The Bantamweight Bombshell

by Ted Spoon – Four years is what prevented Ruben Olivares swapping his rib-rupturing hook for Carlos Zarate’s pestilent cross. The miniature Mexicans with the opposing weaponry were similarly contrasting specimens; Ruben, boyish with a full head of hair; Carlos, moustache, plus a receding hair line that made him appear like a well preserved middle aged man.

Their commonalities lay in the stuffy, gasoline-chugging lunacy of Mexico City, plus the fact both could reduce fighters under nine stone into neat little piles of rubble before their brows collected sweat..

In 174 fights they scored a miraculous 140 stoppages; that in careers which suffered the predictably poor decision to continue well into their twilight, inadvertently diluting the 90% plus ratios they boasted amidst their terrible peaks.

It’s easy to do the puncher a discredit. Logic bluntly suggests the more knockouts a fighter registers the harder he hits. Problem is logic forgets that fighters are not static targets. Several knockouts, particularly the outrageous streaks Olivares and Zarate enjoyed suggest a profound talent for lowering the boom.

And in anticipation of the sceptics who may claim a high volume of tomato cans, Olivares’ singular steamrolling of Alan Rudkin and Zarate’s measured dismantling of Paul Ferreri proved they could halt the most resolute competitors.

What was most apparent with Olivares was that he liked his left hook, throwing it at frequency which approached Joe Frazier’s repetitious madness. For the opponent it meant doing everything in their power to defend that right side, but when it landed flush (as it did on Efren Torres) the effect was not so much concussive as disturbing; the stricken demonstrating odd behaviour in between getting clocked and hitting the deck.

There to steer his honey punch towards the sweet spot were traits which make all the difference between a competent slugger and a gloved assassin.

When Olivares punched for keeps he staked his little pins into the canvas with venomous intent but there was nothing heavy-footed about his movement, possessing of a light bounce which decided when exchanges would take place; usually very often. The art of cutting off the ring was never better illustrated than when twenty two year old Ruben stayed on Lionel Rose like a magnet, corrupting his smooth boxing with a flood of leather.

‘El Paus’ was not one of those fighters with blind belief in his power. Fully aware of smothering he would niftily backpedal to create space, send his hook to the body or swerve it into an uppercut. Hostility was guaranteed but the attack was seasoned with those capricious quirks that disguise habits, leaving the victims none the wiser.

Hardy ChuCho Castillo left Olivares with no option but to temper his surge, which he did admirably. To a more commercial beat Ruben relayed that knowhow which made his attack so decisive, altering the range with his feet, flashing the left in different guises, maintaining that high guard and all the while spitting enough fire to keep his rival discreet.

Olivares’ two and a half year reign was officially terminated by Rafael Herrera in the eighth round but it has often been vented that Rubens principle enemy was the good life. ‘Surprise! Olivares Is Training For This One’ headed a Los Angeles Times column in 1974, fully aware of a fighter who had developed no small reputation for exploiting the late night living of Latino hombres and Chicas.

“No city, no beer” figured Olivares, but the featherweight incarnation, still comfortably inside his twenties, was not the same force which had laid waste a short time ago.

The conqueror of Olivares lost a return bout with Rodolfo Martinez, another Mexican from one its sketchiest barrios, Tepito. Theft and drug trafficking are top priorities within the claustrophobically arranged setting which makes boxing a healthy alternative as opposed to the ‘tough sport’ any middle class fraternity deems it.

Twenty four year old Carlos Zarate had come from the same neighbourhood as the champion and his tanned body, rather than fall victim, became a reinforced by-product of those hazardous streets.

Going into his first world title fight Zarate’s knockout record was even more ludicrous than Ruben’s with 39 of his 40 fights ending in stoppage. Owning a higher concussive percentage than George Foreman’s before he demolished Joe Frazier, you may have anticipated the king of clobbering, but Zarate’s wicked efficiency was founded by a considered tempo.

The ‘Z-Man’ was the mobile Alexis Arguello; arms very straight, straight back and always close enough to eavesdrop panting. There was a little more libido to Zarate’s work in general but similarly he was a boxer happy to let a fight slide into the later rounds where his economic right could do awful things to optimism.

