By Robert Dominguez
Less than two years after Wilfred Benitez shocked the boxing world — and electrified his Puerto Rican fan base — by handily beating Mexican welterweight champ Carlos Palomino in San Juan, another classic title fight raised the passionate Puerto Rico-Mexico ring rivalry to a whole other level.
It was billed as “The Battle of the Little Giants” — the 1981 match pitting fearsome featherweights Salvador Sanchez of Mexico, the division champion, against Puerto Rico’s own Wilfredo Gomez, the beloved, power-punching challenger known as “Bazooka.”
While it was Sanchez who wore the WBC featherweight belt going into the fight, it was Gomez who was heavily favored to wrest it away.
Gomez, after all, wasn’t merely the WBC’s reigning super bantamweight champ (up to 122 pounds). He also boasted a near-perfect 32-0-1 record — with all his wins the result of 32 consecutive knockouts. His only blemish: a draw in his first pro fight in 1974, when he was 18.
And the San Juan native had already deeply endeared himself to hometown fans by making a habit out of beating all Mexican comers.
That included the infamous whipping Gomez gave Mexican legend Carlos Zarate in San Juan in 1978, a one-sided brawl between two of history’s most prolific, pound-for-pound knockout kings that was over in five rounds.
Zarate — who was 55-0 with 54 KOs before facing Gomez — hit the canvas four times for his first taste of defeat, a loss made more bitter coming at the hands of a Puerto Rican boxer.
Three years later, Gomez’s dominance over Zarate was still a fresh memory for fight fans in both national camps when the so-called little giants squared off in Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace on Aug. 21, 1981.
But it would be Sanchez who came up big in a brutal, exciting, nationally-televised bout characterized by a higher than usual degree of pre-fight trash-talking.
Gomez had reportedly promised to rearrange his opponent’s inner organs, including his liver, pancreas and lungs.
Sanchez, meanwhile, was said to have vowed to “punish” Gomez” for repeatedly mouthing off, and dismissed the two-title holder as nothing more than an unworthy challenger.
It didn’t take long for Sanchez to make good on his promise.
With the fight not even a minute old, Gomez, known as a relentless attacker, had Sanchez on the ropes and poised to give his pancreas a good working over.
Yet Sanchez, a skilled counter-puncher, managed to land a sharp right hand that stunned Gomez — then quickly followed with a devastating, uppercut left hook that caught Gomez flush on the chin, knocking him to the floor.
Gomez got to his feet fairly quickly, but from that moment on it was obvious the fight was Sanchez’s to lose. Though Gomez gave a gutsy performance, he seemed to be constantly on the defensive as both men traded blows throughout the fight.
The much-ballyhooed battle, scheduled for 15 rounds, was over by the eighth. Sanchez won on a TKO after pummeling Gomez into the ropes, and went home with his title — and organs — intact, earning a nation’s undying gratitude for beating the man who had made a sport out of vanquishing a long line of Mexican opponents.
Gomez headed home with his eyes swollen, cheekbone fractured and pride battered, but with high hopes the rematch fans were clamoring for would end differently next time.
Sadly, the sequel to “The Battle of the Little Giants” would never materialize.
Sanchez was just 23 when he was killed after crashing his Porsche into a truck while speeding along a Mexican highway, less than a year after winning what was arguably the most important fight of his short but brilliant career.