Mexico Celebrates A New Hero: Salvador Silences Wilfredo

By Christian Giudice on August 21, 2015
Mexico Celebrates A New Hero: Salvador Silences Wilfredo
After that violent first round, Sanchez’s attack represented a slow, calculated destruction.

Sanchez had already accomplished so much, but there was a sense among boxing experts that he had so much more to give to the sport…

On August 21, 1981, 34 years ago today, Wilfredo Gomez and Salvador Sanchez engaged in a superfight for Sanchez’s 126-pound WBC belt. They met at the Caesar’s Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas. Gomez, 24, entered the fight with 32 consecutive knockouts, while Sanchez, 22, was coming off of a unanimous decision victory over a tough Nicky Perez. What Sanchez lacked in charisma, he made up for with maturity and endurance. He understood how talented Gomez was, recognized the difficulty of the matchup, blocked out distractions, and trained accordingly.

Conversely, a confident Gomez, who was a 9-5 favorite, would later admit, “I thought it was going to be an easy fight.” Both fighters weighed in at 126, but Gomez struggled mightily the night before to shed four extra pounds.

Consequently, Gomez would never find that energy reserve that he had relied on in his previous defenses at 122. Sanchez entered the fight with a 40-1-1 (30 KOs) record, while Gomez was 32-0-1 (32 KOs), the draw in his professional debut with Panamanian Jacinto Fuentes. There were great fights that defined the fierce Mexican vs. Puerto Rican rivalry, but none as emotionally charged as this one. Originally, Gomez had his sights set on a much bigger payday with Danny Lopez, but Lopez couldn’t get past Sanchez and the fight fell through.

That evening bands battled in the middle of the ring, and would soon give way to ring introductions.  Referee Carlos Padilla then gave the instructions in the middle of the ring. The fighters stayed patient as Padilla ordered Sanchez’s camp to clarify who was acting as the chief second in his corner. Within the first two minutes of the fight, a pall fell over the Puerto Rican fans. What was to be billed as a colossal showdown between two gallant warriors quickly transformed into a virtuoso performance by an underrated and underestimated Mexican great.

Prior to the fight, Sanchez instructed Gomez to take one final picture of himself so he could remember what he looked like. Sanchez’s hostility didn’t stem from a deep hatred for Gomez, but as a reluctant, (and what he considered) necessary response to the caustic Puerto Rican 122-pound champion. Initially, it was Sanchez’s intent to come, fight, win and leave, but his business-as-usual style soon unraveled. Gomez agitated him with his constant provocations, which served only as motivation.

Sanchez didn’t let Gomez forget it.

When the bell sounded, Sanchez danced, but he also put himself in range to attack. Moving less fluidly than he had in previous bouts, Gomez’s movements reflected his own resentment. Deep down, Gomez resented that he was not mentally or physically prepared. Most of the fight would be fought on guts alone. At the outset, both fighters missed uppercuts. Sanchez, however, recognized that everything would stem from the jab, as he shot four to five jabs from a distance early in the round.

Neither quick nor sharp, Gomez weakly jabbed as Sanchez easily shifted away to his left. Content to hastily get inside, Gomez pushed Sanchez to the ropes. Sanchez landed a straight right during a chaotic flurry, and followed with a left hook that sent an off balance Gomez down to the canvas. It was uncharacteristic for Gomez to leave himself so vulnerable, but Sanchez quickly took advantage and knocked Gomez down with a wide left hook. It happened so fast that it was difficult to tell how much power was behind the punch. Having risen by four, Gomez looked at referee Carlos Padilla for a sign to continue. “I knew I was in trouble after that knockdown,” Gomez would later recall. Both of Gomez’s cheeks began to swell from the dehydration.

In the past, Gomez had gotten hit by big punches, but he rarely got hit cleanly. Part of the reason Gomez was such a phenomenon was his movement. Now it was gone as Gomez was forced to brawl. Later Gomez would lament the lack of respect he showed Sanchez, but in that first round, he was merely trying to survive. The patient Sanchez wasn’t in a hurry. There was no reason to be.

“Sanchez was so smart,” said legendary promoter Don Chargin. “He would make a mistake to draw them in and then counter. He might drop left hand to get them to lead, then take a step back, make the guy miss and then really punish them.”

Padilla walked over and continued the count. Refusing to let this opportunity pass, Sanchez landed another big left hook that backed Gomez up. After missing a combination, Sanchez scored with three punches that rendered Gomez helpless. Gomez clinched and tied up Sanchez to get a breather. But Padilla was right on top of them and allotted him no recovery time.

Seconds later shocked fans watched as Sanchez backed Gomez to the opposite side of the ring and made him pay with a right cross. The punch would have knocked out most featherweights, but Gomez refused to succumb.

“For me that fight was life or death” said Gomez.

After the devastating right hand, Gomez fell off the ropes and grabbed for Sanchez, but Sanchez punched through his guard. Trying to escape the pounding, Gomez absorbed another right hand and stumbled back to the place of the original knockdown. The battering ensued as Gomez took a right cross that brought him to his knees, followed by an uppercut and left hook. His only recourse was to punch back, but all he could muster were harmless arm punches that Sanchez brushed off. Gomez kept Sanchez away for the last 20 seconds and fell into his trainer’s arms as the bell.

“Salvador did everything he wanted to from the start. He went after Wilfredo in that first round. He jumped on him right away,” said boxing manager and trainer, Jimmy Montoya. “He went to the body. He had fast hands too. Wilfredo took a lot of punishment. Sanchez was so hard to beat. Wilfredo was a good boxer and slugger and he really needed to come in, feint, boom, boom and then get out again.”

