By Ted Spoon: The city of Mendoza is located in that peculiar part of the world where the winter months are hot and the summer months are cool. Soaring above every structure and inhabitant is Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes which has done its part in inflaming the population, luring hikers and skiers from around the globe.
For those reluctant towards oxygen-thin activities, horse riding and paragliding are at the ready to kill that adrenaline bug. And for those who simply wish to get merry there are highly recommended vineyards that insist on sampling.
All this national flavour tells of a place where boxing has failed to retain its grandeur.
Argentina’s first ever world champion even bagged a gold medal. Milling away in a fashion similar to the great Benny Lynch, boring he wasn’t. There was every conceivable reason to get behind ‘El Terrier’, but the reality was trying to shift tickets at home proved tricky.
And so Pascual Perez travelled.
From Paraguay to Mexico, Uruguay to the Philippines, Venezuela to Japan, Brazil to Thailand; many miles were covered and few countries were left out. When America made the schedule he was already an ex-champion and suffered his first emphatic loss. During that sombre moment, when a giant is levelled, it was easy to forget that this man had held the title for nearly six years.
A six year reign is mighty fine by any measure. For a flyweight it’s awesome, and not in the American sense were odd socks are deemed awesome. With just 7 losses in 92 bouts the bare statistic are very pretty; when put into the frantic context they were executed they are dazzling. That goes without mentioning one of history’s overlooked unbeaten runs of 51-0-1 with 37 knockouts.
That sole draw was avenged, twice, and a few of his victims would go onto face a young Eder Jofre; Ramon Arias even challenged for Eder’s title. The fact Perez dusted these men before the Brazilian butcher suggests his resume is short on part-time janitors. Actually, many of them were talented competitors who enjoyed long careers.
What defined Perez was how he got the job done.
Pascual swarmed and, more often than not, disposed of his opponents in a manner that lingered. Very few boxers actually want to inflict damage on another man, but killer instincts work on fighters like a magnet, and Perez’s was in lovely working order.
Generally cited below 5 foot, he had the silhouette of a junior and the portrait of a headmaster. The word silhouette was used because on closer inspection you could see the granite musculature of a boxer who lived for his craft. ‘Tough isn’t enough’ as most sweat pits will inform you; luckily Perez brought into the ring the kind of tools that don’t just impress but incinerate.
Wide arching shots came at you quickly, tirelessly, and from weird angles. The sheer intensity of the attack would have been enough to make waves but it was a pair of quick pins which turned a fierce talent into a complete one; when opponents finally plucked up the courage to retaliate nifty side-steps removed the target.
Hunger is what produced this mini slayer and he was born amidst Harry Greb’s quarrel with Tiger Flowers.
Mendoza was a little different in the 1930’s than it is today. Things were simpler.
It was your typical poor upbringing, Perez being one of nine children. A life of picturesque graft awaited but a close friend named Francisco Romero reshuffled the deck. Romero was a heavyweight, and after following him to the local gym Perez figured he would be better served cracking heads than fermenting grapes.
Father was supportive, but Pascual was an integral part of his farm. While escorting Perez to Buenos Aires for an amateur championship, to ensure there would be no loss, he got the Mendoza boxing federation to hire another labourer. It was an auspicious investment for sure. Perez’s relationship with opponents was like that of a hammers with a nail.
All kinds of titles were whisked up by the little tornado. This led to a privileged journey to London for the 1948 Olympics, and with relative ease, Argentina recorded their first gold in boxing.
Here is where 90% of medallists do the logical thing and turn professional. It’s a classic move to capitalise on newfound celebrity, but Perez spent another four years with merciful referees. Various obligations were held down outside of the gym. Come 1952 and Perez was reloading for another Olympics.
Helsinki fastened its seatbelt but Galvano Francisco handed Perez one of those rare defeats, and just like that he was denied a spot. The desire to flatten other men burned inside, and with money coming in drips and drabs the professional ladder begged Pascual to place his foot on the bottom step.
26 was a tad late to be joining the big league; nowadays a prolonged amateur career can harvest dire consequences, but back in the ’40s amateur boxing wasn’t all that different to the professional game. Stamina was one of the key differences, but seen as Perez finished his first 18 opponents inside of six it took a while for him get his chest going.
When Juan Bishop managed to keep his feet under him Pascual looked ready for another ten.
With Argentina still a world champion light, Luis Firpo’s monumental effort against Jack Dempsey was treated like one of Titanic’s lost treasures. Artist George Bellows further added to legend in 1924, capturing that magical moment when ‘The Wild Bull of the Pampas’ sent the Mauler out of the ring. It was a picture dear to Argentinean conversation. For Perez it was an omen; the gap between a nearly-man and a champion was small indeed.
It didn’t take long for the well to dry up. Flyweight champion Yoshio Shirai saved Pascual some bother and came to Buenos Aires for a non-title bout. The jump up in class was considerable but after 10 rounds the referee signalled a draw. Back when fighters swallowed their pride, Shirai could only admire his rival and offered him a shot.
