Commentary

The best Puerto Rican fighters

Originally Published: July 22, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Carlos OrtizKeystone/Getty ImagesCarlos Ortiz was as complete a package as they come in boxing.

Puerto Rico has had no shortage of world-class fighters throughout its history. Here is a look at five of the best boxers to emerge from the island.

5. Hector Camacho

[+] EnlargeHector Camacho
Holly Stein /Allsport/Getty ImagesIn his prime, Hector Camacho, right, was a masterful boxer and nearly impossible to hit cleanly.

Unfortunately, Hector Camacho probably is remembered mostly for the one-sided points beatings he suffered against Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya in big fights, but he won major titles at 130, 135 and 140 pounds and defeated a number of world-class boxers in a long career.

Born in Bayamon and raised in New York's Spanish Harlem, Camacho was at his best in the junior lightweight and lightweight divisions as a swift, smart-boxing southpaw who knew how to hit and how not to get hit.

At his best, he could dazzle and bewilder the other man, as he did in a surprisingly easy win over Mexico's tough Jose Luis Ramirez in an all-southpaw lightweight unification title fight in August 1985 at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Camacho boxed beautifully in that fight. As Richard Hoffer reported in the Los Angeles Times: "It was a brilliant performance, made at the expense of the workmanlike but outclassed and much-bloodied Ramirez."

Jack Fiske reported in the San Francisco Chronicle that it was "a helluva show"; legendary matchmaker Teddy Brenner described Camacho as a left-handed Willie Pep.

Camacho was never again quite as good as he had been that night. A little something seemed to go out of him when he twice seriously wobbled in winning an unpopular decision over fellow Puerto Rican Edwin Rosario at Madison Square Garden a year later. Some thought the harrowing experience had made Camacho more cautious. (After the Rosario fight, Camacho was quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying: "Hey, if this is macho, I don't want no part of it.")

Yet Camacho had toughness and courage, as he showed when -- though hurt, cut and battered -- he produced some skillful boxing to win vital rounds against Rosario. He was brave, too, in enduring 12 rounds of punishment against Chavez -- no one could have blamed Camacho had he quit in his corner long before the finish, but he stuck it out to the bitter end.

4. Wilfredo Gomez

Although a world champion at three weights, "Bazooka" Gomez was at his best as a 122-pounder, a weight at which he made an astonishing 18 title defenses. These included classic victories over Mexican world bantamweight champions, such as when he knocked out Lupe Pintor in the 14th round and overwhelmed Carlos Zarate in the fifth. He was a faded fighter when he closed out his career with championships in the featherweight and junior lightweight divisions.

Wilfredo Gomez
AP Photo/Gary WilliamsWilfredo Gomez, right, was a boxer-puncher of the highest quality.

Salvador Sanchez, the magnificent featherweight champion from Mexico, stopped Gomez in Las Vegas, but the Puerto Rican fighter rallied from a calamitous first round to make this a close, competitive fight before being stopped in the eighth round.

Gomez had it all. He was a boxer-puncher of the highest quality who consistently was thrilling to watch. His fight with Pintor in New Orleans might have been one of the greatest contests in boxing's lighter weight divisions. It was a heroic victory: Gomez suffered a cut under his right eye early in the bout, and his left eye was swollen and closing. The Associated Press reported: "The two little warriors … rocked and socked one another for 13 rounds. Gomez landed bombing rights and Pintor hooks and stiff jabs." In the 14th, though, Pintor was the one who crumbled, going down twice.

3. Wilfred Benitez

Benitez was an artistic boxer who had an uncanny ability to make the other man miss. Few boxers were as adept as Benitez when it came to slipping punches and countering while backed up on the ropes.

Benitez and Hearns
AP PhotoWilfred Benitez, right, was an expert at making opponents miss -- and pay the price.

Benitez won world titles at 140, 147 and 154 pounds, but his greatest victory was probably when he became the youngest-ever champ at 17 by outpointing the vastly more-experienced Antonio Cervantes in 1976. Benitez was unbeaten in 39 fights when Sugar Ray Leonard stopped him six seconds from the end of the 15th and final round for the welterweight title, but he came back to become a champion at junior middleweight.

When Benitez won the welterweight title by outpointing Carlos Palomino, the split scoring was much criticized, because Philadelphia judge Zack Clayton marked Palomino ahead. Even Palomino admitted afterward that he had lost. "He boxed a tremendous fight," Palomino said of Benitez. "He moved at the right time."

Moving at the right time was one of the key elements of Benitez's style. Opponents went to hit him, but he wasn't there. Pat Putnam wrote in Sports Illustrated that Benitez toyed with Palomino, "showing a certain disdain."

Benitez was never considered a very hard hitter, but he captured his 154-pound title in spectacular style by knocking out Britain's Maurice Hope in the 12th round. The big right hand that ended the fight knocked out two of Hope's teeth. The win made Benitez the first world champion in three weight classes since the fabulous Henry Armstrong 43 years earlier.

