The Time Tunnel: The Tragedy of Salvador Sanchez

23.11.05 - By Gabriel DeCrease: Death comes to all. But great achievements build a monument which shall endure until the sun grows cold.

-George Fabricius

At the moment of his sudden death in 1982, Salvador Sanchez was at the dizzying peak of his considerable powers. Three weeks earlier he had battled a young, deadly, and unhearalded Azumah Nelson for fourteen brutal rounds before stopping him in the last of the championship rounds. The win was Salvador’s ninth defense of his WBC featherweight title, and it propelled him into serious pound-for-pound consideration. Sanchez was 23-years-old.

Salvador “Chava” Sanchez must have possessed some visible magic the first time he laced up a pair of mitts because, after only a handful of sparring sessions in a gym in his native Mexico, veteran manager and trainer Augustin Palacios took charge of his fistic fate without hesitation.

He had almost no amateur career, and first entered the prize ring as a professional when he was sixteen-years-old. Though, in the early part of his career, he was not pitted against top-competitors, Sanchez dismantled his prey so skillfully and with such precision and power that it became clear that greatness was waiting for the young fighter.

The first setback that Sanchez would live to overcome came when he challenged local bantamweight puncher Antotio Becerra in Mazatlan, Sinaloa for a vacant Mexican national title. Sanchez lost a controversial split decision that many felt was the result of hometown judging.

Salvador stormed back undaunted and subsequently began his quest for a world title. By this time Sanchez had matured, by the tender age of nineteen, into a complete fighter who brought speed, power, and sharp technical skills into the ring. He was a long, lean 5’7, but had dynamite in both hands, and could hurt his opponents with almost any punch. His quick-reflexes and tight defense also afforded him the opportunity to operate as a counterpuncher. By toggling back-and-forth between trading at center-ring and maneuvering his foes into tight, vulnerable spots where he could pick them apart, Sanchez made his name.

The only other stumbling point came a few fights after his dubious loss when Salvador eked-out a nail-biting draw against an unusually tough and motivated Juan Escobar in a fight that was Salvador’s first in the United States. Sanchez tasted the canvas in that battle for the first and last time in his career. He would never lose, or fight to a draw, again.

Sanchez left whatever dangling greenness had hobbled him against Escobar on the canvas where he fell. And after that point he appeared a more seasoned fighter with the sharp glower, and sense of ring-generalship, of a long-battling veteran. After a string of solid victories over increasingly notable opponents, he was soon in position, and fully ready, to take his shot at a world title. He had made the move from bantamweight to featherweight and took aim at WBC champion Danny “Little Red” Lopez. Lopez was a fierce man with heavy hands and a strong chin. Lopez was 42-3 going into the fight—a battle-hardened survivor who had tangled with warriors David Kotey, Roberto Castanon, Mike Ayala, Chucho Castillo and Ruben Olivares. Despite the imposing look of his opponent (and his status as a heavy-favorite to win), Sanchez boxed cleanly and efficiently landing heavy artillery only when there was an opening and not allowing the pride of the Mexican old school to draw him into a risky brawl. Sanchez, then twenty-one, outclassed and outhustled Lopez and finally caught up with him in the thirteenth round and finished strong with a TKO.

Sanchez went on to begin an impressive string of title defenses against the likes of true-grit contenders Patrick Ford, Juan LaPorte, and Roberto Castanon. Sanchez also fought a return with Lopez that went much the same way the first fight had, and ended with Lopez being furiously TKO’d in the fourteenth. The only criticism that could be made of Sanchez was that he did not always seem to give his best fight. That is, not to say that Sanchez was lazy in the ring, but that, perhaps, he was drawn into fighting at the level that was required for the victory. He was tough and inspired as he cleverly punched his way to a unanimous decision over Juan LaPorte, as LaPorte gave the lay-it-on-the-line effort of his career. However, against the less talented Patrick Ford, Sanchez seemed to have put himself on pugilistic cruise-control.

While Sanchez had been busy putting leather on the featherweight crop, now-legendary Puerto Rican puncher-destroyer, Wilfredo Gomez, was tearing up all comers in the super-bantamweight division. There is almost no way to properly describe the raw punching-power that Gomez possessed. His short lefts were as fearsome a weapon as most orthodox fighters’ right bombs. And Wilfredo’s vicious right was revered worldwide as a career-ender. In addition to his unnatural power, Gomez was also a competent boxer with a strong bent for being the ring-general in a fight, and his chin was solid and well-tested. If it was quality opposition that brought the best out in Sanchez, then making a fight in which Gomez would move up in class to meet him was a good bet. That is exactly what he did.

The matchup was golden from the very outset. Gomez was a prolific and incorrigible trash-talker, and Sanchez was generally a reserved and mannerly fellow. Gomez mocked and derided Sanchez at every turn, promising to knock him out inside the opening rounds and assailing his masculinity on every level. The bad blood had reached a rolling boil by fight time. In fact, there were several tussles between the fighters’ cornermen and entourages at press conferences in the days leading up to the fight.

Once the first bell sounded it was all business, and Gomez, who had been a 2-1 favorite on the betting line, had clearly undertrained and found himself hopelessly unprepared to defend himself against the slick onslaught that Sanchez brought into the fight. Gomez was overtaken and knocked out in the eighth round. After the fight, a bruised, battered, and decidedly humbled Wilfredo said he would never again underestimate an opponent.

Sanchez cruised past Pat Cowdell and Jorge “Rocky” Garcia before the fateful fight over an unrelenting Azumah Nelson that would be his last. Nelson drew a hard line and walked every-inch of it in that fight, garnering great respect both from Sanchez and the boxing public for his effort.

It was only a short time later that Sanchez was fatally wounded in a car accident. His death tore a hole in the warrior’s flag that will never be—and should never be—filled. Cut down in his young prime—it is hard to say what thrills were stolen from the history of boxing with Salvador’s passing. It is easy to speculate what great matches might have come with Gomez, Nelson, and Briton Pat Cowdell who all hotly-desired returns. What if Sanchez had grown into higher weight-classes and made fights with countryman Julio Cesar Chavez, or Puerto Rican legend Hector Camacho? Any discussion of Sanchez can lead to an endlessness of sorrowful speculation as to how great the loss truly was. It was great, that is certain. So remember Salvador Sanchez for that which he did, not what he might have done, and be grateful that such a brave and extraordinary man was able to streak across the floor of the arena like an errant comet before disappearing without warning into the vastness of the great beyond.

Article posted on 24.11.2005

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