A rich history of British vs Mexican battles

Ahead of Billy Joe Saunders’ super-middleweight unification clash with Canelo Alvarez this weekend in Texas, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at some of the most memorable British vs Mexican battles in boxing history.

It’s Billy Joe Saunders going up against Canelo Alvarez this weekend in the biggest-ever Britain vs Mexico meeting. 

There is a rich history of big fights between British and Mexican boxers, with some truly magnificent bouts, plus one that ended in tragedy.

No question, the greatest Britain-Mexico ring rivalry was the trilogy between Vicente Saldivar and Howard Winstone in the 1960s.

Powerful southpaw Saldivar had three meetings with Winstone, in London, then in front of Winstone’s fans in Wales, and finally in Mexico City. Saldivar was just too strong, but Winstone, with his classical style and superb left jab, was highly competitive. Saldivar won the first two 15-round meetings on points. In the third fight, Winstone’s corner threw in the towel in the 12th round.

The rematch, outdoors in Cardiff, was probably the greatest of the three fights. Winstone was winning the fight for 10 rounds but then Saldivar came on with overwhelming pressure. “During the last five rounds, Saldivar seemed to grow stronger, Winstone much weaker” Donald Saunders wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “There were times in the 13th and 14th rounds when I could not believe that Winstone would last the distance.”

Salvador Sanchez vs Pat Cowdell was in a way similar to the Winstone vs Saldivar fights, with the Mexican boxer providing the big finish.

The great but ill-fated Sanchez won a split 15-round decision over Birmingham’s gritty Cowdell at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, on December 12, 1981. Cut over both eyes, Cowdell was dropped flat on his back in the closing moments when Sanchez landed a big right hand, but the British boxer picked himself up and heard the final bell. 

A highly competent boxer with an excellent jab, Cowdell found Sanchez simply too accomplished. But he was right in the fight almost to the very end. 

“Cowdell may have lost a split decision but he showed enough skill, cussedness and courage to make our much-maligned Bulldog breed wag its tail furiously again,” Colin Hart wrote in The Sun. “Sanchez, considered pound-for-pound one of the five best world champions around, was fooled, fumbling and flummoxed much of the time.”

Lupe Pintor vs Johnny Owen in September 1980 was a fight we would be calling great were it not for the tragic outcome.

Wales’ Owen fought with courage and skill but Pintor was too strong for him in their bitterly contested bantamweight title bout, which I saw from ringside at the Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles. 

Owen was holding his own in fierce exchanges for much of the fight, so much so that he seemed to be in with a real chance of winning.

“For the first eight rounds, Pintor had too much fighter on his hands,” Fred Robledo reported in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “Not that Owen was hurting him, but his swarming, all-gloves-and-elbows-in-perpetual-motion style, had him confused.”

Pintor was cut over both eyes by the fourth round. But the tide turned when Pintor dropped Owen with a right hand in the ninth round. After that it was more or less Pintor in control of the contest with his heavier punching, and two knockdowns finished the fight in the 12th of the scheduled 15-rounder.

It is painful to remember the ugly crowd scenes, with debris and beer thrown into the ring while Owens was on the canvas receiving medical attention. Some fans crowded the attendants who were attempting to get Owen out of the ring on a stretcher as they struggled to get a closer look at the stricken Welsh boxer. 

“This was not the case of a boxer taking a severe battering in the ring with nobody willing to make the necessary move to save him,” reporter Dan McLean noted in the Torrance, California Daily Breeze. “Although Owen seemed to slow down during the 11th round, there was no real indication he was having problems and no question that he was still in a fight he was capable of winning.”

In another bantamweight title fight, Liverpool’s Alan Rudkin unfortunately went out in the second round against Mexican great Ruben Olivares at the Inglewood Forum, Los Angeles in December 1969. It was a very disappointing outcome for British fans, as Rudkin, a solid technician who had never been stopped, had fought strongly in previous world bantamweight title challenges against Fighting Harada in Japan and Lionel Rose in Australia. 

