Harder When It’s Over: The Rise and Fall of Wilfredo Gomez


29.11.05 – By Gabriel Decrease: After the great reception all you nostalgic diehards gave my piece on Salvador Sanchez, I think it is only appropriate to follow up by taking a similar look at his arch-rival Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez.

Wilfredo Gomez is one of those rare individuals who climbed into the ring by following the natural path of his life. Most men must step up to the challenge of living by the warrior’s code. Born into an impoverished district in San Juan, Puerto Rico that was overrun by the horrors of crime and poverty, Gomez was put in the position at a young age of having to fight to preserve his very life. At every turn, he was bullied, beaten up, and tormented by local thugs. That was the way of life in Los Monjas. Only the strong survived. Gomez was neither tall, nor physically imposing, but he was proud, and as he defended himself against acts of violence he quickly developed a punch so fearsome and powerful that it transcended the natural limits of how much uneasiness a man of such slight stature could foster in his enemies.

Ironically, it was by proving himself deadly in alley brawls that Gomez afforded himself the rare luxury in Los Monjas of maintaining an upright youth. Throughout his young life, he pedaled from place to place on an old-fashioned bicycle and made a paltry living selling chocolates and hard candy, and all the while he carried with him the iron fists whose wrath would become a legend in the pugilistic canon.

The transition from street fighting to prize fighting was an easy one for Wilfredo Gomez. At the tender age of sixteen, he won a gold medal at the 1972 Central American Games, and only two years later he won a world amateur championship at a tournament held in Havana, Cuba. In between, he took part in sanctioned and unsanctioned amateur matches in gyms and clubs around the San Juan area in Puerto Rico, and established himself as the nation’s most highly-regarded gold medal hopeful for the 1976 Olympic Games, which were set to be held in the French-Canadian metropolis of Montreal. Sadly, the Olympic ring was never host to a young Wilfredo Gomez who decided to begin his professional career almost immediately after his amateur championship victory in Cuba out of financial necessity. Despite his status as an amateur sensation, he and his family still lived in poverty in an impoverished and undesirable area. Gomez could not let these dire straits hold when he knew his gifts as a fighter represented a way out for himself and his loved ones.

Like so many burgeoning champions before him, Gomez may have entered the professional ranks too early. He moved to Costa Rica with the intention of fighting his way across Central America as he climbed the professional ranks. His first fight was a bantamweight contest in Panama City, Panama against Jacinto Fuentes, another young puncher. The two battled to a draw, and surprisingly enough, the draw is not regarded as being in any way controversial. It was, by all accounts, a fair and well-deserved verdict.

Either Gomez physically matured overnight, or the lukewarm feeling of earning a draw caused some cataclysm in the soul of the young warrior because in his next fight he scored a brutal first round knockout. Gomez began building momentum with that very first win, and took out fourteen more men before they could reach the final bell. His streak included a decisive second-round knockout of Jacinto Fuentes in a return, and a nine-round demolition of hard-luck warrior and future world champion Alberto Davila. Davila, at his peak, decisioned Lupe Pintor, and went the distance in one of his two fights with the legendary hall-of-famer, Carlos “Pepito” Zarate.

In only his sixteenth professional fight, Wilfredo Gomez challenged Dong Kyun Yum for the WBC super-bantamweight title. The rugged Korean veteran was a pure technician who was as seasoned and crafty as Gomez was fresh and zealous. The fight is comparable to the recent middleweight changing-of-the-guard that came to pass between Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor. Yum was 50-2-6 when he signed to fight Gomez. The young contender was floored in the first-round by the battle-hardened champion and looked the green underdog that bookmakers and boxing pundits had made him out to be. But this knockdown served as a wakeup call to the champion’s spirit inside Gomez, just as his debut draw had before. Wilfredo stormed back and gathered momentum against his determined antagonist finally stopping him on pure punching-power in the twelfth-round.

Once champion, Gomez cruised through several title defenses in 1977 and 1978 against game super-bantamweight contenders like Royal Kobayashi, Juan Antonio Lopez, and Leonardo Cruz, and questionably against ultra-green punching bags Sakad Petchyindee and Raul Tirado, who had a combined record of 7-2-2 going into their contests with Gomez.

However, there was nothing dubious about his choice of opponent when Wilfredo inked a deal to slug-it-out with Carlos Zarate, the Mexican puncher-destroyer who held a record of 52-0 going into his fight with Gomez—having stopped 51 of his opponents by knockout. Zarate met Gomez in only his second fight at super-bantamweight, but had a two-inch height advantage over the compact Gomez. Though both fighters were considered among the best on most pound-for-pound lists, the sanctioning bodies did not recognize the fight as a title-bout. However, it was to determine the people’s champion nonetheless. The fight went off splendidly and was an action-packed showdown until Wilfredo caught Zarate with an atomic right hand and dropped him in the fifth. Zarate beat the count and bravely continued, but the end came quickly for the wounded warrior and Gomez stopped him before he could escape the round.

A confident—and increasingly revered and feared—Gomez made several more defenses of his super-bantamweight crown. He unfailingly stopped his competition by way of knockout. The handful of defenses that followed the clash with Zarate included fights with Nicky Perez and Ruben Valdez, but at no point did Gomez tangle with a really dangerous opponent.

