Mala Sangre: The Mexico-Puerto Rico Rivalry

By Cheekay Brandon on December 2, 2011
Mala Sangre: The Mexico-Puerto Rico Rivalry
Arguably no sport feeds on nationalism and political sentiment like the sport of boxing

Lest we believe the rivalry has subsided, the Cotto-Margarito dynamic has reminded us that the “mala sangre” is alive and well…

(“Mala Sangre” is co-authored by Cheekay Brandon and Emir Melara)

The term “Latin America” describes a collection of nations and territories in the western hemisphere with a history as rich and complex as any in the world. While academic historians might find music, art and political movements to be the most relevant paradigms through which to compare the many countries comprising Latin America, one can argue that competitive enterprises, like sports, provide a better window into how countries interact, how similarities and differences play out on a global stage. Due to its combative nature, boxing tells a unique and particularly relevant narrative. 

Mexico and Puerto Rico have created boxing’s latest great rivalry, with fighters of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent authoring some of the sport’s most memorable battles. Where did this rivalry originate? A thorough investigation of the history of boxing in Latin America is beyond the scope any single book, let alone article (boxing in Mexico alone has been the subject of several books). We can, however, highlight some of the processes that fed this rivalry. Much of the history involves other Latin American countries near the U.S., such as Cuba and Panama. The early 20th century (until the Great Depression) saw an influx of immigrants from many nations including Latin America. It is no coincidence, then, that during this time the boxing world saw its first two first Latin American world champions: “Panama” Al Brown (bantamweight champion in 1929) and Eligio Sardinas Montalvo of Cuba, better known as “Kid Chocolate” (featherweight champion in 1931). Though highly regarded legends in the sport, both Panama Al Brown and Kid Chocolate achieved most of their success after leaving their native lands and neither were famous for defeating other Latin American fighters. Because of this, they didn’t achieve the fame within their native countries that one might expect. For example, Kid Chocolate’s accomplishments were ignored by the Castro regime in Cuba for many years (odd considering Fidel Castro’s notorious love of prizefighting). 

It wasn’t until Puerto Rico’s Sixto Escobar that Latin America would have a champion born and bred largely in Latin America, who rose through the ranks fighting other Latin Americans. Escobar succeeded Panama Al Brown as bantamweight champion of the world and for most of his early professional career fought exclusively in Latin American (Puerto Rico and Venezuela). And it is with Escobar that Puerto Rico’s rivalry with Mexico began.

In May 1934, Panama Al Brown was stripped of the title due to his refusal to fight the intimidating Rudolpho “Baby” Casanova, the pride of Mexico City. The two top contenders at the time were Casanova and Puerto Rico’s Escobar, setting the stage for a showdown to determine Brown’s successor. This fight was loaded with subplots: disagreements over promotions, finances and location. The fight drew on this “mala sangre” and delivered a high action fight. Escobar defeated the highly favored Casanova by spectacular 9th round knockout. Puerto Rico had its first world champion boxer and the seeds were sown for a great rivalry.

Since then, political, cultural and social history has ripened and refined the rivalry: Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, not technically a sovereign nation. Mexico is a vast independent republic and sits at the very center of the U.S. immigration debates. This creates political tension between Mexicans (including Mexican-Americans) and persons of Puerto Rican descent that often plays out in American cities where both populations live. Some Mexicans/Mexican-Americans can view Puerto Ricans as privileged, never having been branded “illegal” and not cast as an American pariah. Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, have a set of unique issues of their own: the debate over independence in the commonwealth and struggles with unemployment, joblessness and discrimination in American cities. Even further, Puerto Rico’s genetic complexity (with almost equal contributions from its Spaniard, indigenous and West African ancestors) lends to a race dynamic that further complicates their assimilation into American society. Each group has persevered through many social challenges and are among the most influential Latin American populations in the US. 

Other Latin Americans (not of Mexican or Puerto Rican descent) are often divided on these issues: some persons of Latin Caribbean descent show solidarity toward Puerto Rico (and Puerto Ricans); others do not. The same can be said for Mexico—some of Mexico’s neighbors view them as their “big brother” and find solidarity in their conflicts with the United States, usually because the immigration issues affect them as well. Other citizens of neighboring states resent Mexico for dominating the spotlight and casting a negative shadow over their own populations. As with most ethnic conflicts, these debates are loaded with irrationality and are difficult to resolve. 

Other than soccer, arguably no sport feeds on nationalism and political sentiment like boxing. These conflicts, historical and sociological in origin, feed the loyalty of the fan base, create subplots and sell tickets. In the case of Mexico versus Puerto Rico, they’ve created some of the best boxing spectacles of the last several decades. 

