By John K. Way: Three months shy of his 40th Birthday the old Mexican veteran walks out to center ring and touches gloves with his young countrymen as the bell rings for the first round. Bobbing, weaving, feinting, and sliding the cagey veteran fights the fight of his life using all the tricks acquired through his vast experience to outbox his heir apparent, while punishing him with stinging counterpunches.
And at the same time he absorbs his opponent’s punches without blinking, and though the pace of the fight is grueling, at the midway point after six rounds, it seemed that the veteran was on his way to his best win ever.
But unfortunately for Daniel Zaragoza, on that night in 1997 he was fighting Erik Morales, who it turns out would become even greater than Zaragoza. Eventually Morales, who was still young and green, tracked Zaragoza down, punished him, sliced him up, dropped him twice and put him down for the count with a body shot in the 11th round. But as it turns out Zaragoza managed to get some good work done in his own right before going to war with “El Terrible” as one the most celebrated fighters in the pantheon of Mexican prizefighting. This point was driven home when Zaragoza was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame six years ago.
It all started for Zaragoza when he won the Mexican featherweight championship in 1982, which he defended eleven times before he earned a chance to meet Freddie Jackson for the vacant World Boxing Council (WBC) title. After soundly out boxing his foe through six rounds, Zaragoza was the victim of a brutal and obviously deliberate head butt that opened a huge laceration and resulted in Jackson’s immediate disqualification. Zaragoza was determined to overcome the ignominy of his title winning fight and prove himself a fighting champion.
But it wasn’t meant to be as Zaragoza lost his title to Miguel Lora in decisive fashion over twelve rounds in his next fight. Then in his rebound fight Zaragoza was badly beaten up by Australian madman Jeff Fenech. It looked like Zaragoza had hit his ceiling as a fighter, but together with wunderkind trainer Nacho Beristien he retooled his southpaw style and returned in 1986 with three wins, including a marvelous one punch knockout over Mike Ayala. After four more wins in 1988 he found himself in his biggest fight yet a fight with Mexican legend Carlos Zarate.
Zarate was considered by many observers to be the greatest Mexican fighter of all time, with Ruben Olivares and Miguel Canto being his only reasonable rivals for that distinction at the time. After a historic run as bantamweight champion Zarate had lost his crown on a scandalous verdict in a fight with Lupe Pintor featuring a split decision that remains one of the most dubious in ring history. Fans called for ‘El Canas’ to return and punish Pintor but Zarate was so heartbroken he promptly retired from the boxing in protest. But after a seven year sabbatical Zarate rediscovered his passion for the sport and return to boxing with twelve wins, ten by knockout. After losing a head butt technical decision to Fenech after four rounds in his most recent fight, Zarate trained like he was possessed and seemed ready to for reascend his throne against Zaragoza.
Though Zarate fought with his familiar passion, seven years out of the ring had robbed him of his uncanny ring generalship and punching power. The fight was competitive but after investing in an early body attack Zaragoza toppled his aging foe in the 10th round, marking his own arrival as a Mexican folk hero. With the WBC belt again strapped around his waist Zaragoza was determined to avoid the pitfalls of his first reign, but again he was foiled in his first defense. Journeying to Yeusho South Korea, the home of his next opponent, Seung-Hoon Lee, Zaragoza got a good deal of quality work done and seemed to do enough to win the fight. But in leaving his fate in the hands of the judges, he was punished with a controversial draw.
A quick study, Zaragoza went to Valerio Nati’ home town in Romanga Italy and knocked Nati out in the 5th round. Then came an unexpectedly difficult fight with journeymen Paul Banke at the Inglewood Forum. Banke who had the mediocre record of 16-3 gave Zaragoza all he could handle, rocking the champion badly on several occasions. But in the end Zaragoza got enough work done to escape with a wafer thin decision. Admonished by the near upset, he next outclassed the excellent Frankie Durate (TKO 7) and cruised to a win over Chan-Young Park (W 12) to accumulate two more title defenses.
Popular demand forced a rematch with Paul Banke so that Zaragoza could settle their unfinished business. What ensued far surpassed the expectations set by the first fight. After feeling each other out during the first thirty seconds of the 1st round, the two warrior each buried their heads in the other’s chests at center ring and proceeded to beat the living tar out of each other with five and six punches combinations and haymakers landing with thuds audible in the nosebleed seats. In one of the most grueling wars in the history of West Coast boxing the fight was all even throughout. But Zaragoza paid the price for his reckless strategy when a particularly vicious Banke flurry sent the champion down along the ropes and ended the fight in the 9th round.
Zaragoza had long prided himself on his durability and his ability to finish any fight standing upright, meaning that losing by stoppage to Banke was particularly devastating. But predictably Zaragoza recaptured the WBC title and exacted his revenge on Banke with a dominant decision win in the rubber match. Then followed another hard patch featuring two losses and a draw within the span of three fights, again forcing Zaragoza to completely rebuild his career. He was especially disappointed when the skin around his brows let him down when Tracy Harris Patterson beat him on cuts in a fight that seemed in Zaragoza’s reach.
After losing to Patterson Zaragoza retreated to Mexico to regain his momentum with a series of easy wins to build his confidence and repair his record in order to manage another phoenix like rise from the ashes. But despite his perpetual ability to bounce back from setback to win new champions the odds seemed against him this time, the wear and tear of fifteen years as a professional and fragile skin around his eyes seemed to preclude another comeback. But nevertheless he returned win a draw and a win against Hector Acero Sanchez to win the WBC title again.
Two defense by knockout ensued. Then Zaragoza faced Olympic Silver Medalist and white hot Irish Prospect on HBO. Again the underdog he systematically boxed on the back foot and thoroughly befuddled his younger opponent, taking the late rounds to pick up his most important victory since beating Zarate. Suddenly he found himself in the role of elder statesmen of Mexican boxing, a grizzled, venerated old pug like Kid Azteca and Ruben Olivares. He was regarded as the great Mexican hero in the bleak period between the end of the golden age of Mexican boxing mark retirements of Vincente Saldivar, Miguel Canto, Zarate, and Olivares and the new golden age marked by the emergence of Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya, and Miguel Angel Gonzalez.
And like all Mexican heroes, like Zarate, Zaragoza eventually marched to his doom in the ring without fear as he walked out and touched gloves with Morales in center ring.