Mexican Civil Wars – Part One

With the likely war between Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez less than a month away, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at some of the great all-Mexican battles in boxing history. First of a two-part series.

One of the most anticipated fights of the new year (Covid-19 permitting, obviously) is the all-Mexico clash between 130-pound champion Miguel Berchelt and unbeaten two-time Mexico Olympic representative Oscar Valdez. It is scheduled for the MGM Grand “bubble” in Las Vegas on February 20 and it’s a great match-up.

This got me thinking about all-Mexico fights. There have been many great ones. Blood-and-guts battles, fighters of considerable skill matched against each other, rematches and long-running rivalries. And, really, only one big all-Mexico fight that flat-out disappointed. (We’ll get to that.)

There’s such a rich tradition here that you could write a book about it. But I’ll do my best in a two-part article.

When we think about all-Mexico trilogies, Marco Antonio Barrera vs Erik Morales comes to mind. But what about Ruben Olivares vs Jesus “Chucho” Castillo?

Olivares was one of the great bantamweight champions. Castillo was a worthy adversary. They met three times in the span of 12 months between April 1970 and April 1971, Olivares leading the series 2-1. Each contest took place at the Inglewood Forum, Los Angeles.

The first fight saw Olivares come back from a flash knockdown in the third round to win a unanimous decision. If you’re puzzled by the scoring breakdown on BoxRec it’s because under California rules at the time the winner of a round got from one to five points and the loser of a round got zero points, which was a confusing system.

 YouTube video shows Olivares pressing forward throughout in that first clash with Castillo. He landed the heavier blows, especially left hooks, and he ripped in body punches from both sides. 

Castillo, a relaxed stylist, jabbed beautifully at times and got off with flashy bursts of punches. The eighth round of this fight saw the most prolonged exchange of punches you are ever likely to witness. It seems to go on for a full minute, the fighters standing in front of each other, firing off shots and also ducking and slipping punches. It was real blow-for-blow stuff, golpe por golpe as the Spanish-language commentary informs us.

Ruben Olivares and Chucho Castillo engage in the first episode of their trilogy.

The rematch on October 16, 1970 was closely contested but Olivares was handicapped by a cut over the left eye suffered in a clash of heads in the first round. By the 14th round the cut had worsened to such an extent that referee Dick Young stopped the fight, giving Castillo, the 3-1 underdog, a TKO win. 

“Ruben, known as a fun-loving ‘swinger’ outside the ring, may somehow have lost the spark that drove him to 54 knockouts in his first 58 bouts,” reporter William O’Neill noted in Boxing Illustrated

But Olivares was far from done as a fighter. He won back the title with a unanimous 15-round decision over Castillo in the rubber match on April 2, 1971. 

Although dropped in the sixth, Olivares won most of the rounds with superior boxing ability. “The flashy footwork of Ruben was really something to see as he danced around beautifully, keeping Castillo off-stride and making him miss,” Lew Eskin reported in Boxing Illustrated.

Olivares figured in yet another great all-Mexico fight when he stopped the shorter, thicker-set Jesus “Little Poison” Pimentel on a corner retirement after 11 rounds at the Inglewood Forum on December 14, 1971. 

Pimentel was a dangerous puncher with either the left hook or the right hand. He had scored 68 knockouts in 76 wins, but at the age of 31 was considered past his best. Still, Pimentel had his moments, especially in the fourth round when, as the fight video shows, he landed a right hand that caused Olivares’ legs to buckle alarmingly.

However, Olivares scored the only knockdown of the bout in the sixth round when a right hand sent Pimentel through the ropes to land on his back on the ring apron — at the time there were still only three ropes in use on each side of the ring. Pimentel clambered back in time to beat the count and fought gamely and stubbornly, making a last stand in the eighth round when he landed some heavy blows. But Olivares pulled right away from him from the ninth round, putting punches together beautifully. 

Pimentel was taking a lot of punches by the 11th. As soon as the round ended, Pimentel’s American manager, Harry Kabakoff, entered the ring, pointed to Olivares and in effect told him: “You win!” A portly, colourful character, “Mad Russian” Kabakoff cared about his boxers. He knew Pimentel couldn’t win and didn’t want to send him out to take more punishment in the four remaining rounds.

Olivares vs Pimentel was a battle of bantamweight bangers.

This was Olivares’ last world-title victory at 118 pounds. Rafael Herrera knocked him out in the eighth round to take the title in still another great all-Mexico fight, this one in Mexico City on March 19, 1972.

Herrera was on a run of nine wins in a row, including a split decision over Olivares’ great rival, Chucho Castillo, in his last fight. Grainy video footage shows Herrera to be a strong, come-forward fighter who made his punches count. Olivares suffered a severe cut over the right eye in the sixth round, possibly the result of a Herrera left hook. He barely survived Herrera’s sixth-round onslaught, tried to box and move but got caught by a left hook that dropped him face-down in the eighth. Olivares rolled over into a sitting position but arose just too late to beat the count.

Perhaps weight-making contributed to Olivares’ defeat. He moved up in weight to become a two-time featherweight champion although Herrera beat him by majority decision in a rematch with no title at stake.

Olivares vs Castillo was a marvellous three-fight series between Mexican fighters but was surely equalled by the epic trilogy between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, with Barrera coming out ahead, 2-1. The fights all took place in Las Vegas between 2000 and 2004, all title bouts but fought in three weight divisions: 122, 126 and 130 pounds. I was ringside for all three. Great memories.

Barrera-Morales I set the tone for an epic trilogy.

The first fight, on February 19, 2000, at the Mandalay Bay, saw the only knockdown in the series, when a weary Morales went down on one knee in the final round. It was a disputed knockdown at that — Morales ducked under a left hook and it seemed that Barrera pushed him down with his left forearm. But Barrera had staggered Morales with a left hook earlier in the round. 

Morales got a disputed, split decision in that one. I thought Barrera outfought him. But all three fights were close enough for argument. 

In the rematch, this time at the MGM Grand, Barrera used a boxing, moving style in the first half of the fight and was trailing on two judges’ cards after six rounds. But Barrera came on strongly and swept the last two rounds on the scorecards. 

Barrera evened the score in his sequel with Morales.

There was controversy. Morales seemed to have scored a knockdown in the seventh round when a right to the body had Barrera touching down his left glove. But referee Jay Nady waved “no knockdown”. He felt that Morales had stepped on Barrera’s foot when the punch was thrown. Morales felt he won the fight. “All the people who follow me and believe in me can be proud, because Erik Morales did not lose this fight,” Morales told the post-fight press conference.

The third meeting, again at the MGM Grand, saw Barrera win by majority decision. I reported for Boxing Monthly that the rubber match might have been the greatest of the Barrera-Morales series. Morales was the favourite at 3/1 on (-300), Barrera having been outclassed and stopped in a bout with Manny Pacquiao a year earlier. But Barrera was no faded force. “He was iron-willed and courageous, and he would not contemplate the possibility of defeat,” I wrote.

Part 2 to follow including fights such as Carlos Zarate vs Alfonso Zamora, Julio Cesar Chavez vs Miguel Angel Gonzalez and Cristian Mijares vs Jorge Arce.

Main image: Rob DeLorenzo/Zuma Press/PA Images.