For some strangereason, Wilfredo Gomez felt the need to apologize for his performance atMadison Square Garden last Friday night. Except for a tiny red welt under eacheye, there was no evidence that he had been in a fight. Indeed thesuper-bantamweight champion confessed that it had not been one of his betteroutings. He was sorry that he had not been able to do more for the folks andfor the $150,000 he was paid to make his U.S. debut. He hoped everyone wouldunderstand that it was a matter of weight; too much to take off in too littletime. This had involved two days of fasting and several hours of steambaths—all of which had left him weakened and exhausted.
A visitor inGomez' dressing room reflected somberly on this. "True," he said."You didn't do as well as I expected. The last I saw of Jimenez, he wasstill breathing. Irregularly, but breathing."
Nestor (Baba)Jimenez is an aging but valorous warrior of 31 years and 80 fights, 66 of themvictories. He had been imported from Cartagena, Colombia and paid $15,000 totest his head against the cannon shots that Gomez launches from both sides ofhis slender 5'5½" body. The promoters could have imported a heavy bag fromHoboken for a lot less money and gotten the same result.
At the mercifulclosing of this title fight—with but nine seconds remaining in the fifthround—Jimenez had been badly mauled and knocked down. His nose was bleeding andhis eyes were blank. The fight had become a race between the challenger'scorner and Referee Tony Perez to stop the slaughter. The corner threw in atowel to win. Jimenez could not have taken one more punch.
The occasionmarked the 23rd straight knockout for the undefeated 22-year-old Gomez, and hisseventh since leaving Yum Dong-Kyun of South Korea senseless after 12 rounds inSan Juan to win the title on May 21, 1977.
The fight mayalso have been the Puerto Rican's last defense in the little-known divisionthat he has turned into his own private demolition derby. A super-bantamweightis actually a junior featherweight—the WBC thus disguises its junior divisionsin an attempt to enhance gate appeal—but by any designation it still means 122pounds. And while Gomez has a tentative commitment for one more defense, it isa weight he no longer cares to struggle to make.
After profuselyapologizing for permitting Jimenez to live, Gomez turned the conversation tothe featherweight division, the new launching pad for his bazooka shots. Andthe air of weariness left his soft voice when he spoke of arranging a hoped-forbattle with Danny (Little Red) Lopez, the WBC's hard-hitting 126-poundchampion.
A free agentsince cutting ties with Manager Carlos Eleta, Gomez handles his ownnegotiations and he knows his own worth. The latest bid for a Lopez fight, hesaid, had come from Don King. The figure the promoter mentioned was $300,000,but Lopez has not yet agreed to meet Gomez.
"It would bea hard fight, Lopez and me," said the young tycoon, who is incorporated asBazooka Enterprises. "I have grown to be a natural 126-pounder, and I havebeen dreaming of a Lopez fight ever since I knocked out Carlos Zarate lastOctober. Lopez is very tall for his weight and he hits hard, but his chin isweak. When other people knock him down, he gets up. When I knock him down, ifhe gets up I will attack him like a tiger."
An intelligentand good-looking man with a narrow ribbon of black mustache and the cool air ofa banker about to reject a loan, Gomez has been fighting since childhood on thestreets of Santurce. He was born to fight, he says. "In the streets, atschool, anywhere. Then in the amateurs. I loved the amateurs best. If I hadbeen born rich instead of poor, I would still be fighting as anamateur."
In 64 amateurfights, Gomez lost but three, one of them in the 1972 Olympics at Munich. Hesays he was only 15 at the time, although 17 was then the minimum for makingthe team. He was as much a loser to awe as he was to one Mohamed Selim ofEgypt. But two years later in Havana, he was in awe of no one, and he becamethe World Cup champion at 118 pounds.
Having graduatedfrom high school, he came home from Cuba with plans to attend college."Only I was offered $15,000 to box six rounds with a guy named JacintoFuentes," he said. "I was stunned. Fifteen thousand dollars to fight? Isaid goodby to education, took the money and bought my father a cab." Butwhen that first fight ended in a draw, Gomez felt humiliated. "I foughtFuentes like an amateur. I was too polite. Besides, I was robbed."
No one hasaccused Gomez of being polite in the ring since. In fact, most of his knockoutvictims claim that the Gomez style now includes a varied assortment of lowblows and illegal punches.
Gomez brushesaside such slanders. "Since I am a boxer, my blood is hot and I can'talways be on guard to everything in the ring," he says. "That is whythere is a referee: to notice and correct any errors. It is his responsibility.I am busy fighting, not reading the rule book."
Against Jimenez,there were a few such misplaced punches, mostly low blows. But they were ascritical to the outcome of the fight as a few more drops of water are to aflood. Gomez hit Jimenez so murderously and so often about the head thatperhaps he threw in a low blow from time to time just to see if Jimenez wasstill alive.
From the secondround on, after Gomez got rolling, it was difficult to determine what waskeeping the Colombian erect. "I just keep hitting them until they can'tstand it anymore," Gomez says. "Then they fall down."
Even when his manis badly hurt, Gomez remains calm, picking his spots, every punch controlled.He is like a demolition expert precisely placing each stick of dynamite. Andevery so often he likes to step back and survey the wreckage before laying innew charges.