If there were a single boxing moment that defined the modern rivalry it would have to be the historical “Battle of the Little Giants”—the August 1981 showdown between Mexico’s Salvador Sanchez and Puerto Rico’s Wilfredo Gomez for the WBC featherweight championship of the world in Las Vegas. Gomez was the heavy favorite—undefeated, with all 32 of his victories by knockout. He was a legend in the making and already one of the most devastating punchers in featherweight division. Sanchez was also undefeated but had a far less impressive resume and was relatively unknown. It was one of the most anticipated fights in the recent history of the featherweight division, featuring two preternaturally gifted young fighters. 

From the opening bell, the fireworks began and the war was on. Sanchez dominated from the outset, dropping Gomez 40 seconds into round 1. Outside of a few moments in rounds 3 through 6, the underdog Sanchez controlled the fight from beginning to end. Gomez began to seriously whither under the pressure in round 7 and finally succumbed to Sanchez’s assault in round 8, losing by TKO. Sanchez became a legend in Mexico after the fight and his untimely death has elevated his legacy to almost mythical status, only rivaled by Julio Cesar Chavez in Mexico. The defeat of Gomez was a devastating blow to the island of Puerto Rico, as they had come to revere him as the potential Second Coming of Sixto Escobar. Gomez suffered a bout of depression after the Sanchez loss, but returned to the ring en route to a very successful career (three-time world champion). The wounds left behind from the crashing blows of Salvador Sanchez never quite healed, however, and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico suffered a bruised collective ego the likes to which it had never felt. 

During early 1990s, Puerto Rico’s flamboyant world champion Hector “Macho” Camacho carried the mantle for the island, but never ascended to legendary status in part because of lopsided losses to both Julio Cesar Chavez (1994) and Oscar De La Hoya (1997). 

Puerto Rico would, however, have its chance for true redemption when Oscar De La Hoya challenged Felix “Tito” Trinidad in 1999. De La Hoya figured to be the underdog: he was the smaller fighter and figured to be in over his head against the vaunted punching power of Felix Trinidad who had already captivated his home island with his ability to come off the canvas to knock opponents out. At the time, Trinidad had already authored some of the decade’s best displays of punching power.

De La Hoya-Trinidad was a megafight in the truest sense. It was the most watched non-heavyweight bout of all time, generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue. And while the action in the fight was a slight disappointment, the fight’s rather bizarre outcome (a controversial decision victory for Trinidad) further fueled the bitter rivalry. Supporters of De La Hoya and most boxing pundits had De La Hoya winning the fight by two rounds. De La Hoya appeared to outbox Trinidad in rounds 1 through 7, using outstanding ring generalship and accurate punching, while staying out of the way of Trinidad’s powerful left hook (a blueprint that future Trinidad foes would emulate). The judges didn’t see it that way and neither did the island of Puerto Rico, who welcomed Trinidad home as a champion and hero. The victory was the one that the island had been waiting 18 years for. The Wilfredo Gomez loss was finally behind them.

The most recent visible installment of this rivalry involves Miguel Cotto of Puerto Rico and Antonio Margarito of Mexico, two champions who gave the world a thrilling spectacle in their 2008 championship fight. The context and controversy surrounding Margarito’s TKO defeat of Cotto has been well documented and has made the rematch one of the most anticipated fights of 2011. The dark cloud of doubt and suspicion and accusations of cheating have further soured this rivalry and added a personal element to an already contentious affair: it’s pretty clear that Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito do not like each other. Lest we believe the rivalry has subsided at all, the Cotto-Margarito dynamic has reminded us that the “mala sangre” is alive and well.

In any competition, there are winners and losers. Comparing the boxing exploits of fighters of Mexican descent to Puerto Rican descent head-to-head isn’t as easy as it might appear, and even further, isn’t a particularly useful or relevant exercise. Further complicating a direct comparison is the fact that the two lands are hardly comparable by any demographic standard: Mexico is a vast, sprawling nation of 112 million people and Puerto Rico a small island of less than four million. That such an island can produce so many elite fighters at all is quite impressive. That they are mentioned in the same breath as Mexico’s (with perhaps the most robust boxing culture of any country in the world) is altogether astonishing.   

In the end, some rivalries are not always about who is ahead in the historical scale. This is because the nations who participate in these bitter rivalries have short collective memories—longstanding futility can be immediately forgotten with a single victory. Such is the case with boxing: with one punch the hopes and dreams of a nation can rise and fall. While this is a burden that no one fighter deserves to carry, it is one that many happily embrace, another element that makes prizefighting so dramatic and captivating.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Panama Al Brown vs. Maurice Dubois

Kid Chocolate vs Fidel LaBarba II

1981-08-21 Salvador Sanchez vs Wilfredo Gomez. Part1.Prefight.

