Salvador Sanchez—The People’s Champ

By James Keefe on November 29, 2013
Salvador Sanchez—The People’s Champ
In his battle with Bazooka, he was introduced as “the very popular Salvador Sanchez.”

Just over three weeks after stopping Nelson, Chava and his Porsche 928 were involved in a crash with a pick-up and a cargo truck. He died instantly…

Salvador “Chava” Sanchez was born in Santiago Tianguistenco, Mexico, on January 26, 1959, and became a professional boxer at the age of 16 after only a handful of amateur bouts. A split decision loss to the more-experienced Antonio Becerra and a tough draw against Juan Escobar are the only tarnishes on a 44-1-1 record, with 32 of those wins coming by way of knockout.

A week after his 21st birthday, he moved up to featherweight and took Danny Lopez’s WBC belt by way of TKO in the 13th round. The following year produced a classic fight with 1974 bantamweight gold medalist Wilfredo Gomez.

Wilfredo Gomez stepped up from junior featherweight with a heavy-handed reputation supported by a 32-0-1, 32 KOs record (for those curious, the draw came on his professional debut against a fighter named Jacinto Fuentes, who in their rematch seven months later would be knocked out in the second round). Known as “Bazooka,” the Puerto Rican certainly packed a punch and was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of his era.

Pre-fight hype mainly concerned when and not if Wilfredo would connect, the fighter himself foreseeing an early knockout victory. The majority of people adopted the same viewpoint. Nearly three years before this fight whilst defending his WBC super-bantamweight title, Gomez took the scalp of the then-undefeated Mexican hero Carlos Zarate; by stopping him in the fifth round he provided national bragging rights to Puerto Ricans over Mexicans, and so similar social importance was attached to this fight. In light of this, Sanchez was a 2-to-1 underdog going into the fight.

“The Battle of the Little Giants”

Fight night was August 21, 1981. Venue was Caesars Palace. Referee was Carlos Padilla.

“We’ve called a lot of fights from Caesars Palace and I can’t say I’ve seen anything more exciting or dramatic even for a heavyweight fight!”

The atmosphere was electric. Initially the fight began somewhat as expected, with Sanchez maintaining a distance and using his height and reach advantage to establish his jab while Gomez looked to mainly counter and close the gap. This equilibrium existed for around a minute. Gomez went looking for an opportunity to pressure Sanchez against the ropes and let his hands go, and was put on the seat of his shorts for his troubles. Rising at “four,” he was still on unsteady legs but had recovered enough to satisfy the referee that he could continue. For the rest of the round he looked like he was punching through treacle. Sanchez fired and landed at will, repeatedly jarring Gomez’s head back and sending him across the ring and into the ropes. Gomez was rocked with a big overhand right that heavily buckled his knees but somehow, with the assent of the referee, Wilfredo staggered through to the end of the round.

“Well this is something we didn’t expect to see…it’s a miracle he [Gomez] was able to get through that round!”

I think it’s fair to assume the effects of the beating were still present as Gomez came out for the second. His punches started sluggish and rather wild, but the Puerto Rican still tried to force the action and was looking to connect with meaningful shots. Sanchez, almost cautiously, attempted to keep the fight on the outside, yet frequent bursts of energy still led the men to trade blows toe to toe and Gomez even arguably finished the round stronger.

The next couple of rounds saw Gomez looking to force Sanchez into corners and throwing hooks to the head and body, occasionally landing. As a consequence, he was caught several times as Sanchez almost welcomed the pressure and seemed to focus on counterpunching. Our amigo Wilfredo also had to cope with a closing right eye, but tirelessly sought to make the ring smaller and close Sanchez down. Sanchez to some extent managed to control the pace of the fight through his jab—his left hand was attracted to Wilfredo’s eye like a bee to pollen (or honey, whichever version of the simile you prefer).

“I’d say he (Sanchez) a terrific guy, a terrific boxer. He knows what’s happening at all times.”

It must be scary to face an opponent, in any scenario, who knows what’s happening at all times. How would you triumph?

Yet Bazooka still came forward and looked to hurt Chava. He was like a predator, indiscreetly stalking his prey and eager to strike. Sanchez remained unfazed. Running commentary described the fight as having developed into one between a puncher (Gomez) and a boxer (Sanchez). 

Round 5 saw Gomez hold the center of the ring/wipe his boots on the Don King emblem and establish himself as the aggressor: he kept Sanchez on the back foot for most of the round, closing down the angles and letting his hands go when he got close enough, but the swelling was getting worse. Salvador never left the jab for too long, and a couple of right hand shots had Gomez hurt in the closing seconds of the round. While Gomez was tiring and now also showing swelling under his left eye, Sanchez seemed relatively fresh and unscathed; poker-faced and showing little expression, he was superbly conditioned and had great stamina.