By 1981, the super-bantamweight pool had become tepid, and so Gomez decided to begin his campaign at 126-pounds ambitiously with a title fight against Mexican prodigy Salvador Sanchez. This fight can be seen as the first to really establish the bitter rivalry between Mexian old-schoolers and Puerto Rican punchers that burns as hot today as it did when Gomez made his fight with Sanchez.

Leading up to the fight, Gomez took every opportunity to denigrate the mild-mannered Sanchez. Gomez took particular care to insult Salvador’s manhood and liken him to everything from a prostitute to a schoolgirl. Sanchez did not return in kind, but clearly resented his tormentor. Gomez may have grown too confident of his power and ring-poise during his reign at the top of the super-bantamweight division, because he came into his fight with Sanchez out-of-condition and clearly without a game-plan. Sanchez, on the other hand, looked to be in peak-shape and focused as a panther stalking his prey across the jungle floor. Gomez had no answer for Salvador’s slick-boxing and speedy counterpunching. Sanchez was leading on all three judges’ scorecards when he overtook a winded and frustrated Gomez with a strong flurry that prompted referee Carlos Padilla to stop the fight.

After the fight, Gomez reversed his attitude and gave his conqueror credit and respect for his victory, and admitted that he allowed himself to forget that he was the challenger, not the champion, in a higher weight-class, and had not trained properly. Wilfredo swore he would never underestimate an opponent again, and began working toward a rematch. Sadly, Sanchez perished in a car-accident before a return was ever made, and Gomez was deeply-saddened by the passing of that brave and extraordinary man that had tested and bested him in the ring. To this day, Gomez stays in close contact with the Sanchez family, and regularly lays flowers at the grave of his old rival.

Before his loss to Sanchez, Wilfredo Gomez had extended his streak of consecutive knockouts to 33. That mark is the longest ever by a world champion, and the third longest in the history of the sport. The longest ever streak was had by hard-punching Lamar Clark who knocked out 44 consecutive opponents and the second longest was pounded out by Billy Fox who narrowly missed Clark’s mark by knockout out 43 men in a row.

Gomez returned to the super-bantamweight division in 1982 and reasserted his presence as a champion by making successful defenses of the WBC strap against future world champion Juan Meza, Roberto Rubaldino, and Mexican hardcase Lupe Pintor. After those fights Gomez took two non-title fights against young fighters who had neither a prayer, nor a chance in hell, of winning, and he stopped them both easily.

Gomez once again declared war on the featherweight division and made his move up in weight. He took a big fight in a new division and set his sights on WBA titleholder and Puerto Rican countryman Juan LaPorte. He won a rare unanimous decision over the tough LaPorte, and perhaps for the first time in his career Gomez looked like he came up empty when digging deep for knockout firepower. It seemed as if the fierce and driven Bazooka was finally getting old. But, like so many steel-skinned champions before him, Gomez took the indication that time was catching up with him as a clear invitation to tangle with an aggressive young lion nearing his brilliant prime.

Gomez signed to fight Azumah Nelson, who previously made a daring and impressive showing in a loss to Salvador Sanchez. In some way, maybe Gomez was fighting for himself and for Sanchez, his fallen foe. Whatever the case, Nelson’s non-stop attack began chipping away at Wilfredo’s constitution from the opening bell, and the Puerto Rican destroyer’s once-godlike power looked diluted as the hard-jawed Ghanaian ate his best shots and cam back for seconds. Nelson finally wore Gomez down to nothing and his body seemed to quit as his spirit kept him perilously determined to continue in the eleventh-round. Referee Octavio Meyran called a stop to the fight in what was roundly called an act of well-earned mercy. A new era had begun and left Wilfredo Gomez behind.

Gomez, somehow undaunted by the demolition, and ignoring the bloody, bold writing on the wall, sought a title fight with Alfredo Layne. He was TKO’d in nine-rounds during which he fought valiantly, if not brilliantly, and was actually holding a comfortable lead on all three scorecards when Layne caught him with a fight-ending flurry that might only have made a prime Gomez smile and wave his opponent toward the fistic doom that awaited. But the battleworn Gomez wilted under the pressure and the fight was stopped. Though, again, it is essential to bear in mind that the diminished champion’s body may have given out on him, but his heart endured and forced a standing stoppage of both fights. For that he deserves admiration and, most importantly, unending respect.

Gomex tried to comeback with one fight in 1988 and another 1989. He won both, but looked only a faint shadow of his former-self, and against pedestrian competition at that. In 1989 Gomez finally made his peace with his legacy and left the ring forever.

A ring warrior such as Gomez would have returned to his home country a hero of mythic proportions, but instead moved to Venezuela where he became seriously addicted to a variety of narcotics almost immediately after his retirement. He languished for years in the throws of chemical dependence, and several times was incarcerated for drug-related offenses. After hitting bottom with all the force that he once sent his hapless opponents to the canvas, Gomez resolved to overcome his addictions. The process of rehabilitation was hard. However, with the love and support of his family and friends, he won that last war of attrition, and again returned to the ring…as a trainer and manager. He operates in this capacity even now.

Wilfredo Gomez was born to fight. He fought, in all things, because he knew no other way, and accordingly brought untold glory and beauty to the prize ring. His many legendary fights will be as long remembered as his granite fists and his colorful personality, which can hardly be called a ring-persona because the Wilfredo Gomez that walked into the ring was the genuine article—a proud and dramatic man with the heart of a lion and the soul of a warrior. His name is one that comes immediately to mind when nostalgic fight fans remark, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.”