Benitez's arrogance shocked the British sportswriters in attendance, but all agreed they had witnessed a masterful display of boxing. Veteran Frank McGhee reported in the Daily Mirror that Hope had lost his title to "an exceptional, perhaps even phenomenal, young fighter."

2. Felix Trinidad

As a middleweight, Trinidad was dominated and ultimately destroyed by Bernard Hopkins, but he was a great fighter as a world champion in the welter and junior middleweight divisions.

The "Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco, was one of the first to recognize Trinidad's talent. He told me he once advised a boxing fan who liked to wager on fights to "bet on him until he loses."

Felix Trinidad
John Gurzinski/Getty ImagesKnocking down Felix Trinidad, left, was never a good idea, as he often rebounded with a vengeance.

Trinidad made 15 welterweight title defenses, two at 154 pounds, and he added a third world title when he wiped out William Joppy as a middleweight.

It was at welterweight, though, where Trinidad was at his best, a fighting machine likened to a "killer robot" because he seemed programmed to destroy the other man as he moved into the attack, hands up and fully focused on landing hard punches as if nothing could stand in his way.

Trinidad was knocked down seven times in fights that he eventually won by knockout. He was unusual in that, after he had been dropped, his chin actually seemed to improve as the fight went deeper. His pressure was truly relentless, and when he had his man in trouble, his combination punching to the body and head was thrilling to behold.

I was lucky enough to have been able to cover a number of Trinidad's fights from ringside. When Trinidad came back from a second-round knockdown to hammer the previously unbeaten Yory Boy Campas in four violent rounds, I wrote in Boxing Monthly that it was "a display of punching power so stunning that it brought gasps of awe from ringsiders" at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Trinidad's left hooks and right-handers were, I reported, "like cannon balls slamming into a fortress wall." Promoter Don King told the postfight news conference: "You've seen one of the most remarkable performances that I've ever seen in boxing -- it was reminiscent of the late, great Sugar Ray Robinson."

Perhaps the latter remark was a slight exaggeration, but it didn't seem like it at the time. Trinidad was spectacular that night, and many more dramatic performances came later.

1. Carlos Ortiz

Ortiz, although raised in New York, is considered a Puerto Rican world champion. Some of his finest wins were in the country of his birth, such as when he stopped the excellent Cuban, Douglas Vaillant, in 13 rounds, and outpointed tough, smart southpaw Kenny Lane and skilled Panamanian Ismael Laguna.

A glance at Ortiz's record shows how different things were when he was boxing in the 1950s and '60s. A champion at two weights, he fought all the top boxers in the lightweight and junior welterweight divisions, often on their home turf.

Ortiz boxed on the West Coast and in Britain, Italy, Japan, Panama, the Philippines, Argentina and Mexico. It didn't seem to worry him where he fought. He had it all; he was an almost-perfect boxer-fighter: quick, strong, smart and hard-punching, with a swift, sharp left jab. He fought boxers who justifiably could be called great: the boxing master Joe "Old Bones" Brown, fast and gifted Flash Elorde and accomplished ring mechanics Duilio Loi and Nicolino Locche.

When Ortiz fought in New York, he attracted thousands of fans from Spanish Harlem. He considered himself "a hero to my people" but was popular in the wider community. The New York Times described him as "Puerto Rico's contribution to the Fighting Irish Regiment" (he was a sergeant in the National Guard unit).

Carlos Ortiz
AP PhotoA globe-trotter of sorts, Carlos Ortiz, right, had no qualms about fighting on enemy territory.

Ortiz had many memorable wins. One of the finest was when he outboxed veteran stylist Joe Brown in Las Vegas to become lightweight champion, not only dominating the fight but also outjabbing a champion known for a superb left hand.

A crowd of 20,000 at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium saw Ortiz stop Sugar Ramos in the fourth round of their rematch. Ortiz had stopped Ramos under controversial circumstances in Mexico City nine months earlier, but in the rematch he hurt the Cuban fighter in every round. Referee Zach Clayton said afterward that Ramos had been about to go down, but a tremendous right uppercut actually kept him on his feet to be hit by some more punches. The uppercut "just held him up for those left and right combinations," Clayton said.

Ortiz's last great victory came outdoors at Shea Stadium in New York in August 1967, when he won a unanimous decision over Laguna in their rubber match. Veteran boxing writer Barney Nagler wrote of Laguna: "He can do everything in a ring except count the house. He throws hooks, jabs, even uppercuts with his left arm, crosses the right and moves with blinding speed." Yet Ortiz beat this exceptional boxer by wide margins on the scorecards. He said afterward that he did it by making the Panamanian come to him instead of chasing Laguna -- and his left jab piled up points.

British boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney noted in The Observer that, in defeating Laguna that night, Ortiz "demonstrated again that he possesses virtually every attribute required in a professional boxer."

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.