1981-08-21 Salvador Sanchez vs Wilfredo Gomez. Part2.Rounds1-4.

1981-08-21 Salvador Sanchez vs Wilfredo Gomez. Part3.Rounds5-8.

Felix "Tito" Trinidad vs Oscar De La Hoya (part 1)

Felix "Tito" Trinidad vs Oscar De La Hoya (part 2)

Felix "Tito" Trinidad vs Oscar De La Hoya (part 3)

Felix "Tito" Trinidad vs Oscar De La Hoya (part 4)

Felix "Tito" Trinidad vs Oscar De La Hoya (part 5)

Felix "Tito" Trinidad vs Oscar De La Hoya (part 6)

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  1. Your Name 10:10am, 10/10/2015


  2. grapepony 11:00pm, 05/16/2014

    why don’t you mention that Puerto rico is the only country to win all weight divison as world champions. That Puerto ricans has the only latin and the first heavyweight champion john Ruiz. Why don’t you mention per capita Puerto rico is # 2 with the most world champions. Why don’t you mention that the youngest world boxer in history of boxing and still is was Wilfredo Gomez from pr. who beat Antonio Cervantes kid pambale and became world champion at 17.

  3. grapepony 10:47pm, 05/16/2014

    Also why don’t you mention that before margarita started using cement in the welterweight category and going on a cheating wining streak he was fighting Super welterweight and got his ass kicked by Daneil Santos a Puerto rican world champion not once but twice margachito lost ,but all of a sudden we forget.

  4. Grapepony 10:36pm, 05/16/2014

    Its funny he did not mention the great Mexican fighter Carlos Zarate the biggest Mexican puncher ever right behind Yori boy campus. Zarate had a record of 51 fights with I believe 50 kos! undeafeted. yori boy had 56 fighs with 50 kos no losses. Both got knocked out by Gomez the other Trinidad. How about undeafeted Fernando vargas vs Trinidad .Vargas got an ass whipping. Funny how great Mexican fighters loss to boricuas then they are noi longer Mexican ! Why don’t you tell the truth. How about if I post all the black champions that have dominated the Mexican champions but not vice versa.

  5. the thresher 05:01pm, 12/03/2011

    I’d guess around 11.

    The card starts on PPV at 9.

  6. tito hernandez 04:59pm, 12/03/2011

    what time is the fight

  7. the thresher 11:22am, 12/03/2011

    That was in 1955

  8. the thresher 11:21am, 12/03/2011

    Rivalries within the US based on ethnicity were the rule back in the 40’s and 50’s. That changed in the 60’s. Zale vs. Graziano was a classic example. Jewish fighters in the 40’s fighting Italians in NYC sparked massive feeling. Germans, Poles, Italians, Black, Irish, etc. engaged in this as Hispanic boxers were just coming on in the US or at least that’s the way I recall it.

    I once fought a Polish kid named “Tough Tommy Liski” in Rock Ola Stadium in Chicago as part of a Chicago Park League show. He was one of many Poles on the card. One side of the place was filled with Poles, Estonians, Bohemians, Crows, Serbs, Lithuanians and all kinds of Slavs. The other side was a mixed bag. I didn’t have a chance. That’s when I learned about rivalries in the ring.

    “Tough Tommy” would later get killed in Viet Nam but he was very tough and had a chin made of kryptonite.

  9. the thresher 11:07am, 12/03/2011

    Tumbo, good point re the marketing angle. Here is another view. PR probably has had more champions per capita or some other size measurement than any other country. Mexico probably has had the greatest boxing reputation of any Hispanic country in the world. They are both next to or near the US. Thus, the rivalry angle is a natural one.

    Brazil vs. Argentina, on the other hand, does not enjoy anything similar. In fact, I am hard pressed to find any other such rivalries in the world though I am sure they are out there.

  10. the thresher 10:57am, 12/03/2011

    Gomez-Sanchez was unforgettable. Sanchez proved his greaness. The atmosphere was unreal.

  11. the thresher 10:55am, 12/03/2011

    si, these two amigos did some proud work here.

  12. Don from Prov 10:52am, 12/03/2011

    Man oh man, this site is the place for really top-notch boxing writing.  Nicely researched, well put together work.
    And great footage, too.