The following round provided more action of the same pattern: Sanchez maintaining his discipline on the outside and boxing Gomez whilst Wilfredo looked to get in range and connect, creating surges in the action as the two fighters traded blows. It seemed like Chava was hurting Bazooka more than the antithesis, yet Wilfredo still pressured. Sanchez smartly chose not to overcommit, still respecting his opponent’s power enough to not take chances.

“It’s a war, no doubt about it.”

Round 7 began with Sanchez upping his work rate, forcing Gomez against the ropes and ripping hooks to the head and body. Gomez gamely looked but struggled to find an opening, and his eyes were closing. To his credit, he caught Salvador with a couple of shots (much to the delight of the crowd’s Puerto Rican counterpart) and was still managing to force the champ against the ropes, but the commentary was dominated by observations that, though the aggressor, his legs were gone.

It was in the 8th that the final chapter of this thrilling tale was written. Gomez was still actively looking to make something happen but, when trapped in the corner himself, he was caught by a flurry of shots that eventually rocked him off his feet, along the ropes and onto the canvas. He somehow forced himself up by the count of eight but the referee, rightly, stopped the fight.

This fight proved to be one of the last professional fights for Salvador Sanchez. After this bout came a tough split-decision win over Olympic bronze medalist Pat Cowdell, a more convincing unanimous decision over Jorge Garcia, and a TKO victory over Olympic gold medalist Azumah “The Professor” Nelson. The Nelson fight was his ninth title defense—not bad considering he was only 23 years old.

Date was August 12, 1982. Location was the Santiago Queretaro-San Luis Potosi highway. Cause was a suspected high-speed overtake.

In the dark and early hours of the Thursday morning, just over three weeks after stopping Nelson, Chava and his Porsche 928 were involved in a crash with a pick-up and a cargo truck. He died instantly. The boxing world collectively mourned his premature death and thousands of people poured to his funeral, including Gomez and Nelson who both knelt and wept at his grave. Supposedly, each man rubbed a handful of dirt from his grave between their hands to “gain some of Salvador’s strength.” Murray Goodman said the following about Sanchez:

“I think it’s a great tragedy and this is one of the finest young men I ever met in boxing. He was really just starting out. He had so much to look forward to. It’s a shame, even before his peak he’s gone. I would rate him among the great featherweight champions of modern times. He could fight anybody. He was always superbly conditioned and he was always surrounded by nice people. What a loss.”

It almost seems fitting that Chava finished undefeated in his reign as champion, although supposedly he wanted to retire in a year to study and become a doctor. In the words of Sugar Ray Leonard, he “was more than a featherweight champion [whose] warmth and love for his fellow man will coexist with his outstanding record.” In his battle with Gomez, he was introduced as “the very popular Salvador Sanchez” and was often described as being a very affable and gregarious person. In 1991 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame.

And rightly so.

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Salvador Sanchez vs Wilfredo Gomez

The Salvador Sanchez Story


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  1. kid vegas 11:47am, 12/05/2013

    Es Mejores

  2. Pete The Sneak 06:53pm, 11/30/2013

    anton, that’s a great post… However, as a Puerto Rican/American growing up in the South Bronx, NY, nationality for us was a big deal. That indeed was a great fight, but we Boricuas felt it when Bazooka lost that fight to Sanchez. Still, we respected and admired Salvador, who was as tough as they came, but was also a classy individual. You mention the Philippine’s, I think we (Boricuas) felt the same way when Manny Pacquiao beat Miguel Cotto. Tough loss, but it was made easier by the fact that he lost to such a great fighter and humble individual as Pac Man. Cotto felt the same way. You’ll note that in this fight with Rios, Miguel was one of the first to go to Pac Mans locker room to wish him well…James Keefe, thanks for the wonderful write up on Sanchez…Peace.

  3. anton 02:35pm, 11/30/2013

    Salvador Sanchez vs Bazooka Gomez was a barnburner.
    The whole Philippines was glued to that fight, even though it was between a Mexican and Puerto Rican. At that time, nationality played a small role in boxing, only reserved for these types of super fights. I am glad to have witnessed live (TV, no ppv yet) this great fight as the excitement overflowed for those who loved boxing. Electric atmosphere!!!! Sanchez was truly a fighter that put boxing to its highest. His TKO of then indestructible Azumah Nelson was a feat that almost made Sanchez a god.

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