For much of the time it was a docile performer in there, covering lots of ground, waiting for punches to come his way. Those high hands did not make for an impenetrable defence but they did do a fine job in deflecting the more damaging punches. That coolness was written all over his work; he need not ‘get you back’ having been tagged, and when the decision was reached to attack he did so in selective clusters. It wasn’t speed but patience that killed.

Going into the ninth round Martinez had been floored and increasingly bullied. Ninety seconds later he was horizontal following an uppercut. Zarate’s nasty right was no less effective when sent upwards and it knocked the champion clean off his pins to begin a compact three year reign.

The finest hour of this reign took place during a busy ’77 when Alfonso Zamora carried his immaculate knockout record of 29 fights, 29 limp casualties and waved it like a banner in Zarate’s face.
For the first two rounds the stumpy WBA champion threw his weighty arcs into the side of Zarate’s head, causing it to spray but getting none of those familiar after effects. The taller man stayed close, taking much on those slim, dense arms. In was a roaring close-quartered battle, but when the true ‘Z-man’ found his range Zamora was toast in the fourth.

What should have been Zarate’s tenth successful defence became his championship exit. The judges did more damage than Lupe Pintor, overruling a one-sided card of 145-133 with two cards of 143-142. It’s common for titles to be ripped away from great fighters as pride refuses to subside; in Zarate’s case it was closer to being kidnapped.

Repulsed by the decision, Carlos left the world scene for good. He hadn’t come out completely unscathed. That bold choice to weight-hop (no less against the formidable Wilfredo Gomez) went rather badly when ominous attempts to make the weight culminated in a thrashing.

Losing to Gomez was forgivable but it did elicit the same home truth as it did with Olivares; 118lbs was Zarate’s ideal stomping ground.

So we’re left with the question, had their brief peaks as destroyers of little men platted, what would have been the outcome, save for the expected dispersal of bombs? Naturally we would take them at their respective zeniths; Olivares when beer was on his short list, Zarate free from weight trouble and influenza.

There is the chance that, knowing his opponents reputation, Olivares would approach the Z-Man with a touch more caution than usual, but it’s unlikely, and it wouldn’t be the strategy to adopt. With Ruben’s propensity to cut and Zarate’s cool-headed spearing, drawing the fight out would be the least preferable tactic. As their records imply, somebody would get knocked out.

The friendliest comparison we have is Zamora; a trigger-happy mite who loved his hooks and even worked with Olivares in the build-up. That four round thriller highlighted two key things; Carlos could handle being swarmed, but he was not unhittable. More to the point he tended not to roll with the blows, taking Alfonso’s best stuff flush. Zarate’s indispensable ‘machismo’ is fair game to get him into an early crisis, and this is where Olivares would have his greatest opportunity.

Defensively and tactically Ruben had Zamora trumped. He would test the waters before stringing them together and he didn’t outstay his welcome. Bends at the waist were good at foiling returns, allowing him to link together particularly long assaults. It’s safe to assume that Olivares would be practically attached to the slower-starting Zarate for the first half.

Fights are often grey compared to their black & white predictions, but there is good reason to think here that it’s either Olivares early or Zarate late.

A greater appreciation for resolve favours Carlos to make amends down the stretch.

You couldn’t argue against one picking Olivares, but it feels like a small leap of faith is in order to make that conclusion. Zarate wasn’t reckless enough to get caught with a show-stopper, and all the while he is on his heels he would be slipping in solid counters, slowly digging his meticulous claws into the fight, spying deficiencies.

Zarate was assertive enough to get Ruben thoughtful, and as he does Carlos would set a subliminal pace, cooling the furnace for his icy late-round riposte.

Providing it would go this way, nothing would come easy as they swap their liver-puncturing lefts. With a heavy chest and various lumps on his top half Zarate would retain his composure to blast Olivares with that cross. Having put everything into the earlier rounds a dehydrated Ruben would require the referees support after rising from a knockdown sometime after the ninth.

…Or maybe not.

In such a contest the outcome may be uncertain until the last minute, but can there be any doubt that it would provide an evening of extreme ballistics?

Tis a shame a few years robbed us of an all-Mexican blockbuster that may have had us peruse the little get together between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera with circumspect eyes.

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