Looking back on the storied career of Daniel Zaragoza

Mexican boxing legend Daniel Zaragoza reflects on the ups and downs of his storied career.

Originally Published: March 21, 2007
By Alvaro Morales | ESPN Deportes

MEXICO CITY -- There are certain nights in Daniel Zaragoza's life when memories of the summer of 1980 wake him up. The memories surface in nightmares that, without infiltrating his daily routine, demand his attention in the silent room.

He would like to yell "Stop!" and avoid them. But he cannot.

The disappointment of that July in 1980, when he pursued Olympic glory in Moscow, stays with him.

"It will never completely go away," Zaragoza said. "I have four world championships, but it itches that I couldn't win the Olympic medal."

In his third fight, against Guyana's Michael Parris, Zaragoza suffered a severe cut to his head and the referee had to stop the action. The doctor checked Zaragoza and before he could stop the fight, the Mexican boxer looked around, trying to find somebody on his side. But no one was there. He was alone.

"My representative wasn't there because he had to solve a family issue, so nobody appealed and they stopped the fight," said Zaragoza.

He wanted to continue, and the wound -- insignificant, according to his words -- ended his long-held dream of honoring his country with an Olympic medal. That dream was born while he watched his brother Agustin win the bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico City.

Zaragoza was 23 during the 1980 Olympics, and until then, he had never fought for money.

The frustration over his Olympic loss led him to turn professional in October 1980, and that's when the memories started chasing him. "It's something that doesn't let me sleep," he acknowledged. "[The loss by TKO] was so unfair that I decided not to box for medals anymore. If they are going to mess with me, that's fine with me, but at least I'll keep the money."

And he doesn't regret his choice.

Born in the small town of Tacubaya, in Mexico City, Zaragoza comes from a boxing family. His father, Agustin, who fought in the 1930s and '40s, used to box twice a week to feed his 12 children. And his older brother -- the already mentioned Agustin -- was one of the nine Mexican medalists in '68.

Daniel Zaragoza
Daniel Zaragoza has boxing in his blood -- his father was a boxer in the 30s and 40s and his older brother was a medalist in the 1968 Olympic games.

"It is simple," said Zaragoza, "In my house we had boxing for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

His fights were bloodier than a slaughterhouse. And, although he wasn't a powerful puncher, he won his fights with his intelligence, strategy and stamina. He was just like a bulldog. Win or lose, his opponents never finished unharmed.

"I gave it all in every fight," he said. "With me in such a great shape, you had to bet on me."

Both his victories and losses were epic. Zaragoza's ferocity and ability to withstand punches earned him admiration in such faraway places as Japan and Korea, where he was considered a warrior. The Asian fight fans loved when he bled. Zaragoza faced three Japanese boxers and three Korean boxers during his career. And he beat them all.

In 1991, he challenged Japanese champion Kiyoshi Hatanaka. An unwritten law in boxing said that Zaragoza would have to knock out or severely batter Hatanaka to take the crown in Japan, Hatanaka's home turf. The Mexican traveled to Nagoya and surprised everybody by winning the belt with a split decision. He didn't knock out Hatanaka, but he retired him. Many Asians considered it the best fight of the decade.

Joichiro Tatsuyoshi challenged Zaragoza in two title fights, in 1996 and 1997. In both fights, Tacubaya's bulldog defended his belt; he won the first bout by knockout and the second by unanimous decision.

"I realized how big I was in Japan when everybody kept telling me that I was the greatest Mexican boxer they've seen," Zaragoza said. "And not because I was a great boxer, but simply because I defeated the biggest all-time hero in Japan: Joichiro Tatsuyoshi."

Faithful to his nickname, the left-handed Zaragoza defended his belt with his jaw. And if he lost his title, he went back after it. On Feb. 29, 1988, he had his first opportunity to become a super bantamweight champion. However, destiny confronted him with one of his idols: Carlos Zarate.

"I still admire him. His name had such a weight on me," Zaragoza said. "I had to get over the impact of facing one of the all-time best fighters."

Zarate was known for demolishing opponents with his powerful punches. In 70 fights, Zarate had 66 wins, 63 by knockout. The fight for the vacant super bantamweight title took place in the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Zaragoza, six years younger than Zarate, won by knockout in 10 rounds against one of the biggest punchers in history.

Even though he had won the championship, Zaragoza hid his happiness from his idol. "I didn't celebrate because he was one of Mexico's boxing icons. I didn't like hitting him, but it was me or him," he said. That was Zarate's last fight. The 31-year-old new ruler had retired the 37-year-old former king.

Zaragoza would be on the opposite end of a similar situation nine years later when he faced Erik Morales. On Sept. 6, 1997, the County Coliseum in El Paso, Texas, hosted his last fight.

Zaragoza was feeling a little bit heavy for his fifth defense and was already 40 years old -- 19 years older than Morales -- who looked hungry and eager to become the super bantamweight world champion for the first time. The fight lasted until the 11th round, when Morales knocked out Zaragoza.

Zaragoza lost the WBC crown and retired permanently. Earlier in his career, he had forced Zarate and Hatanaka into retirement. Now it was his turn. "It's the law of life: There's always going to be some new young guy, and the older guys have to find something to do beyond fist fighting," he said. "It's the way human cycles work."

According to Zaragoza, his wife wanted him to pursue a rematch with Morales. However, he felt satisfied with what he had done and never fought again.

Zaragoza reflects frequently on his destiny, wondering what would have happened if he hadn't turned professional. "I always wonder that," he said. "I feel I could have fought in five Olympic Games, but I had to watch them on television."

And although there still are nights when he wakes up thinking about the Moscow nightmare, on July 13, 2004, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Azumah Nelson, Carlos Palomino and Dwight Muhammad Qawi joined him as new members of the Hall.

That day, in Canastota, N.Y., Zaragoza said the following words: "During my career in the Olympic Games and as a professional, I have had many victories, but also big losses. This is an amazing win and not even death will take it away from me."