Wilfredo ‘Bazooka’ Gomez, Part 1

16.05.07 - By Michael Klimes:

The Records There have been many evocative nicknames in boxing over the decades. Fighters such as Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Thomas Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Mickey Walker and Stanley Ketchel have enshrined an almost mythical quality to their own aliases through the way they fought and acted. It gives me an indescribable pleasure to say ‘Iron Mike’ and feel the syllables roll off my tongue. I imagine Tyson in of his less hysterical moments calculatedly destroying his opponent. I love to say ‘The Greatest’, emulating Ali’s mean stare which he gave to the man opposite him.

One could not get ‘realer’ then the ‘Real Deal’ Holyfield struggling against his arch-nemesis Riddick Bowe or as tough as the ‘Michigan Assassin’ battling on the inside. Mickey Walker was the ‘Toy Bulldog’ and Tommy Hearns was the complete package as ‘The Hitman.’ Now anyone who wears that name emblazoned on their trunks must ensure they do not bring it into disrepute as it is almost as legendary as Sugar which has been honorably carried by the trio of Ray Robinson, Ray Leonard and Mosley.

However, there is a name which stands above all others for me and that is ‘Bazooka’ bestowed on the magnificent Puerto Rican puncher Wilfredo Gomez. Gomez was so skillful with his sterling one twos and combination punching that he acquired one of the highest knockout percentages in history: 88%. This is an impressive statistic and means that 88% of Gomez’s bouts were terminated before the chime of the final bell. He was also ranked thirteenth on Ring Magazines ‘100 Greatest Punchers of All Time.’

Unfortunately, his knockout ability eclipsed some of his other achievements which are just as significant. He was a very fine and disciplined boxer who had considerable hand speed. He was also a little underrated defensively due to the fact that many did not appreciate his feinting and slipping capabilities. Similarly, his footwork was exemplary and Gomez was also a seasoned champion, defending his title seventeen times. This was not only a record for the super bantamweight division he ruled because he also knocked out every single one of his adversaries. There was never a questionable defense or tedious split decision which is exceptional when thinking that numerous champions have had their substandard performances where they were fortunate not to have been challenged by a better opponent, get caught properly or have the judges feel unsympathetic towards them. Consequently, Gomez holds the record for the highest knockout title defenses and is ranked third on the longest consecutive knock out streaks in history after Lamar Clark (44) and Billy Fox (43), neither of whom held world titles. Nevertheless, Gomez’s main legacy is that of a puncher’s puncher.

The Early Days

Gomez’s fighting days were stereotypically rooted in his early childhood. Like his contemporary Roberto Duran, Gomez received his first taste of warfare on the streets of San Juan where he grew up. He came from a humble background and circumstances forced him to rely on his instincts to survive. Gomez later recalled that he believed he was born to be a fighter because of the predicament he was landed in. He used a bicycle to get around and sold sweets to earn pocket money. In 1974, he showcased his natural talents at the Central American and Carribean Games held in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic where he was good enough to win a Gold Medal. He also won another Gold Medal during the same year in Havana at the World Championships. He did compete at the 1972 Olympics but was eliminated early on in the tournament. Financial issues meant he was unable to participate in the 1976 Olympics and so he turned professional. It would have been fascinating to see Gomez as an outstanding amateur compete for the limelight against Sugar Ray Leonard, the Spinks brothers and Howard Davis Jr. His final amateur record was 93 wins and 3 losses.

Gomez toured around Latin America hoping to generate a reputation and get matches. He drew his first fight with Jacinto Fuentes in 1974 but later redeemed himself by obliterating the man who held him to his only draw during his entire career by knocking him out in two rounds in their rematch. Gomez’s almost miraculous power attracted crowds rapidly (punchers always do) and from his second prize fight he embarked on his incredible 32 fight knockout streak. Gomez became literally invincible at his weight; he dominated the super bantamweights in a fashion few could comprehend. He delivered some of the most devastating knockouts of his generation with impeccable precision punching which was as exhilarating as it was chilling and picturesque. There was an alien detachment in Gomez’s face as he dispatched his foes with a nonchalance which reflected his predatory nature. Whenever Gomez knocked some out he was an expressionless search and destroy machine. For another man to beat Gomez, that man required the same ruthlessness. The prodigy who was to do this was Salvador Sanchez.

Before we recollect his encounter with Sanchez it is important to remember the aura Gomez had before he moved up to try and annex the featherweight title.

Some of the Victims

Gomez captured the world title sin 1977 at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, Hato Rey, Puerto Rico by dispatching the champion Don Hyung Yen in the twelfth round of a fifteen round fight. Gomez’s campaign to take Yen’s throne did not go well in the first round as he was knocked down in the opening thirty seconds. He revealed a bit of vulnerability as it was still only his 16th fight as a professional and Yen already had 58 fights making him a tough and experienced veteran. Nevertheless, Gomez utilised his natural talent, superior firepower and youth to win the day. He was only twenty years old when he became champion.

