significance as a vintage Gomez completely outboxed and outmanned his fellow countryman en route to an unanimous 12-round decision to capture his second world title. Although only 27 at the time, Gomez, unbeknownst to himself, was already past his prime.

On December 8, 1984, Gomez defended his crown for the first time against Azumah Nelson. Pops and I both knew that Gomez had no shot against the brilliant Ghanaian boxer. Nelson was unbelievably resilient that evening as no matter what Gomez did, he could not hold off the rambunctious and powerful African. Nelson systematically broke down Gomez before putting him to sleep at the end of round 11. The San Juan Hiram Bithorm stadium was in complete awe of how Nelson totally dominated their legendary countrymen. They were witnessing the end of one legend and the beginning of another.

Gomez, now 28 and a shell of what he once was, moved up to 130 pounds and challenged the WBA Jr. lightweight champion Rocky Lockridge. On May 19, 1985, once again in front of a sold out Roberto Clemente Stadium, Gomez looked very lethargic and took a one-sided beating at the hands of the American champion for the first 10 rounds. The final five rounds of the fight saw Gomez actually out-punch an exhausted Lockridge. Only problem was those punches Gomez landed had absolutely no zip to them and were completely ineffectual. At the end of the 15th and final round, Pop was telling me Gomez should never fight again as he looked old and done. Unfortunately, the judges didn’t see it the same way as they gave Gomez the decision. As a result of this highway robbery, Gomez became the second Puerto Rican to win world titles in three weight classes. He should’ve thanked his lucky stars and retired then.

A year later Gomez defended his 130-pound world title against the Panamanian contender Alfredo Layne. This fight wasn’t televised in the United States. My father read about it in the Spanish daily newspaper El Diario the day after the fight took place, once again at Roberto Clemente Stadium. I’m glad it wasn’t televised as Gomez looked like a total zombie before referee Stanley Christodoulou stopped the brutal beating Gomez was taking in the ninth round. To give you context of how washed up Gomez was at this point, Layne would only win one of his next eight fights. Gomez would win his next two fights against less than subpar fighters before finally retiring in 1989 at the age of 33 with a record of 44-3-1 with 42 knockouts.

Wilfredo Gomez is the standard that all Puerto Rican fighters should be judged against. He took the style that Carlos Ortiz created and brought it to another level. Puerto Rican fighters like Miguel Cotto and Xander Zayas have without a doubt patterned their styled after the legendary Gomez. Adding his influence amongst Puerto Rican boxers to his remarkable career makes the greatest claim that he’s the 19th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

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