Commentary

Mexico's five best fighters

Mexico has produced a plethora of world-class prizefighters over the years. Graham Houston lists the top fighters from south of the border.

Originally Published: July 17, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Julio Cesar ChavezAP Photo/Jeff SheidJulio Cesar Chavez enjoyed many victory rides during his heyday in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Mexico's boxing legacy contains so many exceptional fighters that it is difficult narrowing the list down to five -- Antonio Margarito is following in the footsteps of some magnificent champions as he makes his grab for greatness against Miguel Cotto on Saturday. Here is a look at five of Mexico's finest.

5. Marco Antonio Barrera

Barrera won championships in three weight classes -- 122, 126 and 130 pounds -- and won two out of three in classic fights against his great Mexican rival, Erik Morales.

[+] EnlargeMarco Antonio Barrera
John GurzinskiGetty ImagesMarco Antonio Barrera, right, went from brawler to boxer in manhandling Naseem Hamed.
What was remarkable about Barrera was the way he changed his style, from two-fisted fighter and relentless body puncher to that of ring mechanic with a classic left jab. It was as though he sensed that he needed to box more and get hit less if he was to prolong his career at the highest level.

Barrera first demonstrated his new look in outclassing Hawaiian Jesus Salud in six rounds. In his next fight, Barrera gave one of the most perfect displays of scientific boxing I have seen in recent years when he upset the big-punching Naseem Hamed.

Before the fight, Barrera promised to go right after Hamed and put pressure on him. On fight night, though, he stayed back and countered, and his left jab was a major factor in keeping Hamed off-balance. "Hamed had never met anyone like Barrera and he had no answers against a boxer of startlingly superior talent," I reported for Boxing Monthly from ringside. "The Mexican, at 27 the same age as Hamed, looked like a skilled veteran against an overmatched upstart."

4. Vicente Saldivar

The southpaw featherweight Saldivar was the sort of fighter who epitomized the highest level of Mexican professional boxing: physically strong, technically sound, hard punching and implacable. No matter how tough things became, even if he seemed in danger of losing, Saldivar never wavered, confident that his conditioning, stamina, power and skill would see him through.

[+] EnlargeVincente Saldivar
AP PhotoVicente Saldivar, left, proved his worth at featherweight by coming on strong in the late rounds to stop the crafty Howard Winstone.
Saldivar was dominant at 126 pounds in the 1960s, winning the title by hammering skilled and powerful Cuban Ultiminio "Sugar" Ramos in 12 bloody rounds, then making seven defenses against top-caliber challengers.

After two years of retirement, Saldivar came back and surprised a lot of people by regaining the title with a disciplined decision win over fast and classy Australian Johnny Famechon, a victory achieved when Saldivar was past his prime.

His reign included a three-fight series with Wales' Howard Winstone, a fine boxer with a fight-winning left jab. In the first two bouts, in London and Cardiff, Saldivar was outboxed early but overpowered Winstone in the later rounds to win on points. He stopped his rival in the 12th round of their third meeting in Mexico City.

Saldivar made a tremendous impression on British fans and boxing writers in the two U.K. fights versus Winstone, with The Times describing his victory in London in vivid terms: "Winstone, for all the dazzling skill of his evasion on the ropes and swift side-stepping, could never hit hard enough with his famed left hand to keep out this Mexican buzz-saw. At times in the later stages of the bout Saldivar would take the left hand on his jaw and move forward until it seemed that his head would drive Winstone's arm back into its socket. He came over the enemy guns like unstoppable infantry taking a trench, and Winstone had to take a steady beating."

3. Salvador Sanchez

No one will know how great Salvador Sanchez might have been, for he died in a car crash in 1982 at just 23 years of age.

Salvador Sanchez
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziSalvador Sanchez, right, showed signs of brilliance in dissecting Danny Lopez.
Sanchez was a superb technician who shocked the boxing fraternity when he outclassed the more experienced, heavy-hitting Danny "Little Red" Lopez to become featherweight champion in February 1980. Sanchez repeated the feat by stopping Lopez in a rematch, one of his nine successful defenses.

It's fair to say that Sanchez was a revelation when he won the title from Lopez in Phoenix. He outboxed the champion, wore him down and finally halted him. Lopez was cut over both eyes and taking a lot of clean right-hand punches when the fight was stopped in the 13th round. "The 21-year-old Sanchez showed a lot of maturity for his age," The Arizona Republic reported.

After the fight, Lopez told John Beyrooty of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner of his admiration for Sanchez. "He really surprised me with his overall ability," Lopez said. "He was beating me to the punch from the first round."

