Throughout boxing's illustrious history, Mexico has always found a special place in the sport.
It is a breeding ground of young hungry talent. The regional ranks in Mexico can be allegorized to a shark tank—apex predators surrounded by more apex predators.
The few young ravenous carnivores whom make it out are almost guaranteed to find success in the most unforgiving sport in the world because Mexico doesn't just breed athletes—she fosters soldiers.
And next weekend on Sept. 14, Mexico's newest ranking officer, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, takes a chomp at greatness when he locks horns with the sport's biggest celebrity, Floyd Mayweather Jr. He wants to show the world what Mexican boxing is all about.
But for now as we sit and wait, jittering with anticipation, let us take a journey through history and revisit some of boxing's most fearsome warriors.
Here are the 10 best Mexican fighters in boxing history.
Ricardo Lopez fought professionally for 16 years and never lost. He won the WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF world titles, at one point or another and he is the consummate prototype of the boxer-puncher style.
So why doesn't he make this list?
He doesn't because his level of competition was just poor, plain and simple. Him being the greatest strawweight ever means close to nothing to me if his résumé doesn’t feature many quality opponents. And it doesn’t.
He won 51 fights in his career. 18 victories came against men who had yet to ever win inside of the professional ring or had losing records when they fought Lopez.
He made 25 successful title defenses. 13 of those came to fighters with 15 or less wins to their name.
The true mark of a great boxer is that the closer you look—the greater they tend to become. No matter how you cook it, that does not stand true for Lopez.
He was a picture-perfect puncher with a picture-perfect record.
But that seems to be just about it.
Unfortunately, there were only 10 spots and these were the last men out.
The timeframe from late 60s to the early 70s is the undisputed Golden Age of the bantamweight division. And in the middle of it all, were two of its main components, Rafael Herrera and Jesus “Chucho” Castillo.
Both men epitomized machismo and never thought twice about fighting to the death for victory and glory.
Herrera put together a record of 48-9-4 and won the WBC, WBA and NABF bantamweight championships. Fighting in such a deep bantamweight era, Herrera picked up some great victories over the likes of Raul Vega, Guillermo Tellez, Ronnie Jones, Lenny Brice, Octavio Gomez, Rodolfo Martinez (two times, once by TKO stoppage), Romeo Anaya, one of Thailand’s most expert of fighters Venice Borkhorsor, the all-time great Ruben Olivares (two times)—albeit an aging Olivares who was severely struggling to make the 118-pound weight limit by this time—and, of course, “Chucho” Castillo (going 1-1 with him).
“Chucho” Castillo is best remembered for the wars he waged with Olivares in their three-fight trilogy.
Castillo ended up going 1-2 with Olivares but outside of that one win, his résumé is still plenty stacked. He beat Jesus Hernandez (two times), Lenny Brice, Waldemiro Pinto, Edmundo Esparza, Joe Medal, Guillermo Tellez, Yoshio Nakane, Jesus Pimentel, Herrera and lifted the WBC, WBA and NABF world titles.
The success these two men found and the level of opposition they fought made a huge impact to the ordering of this list, as you’ll see later on.
Marco Antonio Barrera is a three-division world champion and boasts a record of 67-7-0.
He is immortalized in boxing lure forever for his trilogy with fellow Mexican Erik Morales. It’s hard not to talk about their rivalry when either man is brought up. In all likelihood, it probably just can’t be done.
They first met up in February of 2000 and Barrera was on the wrong end of a split-decision in arguably the greatest fight this young century has seen. Morales had won the battle—but “The Baby Faced Assassin” was determined not to let him win the war.
Barrera would walk away the winner in their next two fights, winning the series 2-1 and separating himself just enough to make this list over Morales.
The great irony that Marquez’s career has come to.
He spent years chasing after the other two great Mexicans of his time (Morales and Barrera)—only managing to get his hands on a Barrera in 2007 who was past his best—and now sits comfortably above both of them when ranking the greatest Mexican fighters of all time.
So what has Marquez done to separate himself from his countrymen?
There’s his titles at featherweight, super featherweight, lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight.
There’s his incredible consistency in that he has maybe just one legitimate loss since 1999, to current pound-for-pound ruler Floyd Mayweather Jr.
And then there’s this.
Where Manny Pacquiao showed clear superiority over both Barrera and Morales, Marquez absolutely lit up Pacquiao last December, pulling off the greatest single victory since Lennox Lewis earned a stoppage over his supposed predecessor Vitali Klitschko in 2003.
And with, at least, two razor-thin decision losses to Pacquiao prior, some would believe Marquez won his series with the Filipino wonder, 3-1, altogether.
“Dinamita” makes a case for being the best counterpuncher and combination puncher of his era.
But when it comes to ranking those who hail from Mexico post-Julio Cesar Chavez—there is no debate on Marquez’s placement.
Miguel Canto compiled a record of 61-9-4, with just 15 knockouts. He may not have been a powerful puncher, but he is still one of the five greatest flyweights of all-time (along with Jimmy Wilde, Pascual Perez, Benny Lynch and Fidel LaBarba).