His first defence took him to the Far East where he bested former world champion Royal Koboyashi in Tokyo over three rounds. His next important defence was against the extremely rugged and awkward Mexican brawler Juan Antonio Lopez who resembled the George Chuvalo of his division. Gomez put Lopez to sleep in the seventh round and then took a huge step up in class against the great Mexican power puncher Carlos Zarate. Zarate was to the bantamweights what Gomez was to the super bantamweights: A man who possessed exceptional firepower in either hand, he beat everyone put in front of him and acquired the reputation of being an extremely fearsome champion. In 1978 he moved up to take on Gomez. The statistics between both men were astounding. They were both young, undefeated champions who were meeting each other in their primes or pretty much close to them. Zarate had a record of 55-0, 54 of those contests had been knockouts. Gomez was 21-0, all his opponents being knocked out. This was and still is, at least statistically, the most complete knockout sheet held between two champions going into the ring against one another. If a fan ever wanted to see a short and exciting brawl, this was probably going to be it.

Shockingly it transpired to be very one sided. Zarate was thrashed in five rounds and despite valiant efforts to fight back went down to the canvas four times. This was a career high for Gomez and another colorful chapter was written in the rivalry between Mexican and Puerto Rican boxers. Gomez was beginning to be seen as the assassin of proud Mexican warriors. This would all change with the word Sanchez.

‘Battle of the Little Giants’

In 1981, Gomez fancied himself becoming a two weight world champion. The climate at his weight was very comfortable, neither too hot nor too cold. Gomez looked northwards to where Sanchez had been making his fists felt. Gomez was feeling unchallenged in his division and can perhaps be compared to a man that loves the beach he is lying on yet at the same time sees a mountain in the distance. This man thinks he should climb and conquer the mountain because he believes he is capable of it. Unfortunately, Gomez made the worst mistake a man can - underestimate an opponent. Gomez thought he would have his way with Sanchez, why shouldn’t he? He was undefeated, had knocked out 32 of his previous opponents and was a god in his division, so why couldn’t he be a god in another one? His assumption failed to take into account Sanchez’s fine skills which would make Gomez’s assault on the featherweight division look like Napoleon’s attack on Russia in 1812. He would be steadily overwhelmed in a wilderness that was extremely vast and cold.

Although Sanchez may have seemed like a clown with his afro, he did not act like one. Seldom have few boxers ever been so expressionless when they fought. If one found it difficult to find emotion in Gomez’s face one would definitely not locate any in Sanchez’s. Whatever Sanchez did whether it was brawling, boxing, hitting or getting hit, his complexion would remain unchanged. He was brutal.

The fight itself was a classic style match-up between the puncher’s puncher and the boxer’s boxer. Gomez could box very well while Sanchez had no shortage of sting in his punches, if he wanted power but the fact remained; this was an encounter which would require both fighters to play to their strengths, not their lesser strengths.

During the bout Gomez was knocked down in the first round and heavily dazed by Sanchez’s excellent combinations. Gomez’s toughness was the only quality which saved him from being stopped. Round two saw Gomez trying to drive Sanchez to the ropes and hit him with his leg sapping body punches but this was to no avail. Round three was Gomez’s best part of the fight with him being courageous and moving forward. He managed to slip many of Sanchez’s jabs and land his rib crushing body punches. Rounds four and five allowed the fans to witness tremendous exchanges with both slipping, missing and landing numerous blows. Sanchez though, had the pace of the bout under control with his quicker jab and better movement. He fought a very tactical fight, circling away from Gomez’s right hand and always respected his opponent’s awesome power but still trading with him when he wanted to.

Round six saw Gomez’s eyes puffing up continually as Sanchez moved gracefully and peppered Gomez’s face with savagely accurate punches. This round could do no more than demonstrate Sanchez’s magnificence in the art of boxing. Round seven was a bit of a respite for Gomez as he had his moments but it was clear that Sanchez was becoming increasingly confident. He stepped up the pace in round eight and finished Gomez on the ropes with a merciless barrage of punches. The referee Carlos Padilla stopped the fight and Sanchez gained revenge for Mexico.

After the contest Sanchez was asked if he was hurt by Gomez, he replied, ‘No, he never caught me cleanly’ but simultaneously, ‘I felt every punch.’ Sanchez did not deny the truth of Gomez’s power and used his nimble footwork and crafty body movement to lessen the chance of Gomez landing with his damaging blows.

The result of this fight was a watershed for both fighters as Gomez had been humbled by the greater fighter on the night and suffered his first loss. Meanwhile Sanchez had defeated another great fighter, which enhanced his stature. There was talk of a rematch but Sanchez became his era’s James Dean as he was killed on August 12, 1982 while driving his Porsche. He was only twenty three and it would have been exhilarating to see a rematch between the gifted Sanchez and more astute Gomez. For the time being, Gomez returned to his old territory and the featherweight division experienced a vacuum with the death of Sanchez. Gomez sent flowers to Sanchez’s family and then soldiered on by himself. By the end of 1982, Gomez and Sanchez were both in exile from the featherweights.

Article posted on 16.05.2007

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