“Former champ Agapito Sanchez dies from gunshot wounds,” the headlines read last week.
“Oh, typical,” you sigh. “Yet another fighter scraps his way to glory, but he couldn’t escape an inevitably violent end.”
Not so in the case of our friend Agapito Sanchez. I doubt anyone who knew him would have predicted that his life would end that way. And if his life must be summarized in a single statement, then let it be, “Former champ Agapito Sanchez was a nice guy.”
That’s not a sound bite that sells papers, but it’s accurate. Any fighter will attest to the fact that in boxing, the outright creeps greatly outnumber the “nice guys.” Sure, there are fighters savvy enough to be cordial to the media and their fans, but few are genuinely friendly. Agapito was an exception.
He won the WBO super bantamweight title in 2001, which put him at the top of the food chain in the boxing gym. He did not have to be nice. Agapito’s status and his hard-hitting style alone would have garnered him plenty of respect. As a champ, he could have remained aloof, or turned into a smiling meet-and-greet politician, but that was not his style.
I go to know Agapito as our paths crossed in the gym and at the fights, later through his girlfriend, and finally as a stablemate. Physically, Agapito was a freak of nature. He was a shade taller than I, and I strain to make five feet, yet he had deceptively long arms, which made it tough to judge distance on him. He possessed a chiseled musculature, and his thighs were so thick and cut they looked like they belonged to a bodybuilder, not a fighter. I had to ask him if he lifted weights, but he told me, “No, just exercise.” I found that hard to accept, until I saw him chew gum and realized that even his cheek muscles had striations!
His genetic gifts aside, Agapito had a warrior attitude in the ring, and I studied his sparring sessions whenever I could. As an east coast super bantamweight, Agapito was always the smaller man in the ring. I admired how he could pop taller guys in the head with hard jabs, then follow through with hard overhand rights or body shots. Conventional boxing wisdom dictates that the shorter fighter will have to weather a storm of punches to get inside, but Agapito had great agility and footwork. He could make guys miss plenty of shots, and then hit them – hard. More than once, it was bigger guy’s corner that would ask him to lighten up on his shots.
Despite his killer instinct, Agapito was gracious and generous with his boxing knowledge. He even helped out this minimumweight female by moving around with me in the ring. (Note: “moving around,” as distinct from “sparring,” means one person in the ring is seriously outclassed and the other person could KO them at any given moment, but chooses not to engage in such a pointless exercise.) I certainly never sampled Agapito’s power but was witness to his stinging punches and awesome skills. Invariably during the session, Agapito would pull one of his signature moves, and go into a full squat and start hopping like a frog, bouncing in and out of range. At first, I figured he’d be easier to hit like that, but he was too quick. As frustrating as it was to try to hit him, I would have to crack up.
Agapito was not a champ that needed to carry an entourage. His entire crew was his older brother Ernesto, and true friend “Negro,” who would come by the gym to lend support. Sometime Agapito brought his two sons, Juan and Antonio. Like their father, they sported baldy haircuts. Made of the same springy muscles as Agapito, those two bundles of energy literally bounced around the gym, talking trash to anyone who would listen. And they were fiercely proud of their father. “My dad has four belts,” they would inform me. Much to their father’s amusement, the brothers would challenge each other to a mas macho fight for one of his belts on a weekly basis.
I admired Agapito’s work ethic. His ever-present washboards were testament to his discipline with diet, roadwork, and gym training. He never pulled a post-fight DeNiro. After his draw with Manny Paquiao in late 2001, he didn’t fight for another twenty-six months, but Agapito stayed in the gym. We’d hear “Haieeee HA. Aieeee HA HA,” and knew Agapito was hitting the heavy bag. During that time, Agapito had every reason to grow discouraged, despondent and desperate. He was stripped of his WBO belt by failing an eye exam in Wales, and Joan Guzman seized the prize by defeating a last-minute sub. After Agapito took care of his eye, a string of a dozen fights fell on and off regularly. At one point, he even offered to fight 8 rounds on a local card for $4000, only to be told by the promoter that was too pricey. “Can you believe it?” he laughed when he told me. “I’m too expensive!” He seemed more amused than annoyed.
When Agapito’s opportunity to fight Joan for the belt finally materialized, many felt he was capable of reclaiming the title he lost in the doctor’s office. But, we were remembering Agapito at his best, the ring rust was caked on pretty thick, and Guzman is no joke. Joan hurt him in the early rounds, before finally stopping him in the 7th. In the dressing room afterwards, Agapito expressed his frustration at seeing openings, but not being able to follow through with punches. “Sorry, sorry,” he apologized humbly to his corner. My heart went out to him as he held his head in his hands and lamented quietly, “Now I have nothing. No belt, no nothing.”
After that low point, there was more waiting, but lately Agapito was on an upswing. After posting several wins locally, he defeated Art Simonyan for the NABA belt on ESPN, scoring a KO with his signature overhand right. His career was officially rejuvenated, and a final run for another title shot and some decent money seemed realistic.
What I admire most and will miss the most about Agapito, though, had nothing to do with boxing. It was his unwavering good mood. No matter what he was going through, Agapito always had time to greet us with a smile and hug. He embodied the Bob Marley tunes he loved to sing so loudly with his thick accent, “Don’t worry, ‘bout a thing. ‘Cuz every little thing, gonna be alright. . .’”
Agapito Sanchez will probably be best remembered by boxing fans for his war with Manny Pacquiao, low blows, headbutts and all.
But I will cherish remembering him as a nice guy.