Of his nine losses, three came within the first two years of his career and four during the last two.
In Canto’s prime he was an absolute virtuoso and fittingly dubbed “El Maestro.”
He turned pro in February of 1969 and three years later he won the Mexican flyweight title. In 1975 Canto became the world’s premiere flyweight when he outpointed the noteworthy Japanese southpaw Shoji Oguma over 15 rounds for the WBC flyweight title. He would defend that belt 14 times over the next four years.
Canto would completely clean out the division beating notables and standouts like Ignacio Espinal (two times), Jiro Takada, Susumu Hanagata, Oguma (two more times) and former ruler of the division Betulio Gonzalez (two times).
Carlos Zarate never had the intention of hurting anyone.
But Zarate was damned with an otherworldly kind of ludicrous knockout power. As an amateur boxer, a wicked sorcerer, infuriated by Zarate’s humble ways, cast a spell upon the young Mexican’s hands.
“From now, until the end of time,” said the depraved enchanter.
“Whomever you lay your fists upon, shall be introduced to the earth and eternal slumber.”
These words haunted Zarate’s dreams as it was early 1970 and he was set to make his professional debut. He swore to himself he wouldn’t hurt anyone.
But it didn’t matter.
Zarate reeled 23 straight knockouts to begin his career. He couldn’t even look at himself in the mirror. Of his 23 opponents, only one poor soul made it past the fifth round.
But then there was a gleam of hope. In January of 1974, Victor Ramirez lasted 10 full rounds with Zarate. Had the curse been lifted?
It had not.
After his lone points decision victory, Zarate won a mindboggling 28 straight fights by way of knockout. He was now the only boxer in history to put together two streaks of 20 or more consecutive knockouts.
Zarate worked towards tougher and tougher foes, hoping to break the curse. But fight after fight, world class boxers lined up—and fight after fight, they all fell to the Mexican’s hexed fists.
In 1976, Zarate fought Rodolfo Martinez, a tough-as-nails Mexican whose record stood at 42-3-1, held a win over Rafael Herrera and had been stopped just once in his career, for the WBC bantamweight title. Zarate finished him in nine rounds.
Now the WBC champion, Zarate defended his belt against the commonwealth champion Paul Ferreri (50-3-5) who had never lost by knockout. Zarate ended his night in the 12th round.
Next Zarate fought the undefeated WBA bantamweight champion Alfonso Zamora. Zarate stopped him in Round 4.
And that was the story with every other one of Zarate’s title challengers, highlighted by long forgotten superb fighters like Danilo Batista, Alberto Davila and Andres Hernandez. In all, Zarate defended his WBC title eight times—winning every single time by knockout.
Zarate retired with a record of 66-4, with every loss being a result of the former bantamweight champion being in a weight class too big (Wilfredo Gomez), in the twilight of his career (Jeff Fenech and Daniel Zaragoza) or getting robbed by the judges (Lupe Pintor).
He was cursed with a knack to separate men from their senses. And it was absolutely marvelous to watch.
Vicente Saldivar, a 5’3” featherweight, was a violent stylist who carried into the ring with him a skill set so complete it is unparalleled in versatility and ferocity by any 126-pound fighter in history, before or since.
With just 40 fights to his name, the amount of quality scalps Saldivar picked up is insane, as he completely controlled the 126-pound weight class of the 1960s.
He won the Mexico featherweight title in 1964 (in TKO fashion, of course) and became the best featherweight in the world when he upset the future lightweight champion Ismael Laguna and shattered the world champion Sugar Ramos for the WBC and WBA featherweight titles.
For the next four years until his first retirement in '68, Saldivar defended his WBC and WBA straps together seven times and defeated everybody the world could throw his way.
Japan’s Mitsunori Seki (two times), Ghana’s Floyd Robertson, United Kingdom’s Howard Winstone (three times) were all supremely talented fighters—and they all fell victim to Saldivar’s fury.
The Mexican buzzsaw would retire in early 1968. While gone, two excellent featherweights, Cuba’s Jose Legra and Australia’s Johnny Famechon, would set themselves apart as the two best fighters at 126 pounds.
So Saldivar came back. And beat both of them.
In a battle of the nations for the ages—Mexico’s Vicente Saldivar prevailed as the best.
What might have been? A question often associated with the late Salvador Sanchez.
Well, allow me to put the speculation to rest.
If Sanchez had not been killed in a car wreck at 23, he would’ve become the single greatest Mexican fighter of all time—simple as that.
To go along with his championship at featherweight, Sanchez sooner or later moves up and wins titles at 130 and 135 pounds, beats Mexican superstar Julio Cesar Chavez and perhaps earns a victory over Pernell Whitaker sometime in the early 90s—making Sanchez easily one of the 20 or 30 greatest boxers to ever don on a pair of boxing gloves.
Sanchez was just that good. He was just that great.
