Ranking the Best Showdowns Between Mexican and Cuban Boxers
This Saturday's pay-per-view clash between Saul Alvarez and Erislandy Lara has developed into a matter of national rivalry, as the popular Mexican redhead and the former Cuban amateur star have both proudly repped the rich boxing cultures they come out of.
For decades after the Castro Revolution of 1960, Cuban fighters competed almost entirely as amateurs. Turning professional required fleeing the island nation and going into permanent exile. Prior to this century, it had been decades since there were any significant Cuban stars in the professional ranks.
As amateur boxers, the Cubans have indeed been elite. The greatness of the Mexican tradition, on the other hand, has been achieved almost entirely in the professional ranks.
Lara and Alvarez are symbolic of the contrasting philosophies. Lara honed his craft as an amateur until age 25. Canelo was a pro at 15.
From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, many great fights were fought between Cuban and Mexican competitors, particularly in the welterweight division. Due to the complications of life under Castro, the rivalry pretty much fell dead until Joel Casamayor's emergence last decade.
With talented Cuban stars now flooding the professional ranks once again, fans can only hope that the Alvarez vs. Lara pay-per-view this weekend is a sign of great things ahead in the coming years.
10. Kid Gavilan vs. Gaspar Ortega I, July 31, 1957
Kid Gavilan is considered one of the top few Cuban boxers of all time. At the end of his career in 1957, he faced Mexican star Gaspar "The Indian" Ortega in back-to-back fights.
Gavilan won the first fight, held in Miami, by unanimous decision. By this point in his career, Gavilan had won more than 100 professional fights. Ortega, though a veteran, was still in the first half of his own legendary career.
At the time, however, Gavilan was losing as much as he was winning. But he still had enough left to earn a convincing decision over another great fighter.
9. Kid Gavilan vs. Gaspar Ortega II, October 22, 1957
Gaspar Ortega's name will appear often on this list. One of the great Mexican fighters and welterweight contenders of the 1950s and 1960s, he ended up winning 131 fights in his career, 69 by knockout.
This rematch with Kid Gavilan was held in Los Angeles on Ortega's home turf. The Boxrec entry on this fight credits Ortega with a late rally but notes most of the ringside press had Gavilan ahead on their own cards.
While the fight was billed as a world title eliminator, Ortega would ultimately wait another four years and more than a dozen fights before finally losing to Emile Griffith in a title shot in 1961.
8. Joel Casamayor vs. Jose Luis Castillo, December 4, 2004
Joel Casamayor's tactical game plan didn't always thrill the fans in this fight, but in terms of style matchups, it was a classic. Casamayor was the first great Cuban amateur to emerge in the professional ranks during this century, and Jose Luis Castillo was a rugged pressure fighter.
Casamayor led on points most of the way in this fight, but Castillo's pressure tired him late. The Mexican star forced the action in the championship rounds and came away with a split decision.
I wouldn't be shocked if Saturday night's clash between Canelo Alvarez and Erislandy Lara has echoes of this fight.
7. Gaspar Ortega vs. Florentino Fernandez II, October 30, 1959
This rematch improved Florentino Fernandez's professional record to 22-0. The UPI story quoted on the Boxrec entry for this fight described it as a "thriller," with Fernandez mostly showing the greater skill, while the more experienced Ortega managed to land heavy punches in the exchanges.
The judges gave Fernandez a split decision.
Coming off this win, Fernandez looked like a future world champion. However, in his very next fight he went down by Round 1 TKO to journeyman Rocky Kalingo. While Fernandez rebounded from that loss to have a nice career, he never did become the star some expected him to be.
6. Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Joel Casamayor, September 13, 2008
This fight was an action-packed chess match. Cuban Olympic gold medalist Joel Casamayor seemed to realize that he couldn't simply outbox the great Juan Manuel Marquez and that he would have to dig in and fight to have a shot against the Mexican legend.
The result was a taut, back-and-forth affair. This is a fight where I would argue that the defense was often as exciting as the offense. Both men showed exquisite ability to make their opponents just barely miss with big punches.
With the score dead-even on two judges' cards in Round 11, Marquez finally landed a huge counter shot. Casamayor made it back to his feet, but Marquez methodically finished him off for the TKO.
5. Vicente Saldivar vs. Jose Legra, July 18, 1969
Jose Legra fled to exile in Spain after the Castro Revolution of 1960. In his career he won 133 fights and held a world championship at featherweight.
Vicente Saldivar was probably the best featherweight of the decade. In 1967 he retired as the undisputed world champion. The only loss on his record at the time was a disqualification early in his career.
Two years later he came back to face the always tough Legra. Saldivar took some damage early and had to get up from a Round 3 knockdown, but his famous stamina allowed him to win down the stretch.
It ranks as one of the best comeback performances in boxing history.
4. Benny "Kid" Paret vs. Gaspar Ortega, August 7, 1959
Benny Paret and Gaspar Ortega were classic, fan-friendly fighters. Both men were extremely comfortable staying in the pocket and trading leather.
The action was fast-paced from the first round in this Madison Square Garden main event. Paret was the slightly better boxer and would go on to reign as the world welterweight champion.
But Ortega's aggression carried the day in this first meeting between the two legends, as The Indian earned a split-decision victory over The Kid. The Boxrec entry for this fight notes that nine of 15 ringside reporters scored the fight for Paret.
3. Sugar Ramos vs. Vicente Saldivar, September 26, 1964
After the Castro Revolution of 1960, Sugar Ramos fled to Mexico, where he found a comfortable home in exile. During his legendary career he became a national hero in his adopted nation.
This bout in 1964 with Mexican great Vicente Saldivar was very much a changing-of-the-guard fight, as Saldivar captured the undisputed featherweight championship and went on to become the premiere 126-pound fighter of the decade.
Ramos would fight with success for almost another decade and challenge Carlos Ortiz twice for the lightweight title. But he would never again challenge for the belt at featherweight.
It took a blood-splattered war for Saldivar to capture the belt. He won by stoppage after 11 bruising rounds.
2. Jose Napoles vs. Armando Muniz I, March 29, 1975
Like Sugar Ramos, Jose Napoles became a hero in his adopted nation of Mexico, after fleeing the Castro Revolution of 1960. Mantequilla was the premier welterweight from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s and ranks high in the division's all-time rankings.
By 1975 he was near the end of his famous career. That year he fought back-to-back wars with Armando Muniz.
The first bout was a near streetfight. Napoles was cut by head-butts early in the fight, and the blood was blinding him by Round 12, causing the fight to go to the cards. The champion survived with a 12-round technical decision.
This fight still inspires message-board debate nearly 30 years later. In Round 11, in particular, Napoles threw to the challenger's body with no regard for which side of the belt line his punches landed on.
1. Jose Napoles vs. Armando Muniz II, July 12, 1975
This rematch three-and-a-half months after their wild first affair was the second-to-last fight of Jose Napoles' great career and his last successful defense of his title. Once again Armando Muniz staged a gritty effort but came up just a little bit short.
This time the scores were more decisive in Napoles favor, but the fight went a full 15, and both men were bloody and battered by the end. Muniz maintained a steady body attack throughout the fight, while Napoles was the superior ring general.
The crowd was on its feet and cheering throughout the fight.