Sanchez's most memorable victory, though, came when he stopped Puerto Rico's unbeaten, power-punching 122-pound champion Wilfredo Gomez in the eighth round in August 1981. Gomez was knocked down in the first round but came back to land some big punches before, bruised and bloodied, left eye closing and right eye swollen, he was overwhelmed in the eighth round. I covered that fight for the British weekly Boxing News and reported ringside at Caesars Palace that Sanchez "proved to be a fighter far above the ordinary in terms of durability and boxing skills. He always seemed in control and methodically took Gomez apart; almost piece by piece, as it were."

2. Ruben Olivares

There will probably be those who feel that Olivares should be considered Mexico's No. 1 fighter. A world champion at bantamweight and featherweight, Olivares was a phenomenal fighter. He captured the 118-pound title with a crushing fifth-round knockout victory over the experienced and accomplished Australian Aborigine Lionel Rose, who had defeated Mexican challenger Chucho Castillo on a controversial decision in Los Angeles. Olivares lost the title to Castillo, but regained it from his fellow countryman and twice won the featherweight title.

[+] EnlargeRuben Olivares
AP PhotoBantamweight king Ruben Olivares ruled the 118-pound ranks with lead fists during the late 1960s and early '70s.
People seem to think of Olivares as a power-and-pressure slugger, and he has been described as a "brawler," but he had first-class boxing ability and could go to a counter-punching style. This was demonstrated when he defeated Castillo in their rubber match in April 1971. The news agency UPI reported that Olivares "displayed a superb left hook and superior boxing tactics." Knocked down by a left hook in the sixth round, Olivares stayed back and waited for Castillo to come to him, then punished him, circling and jabbing. "[Olivares] refused to be drawn out of his boxing tactics," UPI reported.

While Olivares could be a strategist and sharpshooter, he was best known for his explosive punching, and never more so than the night he knocked out Rose at the Inglewood Forum in Los Angeles in August 1969. Olivares was a fierce aggressor that night, bringing roars from a crowd of 18,545 as he floored the champion three times in five one-sided rounds.

"For all his brilliance as a boxer and ring general, the little Aussie was slugged, slashed, bombed and battered all over the ring by the incredibly strong and aggressive 21-year-old brawler who served notice that he already belongs among the all-time great 118-pounders," Boxing Illustrated's William O'Neill reported.

1. Julio Cesar Chavez

A world champion at 130, 135 and 140 pounds, unbeaten in his first 90 fights, Julio Cesar Chavez has a strong claim to be Mexico's greatest. Though Chavez was considered fortunate to get a draw with 147-pound champion Pernell Whitaker, the fact that he was highly competitive against the bigger, superbly skilled southpaw -- who was at his peak that night -- speaks of Chavez's toughness and fighting qualities.

Up until his surprising defeat against Frankie Randall, Chavez had been a world champion for a decade, spanning three weight classes.

[+] EnlargeMeldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez
Ken Levine/Getty ImagesHad Meldrick Taylor, right, been allowed to continue fighting against Julio Cesar Chavez, he could have clinched a split-decision win.
I witnessed a number of Chavez's big fights on site, including his memorable win over Meldrick Taylor when the fight was debatably stopped with two seconds remaining. Though Taylor was in front on two judges' scorecards, "he was a battered, fading fighter and Chavez was finishing strongly and crashing in powerful blows," I reported from the Las Vegas Hilton for the now-defunct British publication Boxing Weekly.

Chavez said afterward: "The judges who had me very low in the scorecards were blind."

There would have been no argument as to who would win the fight had it been a 15-round fight instead of 12; even if Taylor had been allowed to finish the 12th, he would have never made it through the 13th.

The greatest Chavez win of them all, though, was his 11th-round victory over Puerto Rico's hard-punching Edwin Rosario in a lightweight unification title fight at the Las Vegas Hilton in November 1987.

Chavez was moving up from the junior lightweight division and was only a narrow 7-5 favorite at the Las Vegas sportsbooks. "This is my ideal weight. What nobody has seen is the real Julio Cesar Chavez," he said before the fight. "Everybody will be surprised."

I think that people were surprised, too, because Chavez outclassed Rosario and won almost every round.

"One fight does not an immortal make, but reserve a niche in the Mexican pantheon for Julio Cesar Chavez," Jack Fiske wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. "The Culiacan cutie (for his baby face, not his style) has all the ingredients for all-time greatness if his virtuoso performance against Edwin Rosario on Saturday is any indication."

"When the end came, Rosario's face was a swollen and bloody mess," Royce Feour said for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

It seems astonishing, but up to the Rosario fight, Chavez had not attracted a lot of attention outside of the hard-core boxing fraternity. "Rosario's blood-smudged and distorted face was graphic proof that attention must now be paid to Chavez, who had been largely ignored by the public," the New York Times' Phil Berger wrote.

After Chavez's destruction of Rosario, he was ignored no more.

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.