Fightful Boxing Retrospective: 35th Anniversary of Salvador Sanchez’s Death

For this week, I will not do a breakdown of the fight, because this week's retrospective is more of a celebration of boxer's career than looking at a specific fight. This week we're taking a look at the life of former featherweight world champion Salvador Sanchez, whose life tragically ended when his career was starting to flourish and was about to enter historic levels of dominance in his weight class. This past week marked the 35th anniversary of his death.

Sanchez was a major Mexican boxing star in the United States with the advent of HBO’s foray into boxing, especially in an era where not many featherweights were considered major stars of the sport. Sanchez had extremely rare knockout power for someone who fought at a weight class that did not produce pure knockout artists, but Sanchez's impressive frame for a 126-pound boxer and distinct afro hairstyle made him a standout star for Mexican and American boxing fans. Sanchez finished his career 44-1-1 and was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.

His run as the featherweight world champion was about as dominant as there was in the history of the sport's featherweight division. Sanchez defended the WBC and lineal titles nine times in just 25 months, a rare feat that almost no world champion would even attempt in this day and age.

After an extremely brief amateur career, of which it was reported only lasted four fights, Sanchez became a professional boxer at the extremely young age of 16 years old. Sanchez started piling up wins against tough opponents such as Saul Montana and Raul Lopez in his native of Mexico. His first real test as a professional boxer came in his 19th professional fight against Antonio Becerra with the Mexican bantamweight title on the line. Becerra was too much for the 18-year-old Sanchez. Sanchez managed to provide a tremendously hard-fought battle that saw his stock rise tremendously, even after losing to Becerra via split decision.

Sanchez bounced back from the loss and moved up in weight to the featherweight division. Soon after doing so, he had picked up the biggest win of his career up to that point, defeating Puerto Rican featherweight champion Felix Trinidad Sr. That win would see him earn a shot for the WBC featherweight title against champion Danny "Little Red" Lopez. Lopez was a popular TV fighter of the late 1970s who routinely fought in a lot of exciting fights, scoring wins against the likes of former world champion David Kotei (twice), Juan Malvares and Mike Ayala. By this point, Lopez was riding an 18-fight win streak and four years into his reign as WBC champion and was touted as a somewhat heavy favorite against the burgeoning Sanchez. Lopez was knocked out by Sanchez, being stopped in the 13th round in Phoenix, Arizona, United States on February 2, 1980.

Just two months after beating Lopez, Sanchez defended his title for the first time with a 15-round unanimous decision against Ruben Castillo. Unhappy with the way he lost the title and believing that Sanchez's win was a fluke, Lopez asked for a rematch, but he result was the same: a late-fight TKO loss to Sanchez in Sanchez's first fight in Las Vegas.

Over the next several months, Sanchez would end up defeating several big names in the sport at that time, including legendary Puerto Rican boxing figure Wilfredo Gomez. Gomez, who was the former WBC bantamweight champion, moved up in weight to challenge Sanchez for his title and proceeded to get dominated and ultimately get knocked out about halfway through the fight that took place on August 1981.

With the victory, Sanchez was an unknown to the casual boxing fan no more. He became a household name all over the United States that night and attracted the eyes of HBO. His defense against unheralded Jorge "Rocky" Garcia was the first fight featuring two featherweights ever to be televised by the network as it was starting expand its boxing coverage and broadcasting to include more fighters from different weight classes.

On July 21, 1982, Sánchez faced future champion Azumah Nelson at Madison Square Garden. Nelson, a late substitute for mandatory challenger Mario Miranda, was unknown at the time and expected to only go a few rounds with Sanchez. The fight went way longer than anyone expected, probably even longer than Nelson himself would have expected. The fight was among the roughest and hardest-hitting featherweight affairs at the time. In the 15th and final round, Sanchez broke out finally, connecting with a serious combination that dropped the challenger almost outside the ring. Referee Tony Perez had to stop the fight seconds later, awarding the win to Sanchez. Nelson went on to have a great career of his own career and even was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004.

As he was training for a rematch with Laporte set for September 1982, he crashed on the early morning of August 12, 1982, while driving his Porsche 928 sports car along the federal highway from Santiago de Querétaro to San Luis Potosí, dying instantly. At the time of his death, there were talks about a bout with Miranda, a rematch with Gomez or a challenge of world lightweight champion Alexis Argüello, another all-time great with unbelievable knockout power for his weight class. There had been negotiations between the Sanchez and Argüello camps but they broke off when Argüello chose to campaign as a junior welterweight.

It really was a shame Sanchez and Argüello could not come to an agreement to the fight. The two of them were still in the prime of their careers and with Sanchez quickly asserting himself as an HBO boxing star, a fight between the two of them would have done outstanding numbers given the circumstances.

Obviously I was not alive during his career, but I have talked to my father, a longtime boxing fan, about Sanchez and he does recall Sanchez’s fight against Gomez back in Puerto Rico.

“Sanchez was a beast, a true machine,” my father told me over the phone when we talked about Sanchez. “I remember seeing him fight Gomez and as much as I love Gomez, there was no doubt that Sanchez had won that fight. If he hadn’t died, he might have been the greatest featherweight of all time.”

So as a special tribute to Sanchez, here is Sanchez’s final fight, just weeks before his death.

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