  13. the thresher 09:57am, 12/03/2011

    Fight time: 9:00 p.m. EST
    Location: Madison Square Garden - New York, New York
    TV channel: HBO PPV ($54.99-64.99, United States), BoxNation (U.K.), TV Azteca (Mexico), Main Event PPV ($29.95-49.95, Australia)
    Streaming PPV: Top Rank will be offering the pay-per-view online. Click here for more information.
    Odds: Cotto is favored between -210 and -250, making him not a huge favorite, but a firm one. Margarito’s lines are between +165 and +195.
    PPV Undercard: Brandon Rios vs John Murray (12, Lightweights) ... Mike Jones vs Sebastian Lujan (12, Welterweights) ... Pawel Wolak vs Delvin Rodriguez II (10, Junior Middleweights)
    Off-TV Undercard: Top Rank will be streaming the off-TV undercard live, starting at 6 p.m

  14. te tumbo 09:25am, 12/03/2011

    FRANKLINDALLAS, although some may argue that JC Chavez and Margarito figuratively “ripped” the hearts out of their Boricuan opponents, there was no literal ripping of Boricuan hearts going on in pre-Columbian days. meanwhile, the advice of a legendary veteran like Clancy is what validates my opinion that DLH had At-Least one round to spare going into the 12th. to think that some judge had him one round behind(?!?) Trinidud going into the 12th is simply inconcievable to me and Gil Clancy (RIP). so much for Vegas being “DLH’s backyard”. more like his nemesis after Trinidud and Mosley II. Hell(?!), DLH couldn’t even get the nod in L.A., which IS his hometown.

  15. te tumbo 08:55am, 12/03/2011

    Btw, contained in that last post are some of the wrinkles, fine lines, and minefields that this writer successfully navigated to compile this informative piece. nice work.

  16. te tumbo 08:51am, 12/03/2011

    my point regarding the marketing angle is that it’s promoted at the expense of Mexico’s epic stature to subsidize PR’s micro-stature, which is the result of the obvious and constant size and historical comparisons. moreover and IMO, it’s not an organic rivalry of Mexican or PR making. it’s primarily American promotional politics that originally contrived it and continues to fuel it for the purposes of keeping two fanbases rabidly devoted to the $port. anyway, not being malicious just candid about a presumed “rivalry” that does little to nothing for Mexico’s stature in the sport.

  17. David Matthew 04:11pm, 12/02/2011

    Epic Work!

  18. Cheekay Brandon 03:41pm, 12/02/2011

    Thanks everyone for the feedback and excellent insight.  Regarding Marketing: Definitely marketing is where most rivalries that play out in the public begin (and sometimes end).  I would, however, argue that unlike….say…Yankees/Red Sox or Ohio State/Michigan, the boxing and soccer national rivalries are rooted in history *both* inside and outside of the sport.  I’d argue that the marketing machine is so effective specifically because there is an *actual* sentiment to market *around*. For example, if Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank tried to sell….a Colombian fighter vs a Japanese fighter as a “rivalry,” they get laughed out of the press conference. Why? Because there’s no actual sentiment to market around.  Certainly Mexico and Puerto Rico have no *real* reason to have an ethnic conflict. The problem is this: good reasons to not-get-along has never been a prerequisite for groups to not-get-along.  Ethnic groups are in conflict all over the world for all sorts of bizarre, childish, silly reasons.  We’re human beings…we find reasons to fight amongst ourselves.

  19. FrankinDallas 02:26pm, 12/02/2011

    I can’t watch the last round of Tito-DLH. Gil Clancy, RIP, gave him some BAD advice. Always remember what Yogi said: it ain’t over till it’s over.

    Te tumbo…you may be correct about the marketing angle. There really is no reason for Mex and PR to be at such odd with each other.  I mean this goes way beyond a normal athletic rivalry, and someone correct my history, but the Aztecs and Mayans never ripped out any Boricuan hearts.

  20. the thresher 12:19pm, 12/02/2011

    Tito-Oscar was a terrible disappointment. Oscar had it in the bag and then he became a rabbit. But Tito did not really chase him.

    Oscar got screwed.

  21. the thresher 10:13am, 12/02/2011

    Nice job lads

  22. te tumbo 08:36am, 12/02/2011

    impressively researched and written article. the author navigated several fine lines and minefields to put this together. however, i’ve always considered the “rivalry” to be a self-perpetuating marketing tool. Btw, DLH is a gold-medal U.S. Olympian and not “Mexican” in the truest sense of the word. Mexicans would be the first to alert you to that fact. Another complicated wrinkle in “the rivalry”. anyway, the defining moments of this rivalry remain Sanchez v. Gomez; JC Chavez v. Rosario v. Camacho; DLH v. Trinidad; and Margarito v. Cotto, i.e., what “rivalry”?

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