This time there was some ground to cover, but 11,000 miles was trivial for a chance at immortality.
Shirai held advantages in height and length of arm. He also weighed in 4lbs heavier. When the bell sounded Yoshio knew what was in store for him but found it more volatile. Even with all the support of his people the champion was in deep, getting floored in the second and thirteenth. Some of the older spectators waited for a tire to burst but the dogged foreigner raced through the remainder.
Scores of 146-139, 143-139 and 146-143 branded the record book.
The new ruler did the tasteful thing and dedicated the fight to President Juan Peron. His followers certainly weren’t unhappy about the outcome, after all it was an historic victory, but due to his mild personality Argentina found it hard to embrace Perez. Former lightweight Justo Suarez couldn’t hold a candle to Pascual in terms of accomplishments. What he did have was a personality that could captivate the casual.
Like any great fighter, Perez adapted, and when money didn’t come in the right quantities he hunted elsewhere. He didn’t stop winning either.
In between Pascual’s 10 defences multiple non-title bouts were squeezed in. A few of these could have passed for title fights but overweight challengers affected the end tally.
For those that dug into their wages, they didn’t get short-changed, save perhaps on one occasion.
Welshman Dai Dower had only a single loss to his name. He was a solid competitor and British champion. Naturally he was the underdog, but after absorbing a sledgehammer right he was out to the world. The 85,000 attendance had banked on more than 2:57 of action, but there was no doubting one thing; Argentina had a ferocious champion.
Spaniard Young Martin was the reason for Dower’s first loss. This put him in a position most trainers were growing to loathe. Lasting a couple of rounds longer didn’t do him any favours. Martin was counted out in the third and the flyweight champion prepared himself once again to escape the nest.
Venezuela was the destination and a new record for sporting events was set when the principles managed to generate $135,000 ($48,000 of which went to Perez). Being the first Venezuelan ever to compete for a world title, Ramon understandably wanted to make a good impression and he did just that, flooring Pascual in the second. Sympathy however was an alien concept to Perez; up he leapt and hammered out another decision.
After another distant victory Perez found out what it was like to have his arm remain by the referee’s waist when Sadao Yaoita got the better of him. A title fight was imminent, but before dealing with the influx of question marks he defeated Kenji Yonejura.
That Perez had originally taken the title from a Japanese fighter was no throwaway statistic. Nor were 33 years preferable for a man with such a restless style. Down again in the second, the cracks in the picture were no illusion. The measured challenger kept his head, forced the action and enlarged those question marks.
The esteemed Nat Fleischer was one of the judges and watched Perez burrow his way back into the fight. Come the thirteenth and Pascual stuck his man to the canvas with a heavy swing, right on the sweet spot. There would be no upset.
Next was Thailand.
Seven inches was the key topic in what was set to be Pascual’s 11th defence. Pone Kingpetch towered over his frantic adversary, but before he was permitted to destroy the champ required two weeks to accustom himself to Bangkok’s ruthless heat.
If nothing else, the physical contrast provided amusement, but as the rounds passed Perez found the extended limbs of the challenger to be more than awkward. A long left created distance which Pascual struggled to close. Not only that, but there were moments when Pone occupied the driver’s seat. The expectation of the crowd grew. When the challengers left eye closed it was unwatchable theatre at its best.
Perez revved his engine for a final drive the likes of which the Great Wall of China would do well to absorb. Heartbreak was on the horizon, but after the final bell there was a feeling of unprecedented triumph. A split decision wasn’t glorious. A new champion was.
The sting of defeat had Perez slate the decision; a decision good old Nat helped shape. Not to worry, a rematch would allow him to scorn its validity. Sadly, things didn’t pan out so well, and in the eighth a dwindling force was led back to his corner. Pascual was 34, an age considered ripe for a heavyweight.
When towers collapse in boxing it doesn’t take long to sweep up the rubble, and sure enough, when Perez was exiled back to the domestic scene it was as if he had never left. Many familiar faces greeted him, selfless competitors who never possessed the skill set to upgrade their motor or buy that second television. Perez did, or at least had, but money began to disappear along with the cheers.
The inevitable and irreparable second crash occurred with four losses inside of a year, the last two via stoppage. Always the last to concede, Perez recognized his fighting days were no more.
The hardest battles were still to come.
A divorce left him with little spirit and even less bacon. Another woman came along, helping to restore a sense of normality, though certain Argentinean reporters claimed to see the depressed pug shining shoes to make a buck. You’d like to think this was an exaggeration, but one need only recall Sam Langford’s lonely existence before checking out.
The tough times didn’t let up when liver and kidney problems left Perez in brittle condition; life was to end rather early at 50.
As he loitered in poor health, Argentina’s underappreciated son reflected on the last half century. Those closest wrapped him in a blanket of compliments, but no amount of pampering could erase a certain notion.
“I wish I had been born a bigger man”, mused Pascual, “I wish I could have brought the heavyweight championship of the world to my country.”
Now looking over his tiny emperor, Firpo probably wished he had been born smaller.