A big underdog, Rudkin was quoted by the UPI news agency as saying he would outbox the power-punching Olivares. “I just won’t get hit, that’s all,” he said. It didn’t work out that way, with Rudkin down three times in the two rounds the fight lasted. 

Mexico’s Manuel Medina pulled off a big surprise when he outpointed Scott Harrison in a featherweight title fight in Glasgow in July 2003. It was a split decision, but the cagey, shifty Medina outsmarted the bigger, stronger Scottish boxer and seemed to have won comfortably. 

Medina was constantly in motion, the punches flowing. He jabbed to the body and threw flurries of punches, scooting away as Harrison tried in vain to land a big right hand or left hook.

By the eighth round Harrison had a bloody nose and a cut over the left eye. “I think there’s something wrong with Harrison,” Glenn McCrory noted in the 10th round of the Sky Sports commentary. “He’s jaded. I think it’s been too much of a struggle to make the weight.”

Harrison swung and missed, and he gave a little shake of the head as he went back to his corner at the end of the 10th. He made a big effort in the 11th but now he had a swelling and a nick under the left eye.  “You do have to say what a tremendous job Manuel Medina’s done here,” McCrory observed in the 12th and last round. “Absolutely fantastic.”

But Harrison won the rematch on an 11th-round TKO in Glasgow. This was a night where Harrison simply would not be denied. Although again cut over the left eye and damaged under the eye he kept intense pressure on the speedy Mexican veteran, simply walking through Medina’s punches and breaking him down. Medina barely survived the 10th round and when he went down in the 11th for the fourth time in the fight, weary and battered, the Mexican corner signalled to the Spanish referee to stop the fight.

There was another British revenge victory against Mexico when Bermondsey’s Lloyd Honeyghan blasted Jorge Vaca into defeat in the third round of their welterweight title rematch at Wembley Arena in March 1998. Vaca had won the first meeting five months earlier on a technical decision when the Mexican fighter was cut over the right eye from a clash of heads.

Honeyghan, similar to Harrison in the Medina rematch, was simply a different fighter second time around, altogether more focused. “Honeyghan looks much sharper tonight — he really does,” Harry Carpenter noted in the first round of the BBC’s next-evening recorded broadcast. 

Vaca was cut over the right eye before the first round was over, and in the third round Honeyghan backed him up on the ropes and simply let the punches fly, fighting in the southpaw stance.  Vaca gradually wilted under the bombardment before a right hook to the body, thrown from the southpaw position, crumpled him to his hands and knees to be counted out by referee Joe Cortez. 

Of course, there have been many Britain vs Mexico showdowns, of varying degrees of intrigue and importance. Marco Antonio Barrera soundly defeated Naseem Hamed in Las Vegas, but Ricky Hatton dropped Jose Luis Castillo for the full count with a left hook to the body in the fourth round of another big Vegas fight night. Julio Cesar Chavez predictably stopped a game but outgunned Andy Holligan in five rounds in Puebla, Mexico, in a 140-pound title fight and Jaime Munguia won a unanimous decision over Liam Smith in a 154-pound title bout in Las Vegas, to name a couple of others.

Canelo, meanwhile, has made a habit of defeating British opponents: Matthew Hatton survived the full 12 rounds, but the Mexican flattened Amir Khan, cut down Liam Smith and Rocky Fielding and outclassed Callum Smith.

Now we have Canelo vs Billy Joe, and historical precedent suggests the Mexican fighter usually wins when the British boxer is away from home. But Billy Joe would probably say precedent be damned. 

And while we don’t know if Canelo vs Billy Joe will be the greatest-ever Mexico vs Britain fight, or even one of the greatest, for sure it will be the biggest Mexico vs Britain occasion.

Main image: Winstone vs Saldivar II/Photo: Press Association/Alamy.