A continent away from Don King, boxing was making news in another—and most remarkable—way: with a bang-up good prize fight. From the beginning, the match-up of Carlos Zarate and Alfonso Zamora was a cinch to be a classic. Zarate, from Mexico City, was the unbeaten WBC bantamweight champion (46 wins, 45 by knockout); Zamora, also from Mexico City, was the unbeaten WBA bantam champ (28-0, all by knockout). Because it was a non-title, over-the-weight bout, both the winner and loser would come out of it with their crowns intact, if not their heads. Now that it is over, the only problem will be convincing anyone in the crowd of 14,120 in the Los Angeles Forum that the two former stablemates were not playing for keeps.
The weight limit for bantams is 118 pounds, but for matched purses of $125,000 each, the two Zs agreed to come in at 120 pounds, give or take a few ounces. When it came time to step on the scales, Zarate made 119; Zamora weighed a scant three-quarters of a pound more. They hadn't exactly fattened up for the occasion.
"This wasn't my idea," Zarate said. "It doesn't make any sense for two champions to fight and, when it is over, both are still champions. One of us will lose, but what will he lose? Some pride, some respect. But not his title. I think it is time we stop this foolishness and settle this business of two champions."
Zamora's people—primarily his father Alfonso Sr.—said they would be content to fight Zarate for money and fight other people for the championship. It was suggested that he had an old Mexican proverb in mind: when a man tries to leap across a river, it is always better if the water is shallow.
When it comes to spending large sums in boxing, there has never been any great hurry to give the money to bantamweights, even world champion bantamweights. Before last Saturday's fight, Zarate's biggest payday had brought around $80,000. That was for his title defense last February against Fernando Cabanela in Mexico City. Zamora's largest purse had been about the same.
"Nothing but good can come of this," said Cuyo Hernandez, Zarate's wily old manager, explaining why, despite his own fighter's objections, the non-title business made sense. "The winner will be able to demand a great deal of money for future fights. The loser won't make as much, but he'll have more offers to fight than he can handle. Everybody will want to fight the loser."
For Forum promoter Don Fraser, a Zamora-Zarate for-real title fight had been impossible to set up; there were enough headaches just getting them into the same ring for 10 rounds on an over-the-weight basis. Fraser had started trying to make the match when Zarate won his WBC title in May last year (Zamora had been the WBA champion since March of 1975). "Right from the beginning, Zarate said yes; just give him as much as I gave Zamora," Fraser said. "But then for a year Zamora's people drove us off the wall. We went up to $125,000. They said yes, but....
"Then we offered an extra $10,000 for expenses, and they said yes, but...."
Fraser sighed. "Finally Zamora tossed out the two guys advising him and said he'd take the fight."
What changed his mind?
"The money," Zamora said, grinning.
Born and raised in Mexico City, the two champions were once tended by the same Cuyo Hernandez. But after Zamora won his title, there was a falling-out between Zamora's father and Hernandez, who finally sold Alfonso for only $40,000. "I liked the boy, I still do," Hernandez says, "but to get rid of the father, I would have sold Zamora's contract for a sack of pinto beans. The next time I see his father I'm going to ask him why he doesn't bite his tongue when he talks about other managers. I hear his son says he is tired of supporting him."
"Cuyo Hernandez?" asks Alfonso Sr. "What about him? This is just another fight. We don't care who the other manager is."
Because he is a stylist as well as a puncher, Zarate, at 25 the older by two years, came in as the 10 to 8 favorite. Odds went to 4½ to 1 the fight would not go the distance.
"The way I make it, it's 3 to 1 one of them falls, even if they are playing checkers," said a local bookie. "Those little guys could make a living knocking down buildings." Non-bookies tended to agree.
To many of L.A.'s Mexican fans, however, the only fighter in the ring would be Zamora. To them, the 5'3½" father of two is the embodiment of fistic macho. Zamora's style is to wade straight in, hooking from both sides. He has been known to drink with equal abandon. ("That's the only edge he has," said Zarate. "He's the better drinker.")
But the start of the fight was a study in caution. In the first 59 seconds Zamora threw just one good punch, a hook from the left side—and it missed. Zarate tried four jabs, all of which came up short.
There was a brief interruption when an overwrought fan jumped into the ring and began spouting advice at Referee Richard Steele. The action was stopped, and the intruder was dragged away by eight cops. When the fight resumed, Zamora attacked in a fury. Driving Zarate back with a crushing right, he swarmed in, hammering home heavy hooks with both hands. Zarate blunted the assault momentarily with a long straight right, but then took a hard right and was staggered by a left. From there to the bell, they pounded each other without pause.
"He hurt me twice," Zarate told Hernandez in his corner, "but he can't hurt me enough."
Going inside in Round Two, Zarate began punishing Zamora with left hooks to the body. It was at that point, Zamora said later, that he became confused and lost his fight plan. He had expected Zarate's attack to come mainly from the right hand. At the bell there was a small mouse under Zamora's left eye, picked up somehow in one of the flurries and, as an added indignity, blood was trickling from his nose.
In full command now, Zarate staggered Zamora with a hook early in the third round; hooked him again; hurt him with a right; ripped home a combination to turn his face bloody—and then dropped him with a hook. Up at the count of two, Zamora, his face and chest both bloody now, took the mandatory eight count and somehow survived the round on legs of rubber. At the bell, the referee had to pull the still-attacking Zarate away from his younger rival.
Twenty-four seconds into the fourth round, Zamora fell under the second of two crushing hooks. Up at eight and showing great courage, he tried to fight back. But Zarate was firing punches faster than they could be counted. A thudding right finally turned Zamora around and sent him to his knees 1:11 into the round.
As Zamora stared vacantly out into the crowd, Zarate belted him twice more. With a roar, Zamora's father sprang into the ring, tossed a towel near his son and raced across the canvas to attack Cuyo Hernandez, who vigorously defended himself.
"I went blind with rage," the senior Zamora said later.
Under California rules, no one can stop a fight by tossing in the towel. No matter. Zamora stayed down for a count of 10. "I could have got up," he said later, "but with all the confusion...what the hell."
Later, as Zarate was going to his dressing room, he saw the elder Zamora in the hallway. Putting his arms around the father, he said in formal Spanish, "I beg you to forgive me. I am very sorry that I had to hurt your son."
"Aw," said Alfonso Zamora Sr., "I've got nothing against you personally. It's just that manager of yours I can't stand."
Hernandez heard of that and laughed. "Tell old Alfonso he isn't going to get any rematch. Except with me. If he wants to fight me, let's set a time and place and make some money."
Over the weight, naturally. Non-title, of course.