Growing up in Santiago Tuanguistenco, Mexico (pop. 3,000), Salvador Sanchez often had to defend his school books and pencils against toughs who tried to steal them. Little Salvador, one of 11 children, also had to fight to keep classmates from calling him ni‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a, little girl. "I found out that I liked hitting people," he says. "And I didn't like school, so I started boxing."
Sanchez, who turned pro at 16, and is now 22, has been enjoying himself ever since, most recently last Friday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas where he successfully defended his WBC featherweight title by knocking out Wilfredo Gomez, the previously undefeated Puerto Rican, in 2:09 of the eighth round. "I fought the fight I had to," said Sanchez, who collected a purse of nearly $1 million. "I knew I would win."
Sanchez was one of the few who felt so confident about his chances. The odds-makers had it 2-1 Gomez, mainly because the challenger from Santurce had won 32 consecutive fights after opening his pro career with a draw almost seven years ago. To some, Gomez was the best pound-for-pound puncher in boxing, for all his wins were knockouts, including a record 13 KOs in defense of his super-bantamweight (122 pounds) championship. He had vacated that title to move up to featherweight (126 pounds) because he could no longer make the weight. (In fact, even the featherweight limit was almost too much for him; he weighed 130 4½ hours before fight time.) While Sanchez had 29 knockouts of his own—two against Danny (Little Red) Lopez, from whom he took the title in February 1980—in comparison with Gomez the champion seemed to lack something.
That something might have been charisma. Like Sugar Ray Leonard, the 24-year-old Gomez has parlayed his good looks and fighting ability into a multi-faceted corporation, Bazooka Gomez Sports Promotion. This enterprise employs a battery of lawyers, accountants and advisers, but as in the ring—he hasn't had a manager for the past three years—the final decisions are made by Wilfredo. Although Bazooka has promoted fights for Gomez, the ultimate goal of the corporation goes beyond boxing. According to one of Gomez' attorneys, Francisco Valcarcel, a search for precisely the right movie script for his client is now under way. "There have been scripts written just for him," Valcarcel says, "but he would have to be owner, actor and impresario." Says Gomez, "Right now I want to box, but it is hard work. If the right property came along, I would like to do that."
Sanchez had no such heady ambitions, which pleases the solitary attorney in his comparatively small entourage, Juan Torres Landa. "Wilfredo talks, talks, talks," says the lawyer. "Salvador prepares, prepares, prepares. Salvador has one lawyer, one doctor, and his sole obligation is to boxing."
The scene inside the Sports Pavilion on Friday night was more Latin than Nevadan. The walls were adorned with huge Mexican and Puerto Rican flags, and the fans in the arena, many dressed in the colors of their favorite's homeland, waved smaller banners and shouted, "Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico," or "Meh-he-co, Meh-he-co."
And ah, the music! The Battle of the Little Giants, promoter Don King's tag for the event, was almost overshadowed by the Battle of the Big Bands. Gomez had flown his Apollo Sound salsa band in from Puerto Rico, while Sanchez countered with a group of strolling mariachis. The moment the two fighters came through the ropes they were joined by their respective musicians in what appeared to be a ringside sock hop.
That was very nearly the highlight of the evening, because the fight almost ended shortly after it started. The hard-hitting Gomez had had to go 10 or more rounds only three times in his pro career. People wondered how Sanchez, normally a slow starter, would avoid the early knockout. It turned out they were wondering about the wrong fighter. Instead of dancing away from the stalking Gomez as expected, Sanchez gave ground reluctantly, countering the challenger's punches from a stance against the ropes.
Less than a minute into the first round, Sanchez connected with two left hooks and Gomez was on the canvas for only the third time in his career. Getting up before the eight count, Gomez grinned as if in disbelief, but the smile quickly became a look of real concern as Sanchez continued his assault. Sanchez rolled Gomez' eyes back into his head with one combination, which knocked out his mouthpiece; another flurry opened a cut under the challenger's right eye that would need 10 stitches to close. Sanchez followed that with an overhand right that nearly closed Gomez' right eye.
Though his movie-star good looks were all but demolished, Gomez showed he had plenty of heart by pressing the attack; but by the fifth round, his left eye had also begun to close. Yet he still found the target with a number of punches, though the beating he had taken earlier had removed most of their sting. While Gomez was scoring with the judges (at the end, two officials had the bout 67-65 Sanchez, the third 67-66), he wasn't with Sanchez. "It was very discouraging for Wilfredo to see Sanchez still standing after giving him his best punches," another of Gomez' attorneys, Gabriel Pe‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±agaricano, said later.
When the fight moved from the ropes toward the center of the ring, Sanchez showed no inclination to attack Gomez, instead keeping him at bay by flicking jabs at his swollen eyes. It might have looked as if Sanchez was just letting Gomez wear himself out were it not for the faint smile on the champion's face. Sanchez was toying with his opponent, patently having a good time.
A telling moment came at the end of the seventh round. Even though the round was perhaps Gomez' best, he had trouble getting back to his corner, setting off a spasm of activity by his handlers. Across the way sat Sanchez, smiling as if enjoying the scene.
The battered and bleeding Gomez tried to press Sanchez in the eighth round, but he couldn't get close enough to do any damage. Then, in a clinch, Sanchez looked at referee Carlos Padilla as if to ask if he really wanted the fight to go on. When Padilla didn't act, Sanchez did. Four hard left hooks to the body and a right uppercut to the head put Gomez against the ropes. Seconds later Sanchez set Gomez up with another left and followed with a thunderous right. Gomez began to go down. Padilla was still reluctant to stop the fight, but WBC President Josè Sulaimàn was waving his arms from ringside, so the referee ended it one punch before Gomez might have landed in Sulaimàn's lap. Sanchez exploded with joy, leaping all over the ring, showing more movement than he had during the fight. By now the loser's eyes were almost completely shut. It was later disclosed that in addition to the cut near his right eye, Gomez also had a fractured right cheekbone.
Afterward, Sanchez said that he was happy with his victory but disappointed that the fight didn't go the scheduled 15 rounds. When asked why, he said, "Because I wanted to punish him, to beat him for 15 rounds."
If getting beat up as a kid made Sanchez that hungry, heaven help the rest of the fighters he finds on his plate.