Wilfredo Gomez' handshake is soft, about the consistency of pasta. Obviously the fighter has more pressing matters for his hand. At one moment Gomez looks positively angelic and says, "I bear no ill will against any other boxer." And in the next instant his smile hardens, and he says, "I will destroy him, very slowly, but with great pleasure."
That is what the Puerto Rican did last Friday night in Madison Square Garden, knocking out the challenger for his World Boxing Council super bantamweight title, Nico Perez of Tucson, Ariz., by flooring him three times in the fifth round. And that is what Gomez has been doing ever since he won the 122-pound championship in May of 1977 by knocking out Dong-Kyun Yum of South Korea. His knockout of Perez was Gomez' 10th straight in title bouts, which ties the record set by former lightweight champion Roberto Duran. Since a draw in his first pro fight, Gomez, who turned 23 this week, has KO'd 26 straight opponents, almost half of whom have taken up new careers. He has been the busiest of all world champions: the Perez fight was his 10th defense in 27 months.
Gomez is one of the major reasons that the runts of boxing's litter have begun to usurp some of the glamour of the heavyweights. When Garden matchmaker Gil Clancy contemplates a fight between Gomez and WBC featherweight champion Danny (Little Red) Lopez, visions of big bucks dance in his head. "It would be the first million-dollar fight ever in the lower divisions," says Clancy, "and it will happen." When it will happen—and where—is still up in the air. First Gomez will try to break the record for consecutive title-fight knockouts, probably next month against No. 8 contender Davey Vasquez of New York, and the champion may want a bout or two as a featherweight (126 pounds) before he challenges Lopez, so the match probably won't come off until the spring.
But Gomez is so eager for the fight that his lawyer, Gabriel Pe‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±agaricano, says Wilfredo will be happy to accept $1 less in purse money than Lopez if that pleases Little Red. That is no small concession for Gomez, who has a heavyweight ego. Clancy is trying very hard to put the fight in the Garden, even though Friday's show lost a little money with a crowd of 9,054, still better than the Knickerbockers are drawing on some nights. Gomez earned $125,000 for defending his crown, and Perez received $17,500 for bouncing off the canvas a total of four times.
Another reason Gomez is anxious to get out of the super bantamweight class, which used to be called junior featherweight before someone decided "junior" was in some way demeaning, is that he's outgrown it. There is no one left in the division to fight, and besides, he has trouble making the weight. Although Gomez didn't have to struggle as much this time to get down to 122 as he had to do in his previous defense against Carlos Mendoza in September, he still had to discard his New York Yankees T shirt at the weigh-in on his second pass at the scales. Even then Clancy, peering at the scale, yelled, "One twenty-two," awfully fast. Perez, already giving away nine inches in reach, came in at 120 and was informed by Gomez that he would weigh even less by the time Wilfredo got through with him.
Although he had knocked out Mendoza in the 10th round, that fight is something of an embarrassment to Gomez. He was sluggish after a bout with the flu and the scales, and he was in danger of losing the decision when he finally knocked Mendoza out. Beto Martinez, Perez' manager and surrogate father, watched that match on television and thought his boxer might have a chance. The Perez entourage studied films of the Mendoza fight in preparation for their shot at the big time. Unfortunately for them, the real Gomez was in the ring Friday night.
All in all, it was not a very good week for Perez, but then he's never had it easy. He grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico—an appropriate place for a miniature fighter to come from—one of 11 children in a poor family. "He had no trouble making weight," says Martinez, "because he was on a diet the first 17 years of his life." Martinez found him two years ago in Puerto Rico, after he'd lost his first pro fight, and took him to his gym in Tucson. Perez came into the title bout with impressive, though slightly mysterious, credentials. Only 19, Perez was 42-1, having fought every three weeks or so mostly in the Southwest and West, and he was the WBC's No. 6 contender.
The first of Perez' problems on his maiden visit to New York was finding a place to train. He went to Gleason's Gym, three blocks from the Garden, but was informed that he couldn't work out because Gomez was training there. Then he went to the Times Square Gym and had already changed into his trunks when he was told sorry, but the champion will be using those facilities, too. So Perez ended up in Jersey City, at Bufano's Gym, which was a little out of the way. "All Nicky's seen of New York is the four walls of his hotel room and the inside of the Lincoln Tunnel," said Martinez.
Then came the fight. Gomez is the thinking man's puncher, or the punching man's thinker—take your pick. "In the first two rounds I tried to give Perez the impression that he could hit me," said Gomez. "I purposely took a couple of jabs so that he would start to come to me." Perez took the bait, and Gomez had him hooked by the third round. At the end of the fourth round the champion connected with a left uppercut to Perez' liver, and both the liver and Perez went down. A right hand floored Perez to start the fifth round, and a left-right combination put him on the canvas a second time. After each knockdown, Perez gamely bounced up, but he was bleeding from the nose and, for all intents and purposes, was finished. The third and final knockdown of the round came on a left to the head as the bell sounded. As Gomez, who had predicted a fifth-round knockout, put it, "The punch almost put his face through the mat."
After the fight, the champion gave his challenger credit. He said he was fast and strong and brave and young. Then he said, "Each time he went down, I studied him as if he were a work of art. He went down beautifully, no?"
Gomez is an unusual fighter in many ways. Although his lawyer handles the finer points, he is basically his own manager. He alone dictates the terms of his fights. Says Pe‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±agaricano, "In the classic sense, a boxer always needed a manager to serve as his surrogate brain. The manager had to make up for the fighter's intellectual shortcomings. Wilfredo has no such shortcomings. He has a brain."
Although an earlier business venture into sports promotions and real estate, called Bazooka Gomez Enterprises, has failed, the champion is still worth close to a million dollars, almost unheard of for a fighter in the lighter weight classes. As probably the greatest sports hero in Puerto Rico today, he is extremely marketable. He even has Hollywood aspirations, although his acting experience consists mainly of a couple of TV auto commercials.
Gomez has also entered into a partnership with Paul Guez, the president of Sasson, the jeans-manufacturing firm with the all-too-memorable commercial ("Ooh, la, la, Sasson..."). Guez and Gomez make an odd couple, a clothing designer from Lyons, France, and one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound. But Guez is an avid fight fan, and Gomez has a nose for money. Wilfredo now holds the distribution rights to all Sasson products in Puerto Rico, and in exchange Gomez wears a Sasson robe into the ring. That was Guez hoisting Gomez up in the center of the ring when the fight was over.
Gomez' business interests are not about to make him forget that he is first and foremost a fighter. "He is always amiable, always kidding around out of the ring," says Pe‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±agaricano, "but when his hands are being taped before a fight, his whole personality changes."
Ready when you are, Little Red.