Never overlook a Mexican underdog in the UK

With Cesar Juarez and Gabriel Valenzuela seeking to emulate countryman Mauricio Lara’s recent, shock victory over Josh Warrington later tonight, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at the fortunes of previous Mexican underdogs in the UK.

If we didn’t know it before, we sure know it now, after what happened to Josh Warrington last weekend. A Mexican boxer who is in shape and is coming to win should never be understimated.

Mere won-lost-draw records don’t tell the full story when it comes to Mexican boxers. Fighters often turn pro early south of the border and are traditionally matched tough. Look at the 140-pounder Gabriel Gollaz Valenzuela, who meets Robbie Davies Jr in a 10-round bout on Matchroom’s show this coming Saturday. Two of his first five bouts were against undefeated big hitters. 

So maybe it shouldn’t have been quite such a stunning upset when Mauricio “Bronco” Lara knocked out Josh Warrington. Lara came into the fight on a winning run, he could punch and he was clearly confident. He had come to win and he believed he could win.

Mexican fighters have pulled off some big surprises in the UK over the years, as mentioned in last week’s Betting Angle feature.

Take the case of Ignacio “Zurdo” Pina against Freddie Gilroy. The Belfast southpaw was undefeated (21-0) heading into that April 1960 bantamweight contest in Manchester. Gilroy could really fight. He held the British, British Empire and European championships. In Britain, we expected Gilroy to win a world title.

At that time, of course, there was no internet. Boxers such as Pina were comparative unknowns. BoxRec lists Pina’s record as 14-3-1 going into the Gilroy fight. But Pina probably had many more fights than that. And that’s another thing; even today, bouts that take place in Mexico often go unrecorded.

Matchmaker Mickey Duff famously said, after Pina had defeated Gilroy, that he didn’t realise Pina was a southpaw. That seems hard to believe. The “Zurdo” (left-handed) nickname was a pretty big clue. From memory, I believe Pina knocked down Gilroy early in the proceedings and went on to dominate the fight.

Robbie Davies Jr. (left) meets Gabriel Valenzuela tonight – is another surprise on the cards?
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

I was ringside at the Royal Albert Hall in London way back in 1970 when Mexico’s Raul Soriano outpointed the British welterweight champion Ralph Charles. That was considered a big surprise. Charles was an excellent boxer-puncher. He had stopped his last nine opponents heading into the fight with Soriano. But Soriano turned out to be a crafty, cagey boxer, very good at hitting and not getting hit. It was as if Charles just couldn’t get started. 

Manuel Medina outpointing Scott Harrison to win the WBO featherweight title in Glasgow in 2003 was a big upset but the British fight fraternity knew what to expect from Medina, who had fought Paul Ingle to a standstill in a title fight and had given Naseem Hamed all he could handle.

Yet there are always exceptions to a rule, and not all Mexican visitors to Britain have covered themselves in glory. For example, in October 1980 promoter Mike Barrett featured several Mexican boxers in bouts against British boxers at the Royal Albert Hall. It wasn’t a good night, not for Mexican boxing, nor for British fight fans. Roberto Torres, Enrique Castro, Mario Mendez and Alejandro Lopez all lost inside the distance, none of the bouts going past the second round. I think it was boxing writer Bob Mee who called it the night of the “Tijuana Tumblers”. 

But these were Mexican trial horses who were brought in to lose, not to be competitive. For instance, the flyweight Enrique Castro, who went out in the first round against Charlie Magri, had been stopped at least five times previously. Mario Mendez, stopped in two rounds by welterweight Dave Green, had been halted in his last five appearances. Alejandro Lopez, stopped in two rounds by featherweight Jimmy Flint, had failed to last the distance in at least six fights.

Then, however, we have the fighters with the pride and passion of the true Mexican warrior. Fighters such as, say, Enrique Tinoco, who ended Jordan Gill’s unbeaten record with a surprise TKO. It is now understood that Gill wasn’t at his best that night, but Tinoco wasn’t to know that. (Gill faces a Mexican opponent on Saturday when he goes in with the veteran Cesar Juarez on the Matchroom show.)

Obviously, Robbie Davies is favoured to beat Gabriel Gollaz Valenzuela, and Gill is fancied to beat Juarez, on Saturday. It would be a surprise if either man lost. But, as history tells us,  when a determined Mexican underdog is in the other corner, you can never be too sure.

Enrique Tinoco (right) scored a huge upset in 2019, stopping a below-par Jordan Gill.
Tonight Gill meets another Mexican, Cesar Juarez, with a different outcome on his mind.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

Main image: Lara stuns Warrington last weekend. Photo: Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing.