MEXICO’S GRAND BOXING TRADITION — Though the fight between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. turned out to be a disappointment, the hype leading up to it was real. Expectations were high because, as history tells us, when two world class Mexican boxers face off, it’s usually a classic. Last night, it quickly became apparent that Chavez Jr. was no longer world class. Alvarez did as he pleased, chipping away at the bark but never chopping down the tree. With his clear-cut win, the redheaded Tapatio with the freckled torso remains in an excellent position to add to a rich history that started before the Twentieth Century.
Mexico, like many other countries, first deemed boxing a crime, not a sport. Like many other criminal enterprises, reports are rare. Just as one can put together the historical pieces of dog fighting through pedigrees and arrest records, the Mexican boxing puzzle can approach completion from similarly unlikely sources – a poem, a song, or the writings of a Nobel Laureate such as Miguel Angel Asturias.
Sources point to 1894 as the year boxing, under Queensberry rules, started in Mexico. Writer Armando Zenteno wrote of an “open-air” match between Americans billed as “Arthur” and “Grover.” That bout took place before a small crowd in the nation’s capital late that year. In 1895, in Coahuila de Zaragoza near the Texas border where the Garza Revolution took place two years prior, the sound of gun fire could be heard morning, noon, and night. No longer being used to loosen the dictatorial grip of the president, the bullets and bloodshed were to settle disputes over money, women, and unfriendly glares.
To put a stop to the violence, and to force men to put-up-their-dukes to resolve their differences, the governor of Coahuila, Rafael Cravioto, both allowed and encouraged boxing. When a match scheduled for 12 rounds between American James Clark and Englishman James Smith was forbidden by Mexico City officials, the organizers headed north to Pachuca and, with the blessings of Cravioto, staged the fight there on November 24 at the Teatro Bartolome de Medina. The newspaper El Globo wrote that the crowd, half of whom made their way up from Mexico City, were treated to an emotional eight rounds of action that ended when Clark could not beat the count.
When word of the fight reached President Porfirio Diaz, he issued a stern warning to Governor Cravioto and called boxing a backwards step for civilization. Despite that, Cravioto, a former army general and a hero of the war waged on El Cinco de Mayo, continued to support boxing. When Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher searched for a friendly home for their fight, they too turned towards Cravioto and Coahuila. On February 21, 1896, at the foot of a hill about a football field’s length away from the border, Fitzsimmons and Maher fought for a version of the heavyweight title.
Boxing continued in the shadows and following the St. Louis Olympics of 1904, a group of “socialites” who had studied in Europe, formed academias where people could go to learn the finer points of what they called el arte noble. In other parts of the country different forms of boxing took root. Policarpo Santamaria is credited as being a bareknuckle champion of Mexico and others reportedly headed north, called themselves “Joe” or “Bob” and traded bare fists with Americans in California.
Boxing eventually became boxeo and started to look like something modern eyes would recognize. Elevated rings were set up, referees and judges were used, and crowds waving sombreros filled the seats. Smoke rose to the rafters, beer was spilled, and fans in the seats threw punches in the air while the fighters slugged it out in the ring. Sometimes those punches strayed and landed on the jaws of the people next to them. Fights broke out in the stands, drunks pissed their pants, obscenities were shouted, and everyone had a violently good time.
By the 1920s, Patricio Martinez Arredondo — called the first ring idol — Miguel Febles, Chucho Najera, and Fernando “La Filomena” Aragon, who is credited with over 90 knockouts, were well known outside of sporting circles. Around 1923, the “Mexican ring mentality” started to take form. In a fight-to-the-finish held on the night of January 5th, Jimmy Dundee, a Californian originally from Italy, took on Texan Mercy Montes. Fought under a steady drizzle, the match ended on January 6th. About two hours in, the fighters got hungry. Oranges were delivered to the corners. It was not enough. Close to an hour later, tortas – a Mexican sub, hero, hoagie – were ordered take-out and brought to the fighters corners. An extended break was allowed and after eating the sandwiches, they chased them down with a tall glass of fresh squeezed lemonade. After wiping their mouths with their forearms, the fight continued. Dundee won after 52 rounds and nearly four hours. But Montes received just as many accolades because he didn’t quit.
By the 1930s Chango Casanova, who fought like Jack Dempsey and lived like Lew Jenkins, was the bright star. His light fizzled quickly, some say even before he challenged Sixto Escobar for a piece of the world pie. He had one last hurrah, against a curly haired welterweight with skin that some said didn’t perspire. Kid Azteca, named after his mother Louisa, turned pro under his real name of Luis Villanueva Paramo. Because of a slight squint to his eyes, he was billed as Kid Chino. When he reached the United States, the promoters there took one look at the Aztec descendant before them and shook their heads “no.” He didn’t look Chinese-enough to them so they changed his name to Kid Azteca.
In a matchup of the past vs the future, the past – Casanova – survived a determined late rally to win. Azteca said it was the one fight he wished he could get to do over. Showing too much respect for the smaller, older legend, he started too cautiously, he said, and turned it up only after Casanova had gotten into a groove.
Azteca, who had nifty footwork and fought a bit like Michael Spinks, would go on to perfect the left hook to the liver. Several times he found himself down on the cards, in the final round, about to lose, only to unleash a single left hook to the liver that erased everything. He scored more than 100 knockouts in his career, most of them with that liver shot that the rest of Mexico would adopt.
Other stars followed, many of whom met the same fate of Kid Azteca and never got the opportunity to contest for a world title. So, with the help of Nat Fleischer, Mexicans made their own titles in the form of the WBC. Soon, the whole world was paying attention to fights between two Mexicans and even the gringos were calling them great.
There was Medel, Castillo, Olivares, Zamora, Zarate, Cuevas, and possibly the best of them all, Salvador Sanchez. Sanchez, who fought up – or down – to the level of his opponent, could crank it up higher than most when he had to. He stopped every Hall of Famer he faced. His career and life was cut short during the early morning hours of August 12, 1982. On an unlit stretch of highway along kilometro 14 – his white Porsche was hit in the rear by a truck just as another truck, a Dina Torton with plate number 6166-AH, approached in the oncoming lane. He was 23. Two years later Julio Cesar Chavez won the first of his titles in a brawl that did justice to the Mexican tradition, defeating Mario “Azabache” Martinez, a nineteen-year-old from Guadalajara who sported a Tom Selleck mustache. Chavez would go on to build a legacy his son could never match. Canelo Alvarez is in the middle of building his own.
While many celebrated the Mexican holiday drinking margaritas on the 5th, I celebrated on the Seis de Mayo by watching boxeo, a sport that got its start in Mexico with the help of a hero of that Cinco de Mayo battle whose holiday the fight purposely coincided with. Unlike those who saw a one-sided match, I saw the continuation of El Tigre, Chango, and Pipino. Halfway through the fight, I made a celebratory toast – to Mexico’s boxing history — except, instead of some combination of tequila and triple sec in my tall glass, I had lemonade, freshly squeezed.
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Editor’s note: Jose Corpas’ second book, a biography of Panama Al Brown, titled “BLACK INK: A Story of Boxing, Betrayal, Homophobia, and the First Latino Champion,” is available now via Amazon and other leading online booksellers. He is currently at work on his next boxing book, tentatively titled “THE RIVALRY; Mexico vs. Puerto Rico.”