According to Gomez, the antidote to Sanchez’s historic onslaught was to come out more aggressive in the second round. Both cheeks were swelling and a dark bruise began to form under his right eye. Now a flat-footed fighter, Gomez tried to force Sanchez into the opposite corner but he missed an uppercut, got hit with a sharp jab, and then missed landing his own right hand. All of the assertions that he boldly made prior to the fight were now coming back to haunt him. It was not the Sanchez that he had expected to face. 

Still wobbly, Gomez followed Sanchez to the corner and missed three left uppercuts, but found himself again in the middle of another fierce battle and even landed his best punch of the night, a jarring left hook. Sanchez shrugged it off and baited Gomez to the corner again. This time, Gomez benefited as the role of aggressor and landed two major punches during a 13-punch outburst. The round ended with Gomez finding a brief glimmer of hope. 

After that violent first round, Sanchez’s attack represented a slow, calculated destruction, as if he could pull the trigger at any time and end the fight. As each round ticked off, there was a sense that Gomez didn’t have the strength to follow up on any of his punches. The fifth round proved a microcosm of the fight. Just as Gomez started to find his comfort zone, Sanchez ended the round with a shotgun right hand and then reeled off five more punches, one after the bell sounded.

Rarely had a magnificent fighter been silenced in such a fashion.

As the fight continued, Gomez landed significant punches, but he could never capitalize like he had against Sanchez’s countryman, Carlos Zarate. It was clear that Gomez could see openings, ones that he could easily exploit, but now he couldn’t position himself to take advantage of them. He landed his best punches in the seventh round, when he closed in on Sanchez with a left-right combination.

“Gomez had moments in that fight,” said Showtime boxing analyst, Al Bernstein. “The thing is that it was becoming obvious that Sanchez was fighting much better than people thought he would. Although Wilfredo was winning rounds, it was obvious that it was not going to be Wilfredo’s night. The perception and reality was that Sanchez showed power and ability and it looked inevitable that he would win.”

A marathon runner, Sanchez benefited from his Spartan training regimen, and in the middle rounds never let up. He was still fresh going into the eighth and final round. Gomez’s eyes worsened and he recognized the urgency of the situation. First, he landed a counter right hand and then tied up Sanchez. However, Sanchez was no longer content to pick his spots. He hunted Gomez. The onslaught began with three left hooks to the body followed by a short hook that forced Gomez to slow his attack. Against the ropes, Gomez landed a right hand and then received two in return. A huge right hand seconds later left Gomez hanging through the ropes. Sanchez tried to follow up, but it was already over and when Padilla jumped in, he didn’t give Gomez a chance to plead his case as he hugged him and called an end to the bout at 2:09 of the round.

The move may have saved Gomez some years on his career.

The beating that Gomez took in that fight didn’t stop him from being great again. And although many fans attach Gomez to Sanchez, the fight didn’t define his career. Gomez may have lost something in that fight, but he continued to win back his Puerto Rican fans with victories over Lupe Pintor and Juan LaPorte. 

“After the Sanchez fight, I don’t think many people thought any less about Gomez,” said boxing judge and analyst, Howard Lederman. “It’s tough moving up. He wasn’t a featherweight.”

Gomez would never get the rematch he had been waiting for. Sanchez, 23, died on August 12 of the next year in a car accident. People never forgot the class that the young fighter brought to the sport.

“When Sanchez died,” said Montoya, “it was a devastating blow for all of us.”

At such a young age, Sanchez had already accomplished so much, but there was a sense among boxing experts that he had so much more to give to the sport. 

“I remember hearing about Sanchez’s death when I was at ESPN doing Top Rank shows,” said Bernstein. “It was hard to concentrate. Everybody was taken aback. Sanchez was one of those fighters you knew was going to be great. He beat Azumah Nelson, Gomez and LaPorte. He was young and still developing and who had not reached his potential.”

After he heard the news, Gomez left his training camp to attend Sanchez’s funeral.

“I just wanted to pay respect to his family,” said Gomez. “I wanted to show respect and show that it wasn’t personal between us.”

Christian Giudice is the author of A Fire Burns Within: The Miraculous Journey of Wilfredo Gomez, set to come out this spring.

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  1. ernie delatorre 07:14pm, 02/22/2018

    After the gomez ko, Puerto Rico was never the same, nor was Gomez. His eyes were almost swollen shut. This fight will never be forgotten by Boriqua fans and marked in boxing history. U.S and Mexican fighters are numerous in champions and in this era, it will be hard for the feats to be matched.

  2. george 06:01am, 08/29/2015

    I was in Puerto Rico when this fight took place. All my friends were excited and wanted to put big money down on Gomez. I told them it was a bad idea, and to just enjoy the fight and cheer on Wilfredo. I knew that Sanchez was a great fighter and predicted him as the winner, although he was the underdog with the oddsmakers. Of course the Mexican Puerto Rican rivalry had alot to do with my friends’ decisions to bet as well. The rest is history. I was fortunate to see Sanchez fight a young Azumah Nelson ringside at MSG. He needed a KO to win and he got it. Salvador Sanchez was a memorable fighter who died too soon!

  3. Don from Prov 08:47am, 08/25/2015

    Good article about two great fighters.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:41pm, 08/21/2015

    Great write up….the photo above tells the tale….Gomez couldn’t hit Salvador cleanly and when he did he couldn’t faze him or even change the expression on Sanchez’s face, in fact he didn’t even make Sanchez breathe hard throughout the bout. This was a showdown fight and Gomez was the favorite but in reality Salvador was several levels above Gomez.

  5. Ted Sares 04:49pm, 08/21/2015


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