For Jimenez, thefinal barrage came late in the fifth round: a savage hook to the head, a tapfrom the right hand as he started to fall, and then another thunderous hook tothe head that caught him on the way down. Rolling over, the Colombian forcedhimself to his knees at six, and somehow was erect as the count reachednine.
As the towel ofsurrender came flying in from Jimenez' corner, Perez decided to end it. "Ilooked into his eyes and he wasn't looking back," the referee said.
Later, his speechsluggish and his face swollen and raw, Jimenez complained that because of lowblows he was never able to get anything going from the start. It sounded likethe ghost of a man executed by a firing squad complaining because someone hadshot him in his pinkie.
If Crazy Horsehad mounted half the firepower of that red-haired, freckle-faced Ute, Danny(Little Red) Lopez, there might be an Indian rather than a peanut farmer in theWhite House today. In two short slam-bang rounds in Salt Lake City lastSaturday, Lopez stood off a valiant cavalry charge by the Europeanfeatherweight champion, Roberto Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on of Spain, then tomahawked him intounconsciousness as the second round ended.
The victory notonly was Lopez' sixth successful defense of his WBC featherweight title, but italso cemented his reputation as one of boxing's sharpest hitters. The 7,500war-whooping fans in the Salt Palace, many of them Utes from Danny's birthplaceon the reservation near Fort Duchesne, Utah, wearing long braids and ecstaticgrins, certainly would agree.
Right up to fighttime, though, everything in Salt Lake City was as ho-hum as usual. About themost exciting development was a fire in the downtown Hilton that destroyedHoward Cosell's wardrobe and sent a squad of ABC lackeys scurrying to fetch theemperor's new clothes. The lack of pre-fight electricity was odd on two counts.This match would be only the second world title fight in Salt Lake City history(the first was in 1960 when Gene Fullmer successfully defended his middleweightcrown against Carmen Basilio). More important, the main event promised toproduce as many ups and downs as the world trampoline championship.
Lopez is almostas famous for his tendency to hit the canvas as he is for the whiplash,ambidextrous punches that have contributed 37 knockouts to his 39-3-0 record.His opponent, Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on—"El Conquistador"—was also renowned as a powerhitter, with 20 knockouts in his 29-0 pro record. But Lopez' 3½-inch edge inheight and an amazing 8½-inch reach advantage, coupled with his devastatingpunch, made him a heavy favorite. Still, he is so frail-looking that even hisstaunchest fans always have their last-minute doubts.
At the weigh-inon fight morning, at which both fighters registered 125¾ pounds, Little Redlooked about as thick, back to belly, as an envelope full of tax returns."My God," said promoter Bob Arum, "he looks like he just got out ofa concentration camp."
Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on, on theother hand, resembled a high school freshman, but only so long as he remainedin his street clothes. When he stripped for the weigh-in, he revealed a heavilymuscled neck and the thick, sloping shoulders of a slugger. And, clearly, heloves to fight. "Nobody got me started," he said. "I was walkingdown the street one day and decided to punch an hombre. I flattened him anddecided I liked it. So it doesn't bother me to be the villain here. Peoplealways side with the weak one," a dig at Lopez.
This air of coolcontinued throughout the morning of the fight. Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on spent it in the lobbyof the downtown Howard Johnson's Motel playing electronic Ping-Pong with hisentourage—and winning. Clearly, he knew not what lay in store for him.
The Salt Palacehoopla was mercifully and tastefully kept to a minimum. Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on entered thering with high Hispanic dignity. Little Red is now tied forever to the absurdTechnicolor war bonnet that has become his trademark, even though Utes neverreally wore such a rig. Once he shed the feathers, though, he was allbusiness.
Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on showedin the first exchanges that he could slip Lopez' left jab, thus negating thereach advantage. He ducked under it and slammed in some heavy left hooks, mostof which merely reddened Lopez' shoulder, but a couple of which bounced off hisforehead. In turn Lopez landed a few sharp rights, punching downward with theshort, reflexive authority that put away those earlier opponents, but Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±onshrugged them off. At the end of Round 1, he even managed to trap Lopez brieflyin a neutral corner and buffeted him smartly about the ears. Lopez is known tobe a slow starter. The first round was Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on's.
It looked as ifArum's hope for at least a five-round fight might come to pass. Even the Uteswere mute. Then came Round 2.
Working in closeafter the bell, Little Red delivered one of his up-from-the-belly-buttonrighthand throat-busters, and Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on dropped to his knees. As he rose, Lopezswarmed over him looking for the icemaker. But Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on kept his arms up andhis chin down and weathered the storm. Past the midpoint of the round, hepushed Danny toward the ropes and landed another left hook, but the punchlacked the snap of his earlier ones. Lopez slipped away, taking Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on withhim—and then it came: a short right cross that dropped the Spaniard in histracks. Such is the speed of Little Red that he landed still another rightbefore Casta‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on's knees hit the blue canvas. The 10 count ended with theround.
El Conquistador,conquered, returned to his corner on decidedly wobbly legs, looking a bitsheepish at first and then crying bitterly into a towel draped over the ropes.He is a brave man and a reasonably competent fighter, and the crowd gave him ahearty olè! as he left the ring.
"I could seehim going at the end of Round 1," Lopez said in his dressing room. "Heused every punch he had in the first round and he was open all the time. Hepunches to excess, rights and lefts and open in between." In short, it wasjust another scalp for the old lodge-pole.