By 23 years of age, “Chava” already had the boxing world trembling at his feet. His blend of quickness, tenacity and impeccable timing made for the greatest talent Mexico has ever produced.
With scarcely any amateur bouts to his name, Sanchez made his professional debut in May of 1975—at the age of 16. He ran together a record of 18-0 before dropping a split decision to Antonio Becerra for the vacant Mexican bantamweight title in 1977.
Sanchez, however, picked himself right up, moved up to featherweight and never looked back.
He would win the last 24 fights of his career. This streak included winning the WBC featherweight title in 1980 over the Hall of Famer Danny Lopez and defending it nine times—defeating notable featherweights Ruben Castillo, Patrick Ford, Juan La Porte, Roberto Castanon, Pat Cowdell, and Hall of Famers Lopez (again), Wilfredo Gomez and Azumah Nelson in the process.
Additionally, Sanchez’s gripping TKO victory over Gomez was the greatest win of not only his career but the greatest win in the entire Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry, that still wages on today.
Gomez is a true all-time great and was one of the sport’s best fighters, pound-for-pound, at the time he fought Sanchez. And Sanchez completely took Gomez apart en route to an eighth-round knockout.
Yeah, that just happened.
Julio Cesar Chavez, the most influential fighter Mexico has ever put together, sits No. 2 on my list.
Chavez is an absolute icon. One can go as far as saying he is a deity (of sorts) in Mexico.
He retired in 2005 with an astounding record of 107-6-2 with 86 knockouts. He won titles from super featherweight to light welterweight, exhibited some of the most ferocious body punching seen on a non-heavyweight since Tony Zale in the 1940s and did so fighting across three decades, pulling in astronomical amounts of fans (like the 137,000 that showed up to watch him fight Greg Haugen in 1993).
“J.C.” is best remembered for two things: His record of 27 successful title defenses and the 89-0-1 undefeated streak that he began his career on.
But what is a title defense if you’re not the best fighter in your division?
Take Chavez’s super featherweight run, for example. During his championship stint at 130 pounds (’84-’87), Rocky Lockridge, Wilfredo Gomez and Brian Mitchell all had a claim to being the best fighter that division had to offer.
Chavez wasn’t the best 130-pound fighter in the world maybe until he defeated Rocky Lockridge in 1986. So I do not think as highly of the five title defenses prior to his win over Lockridge.
But Chavez’s undefeated streak is impressive. He did lose to Pernell Whitaker in ’93 but it’s impressive, nonetheless.
However, albeit he wasn’t padding his record early on his career as his harshest critics like to argue, his best wins being over a core group of Roger Mayweather (two times), Jose Luis Ramirez, Edwin Rosario, Hector Camacho and Meldrick Taylor, the competition Chavez’s résumé is composed of isn’t to the caliber of the next man on the list.
Ruben Olivares is a two-time bantamweight champion and featherweight titleholder.
Nicknamed “Rockabye” for his vicious hitting power, is arguably the greatest bantamweight ever and I am proclaiming him to be the greatest Mexican fighter of all time.
So why do I declare such blasphemy and rank him higher than Chavez?
Because the era in which Olivares fought in was utterly and absurdly talented, from about 1965 to 1975, the world stood witness to the greatest crop of bantamweights ever gathered under one happening.
And Olivares proved himself to be the best of them all.
His record stands at a sublime 89-13-3. But under a microscope you can see that 11 of those losses came, not only at the tail end of his career, but also above his optimum weight of 118 pounds.
So in the most dangerous bantamweight division of all time, Olivares went 69-2-1. Let that number sink in.
As for those two losses: One came against Chucho Castillo who Olivares won his series with, 2-1, and the other in opposition to Rafael Herrera which would be Olivares’ last fight at bantamweight as he could no longer safely make the 118-pound limit, and that severely affected him during their fight.
Words can hardly do a stretch of dominance and consistency over such a ridiculously stacked weight class justice.
So here’s letting Olivares’ résumé do the talking for itself.
Salvatore Burruni, Octavio Gomez, Joe Medal, Kazuyoshi Kanazawa (two times), Takao Sakurai, Alan Rudkin, Chucho Castillo (two times), Efren Torres, Kid Pascualito, the murderous puncher Jesus Pimentel and lifted the WBC and WBA bantamweight titles from the excellent Lionel Rose.
Olivares’ two wins over Castillo are already greater than anyone Chavez has defeated.
And for what it’s worth, Olivares was showcasing the, pound-for-pound, most devastating, most efficient and just plain old best left hook in boxing history—and that includes Joe Frazier.
Moreover, in 1974 “El Púas” jumped what most experts agree on as the most difficult weight-class jump in sports, from 118 pounds up to 126. And with Ernesto Marcel’s abrupt retirement and Olivares’ defeat of Art Hafey, some even found Olivares to be the very best featherweight in the world before losing to Alexis Arguello.
I would've ranked Olivares No. 1 for his bantamweight run, alone. So his featherweight credentials all but close the case for me.