Mexico and boxing are joined at the hip. Perhaps no other nation embodies the fight game than Estados Unidos Mexicanos, the uncompromising spirit of this battling nation is captured in its fighting men. From fearless brawlers to razor-sharp stylists, it’s in the DNA of Mexicans to take life’s hardest blows, but rarely relent. As Raymond Chandler astutely opined in The Long Goodbye, “There is nothing tougher than a tough Mexican.”
Reigning superstar Canelo Alvarez may be taking an enforced break this ‘Cinco de Mayo’, but to fill the void Boxing Social has selected the 10 greatest fighters to ever lace them up from down Mexico way.
Boxers from the two-title era are generally regarded as fighting in a more competitive timeframe before the sport was diluted by multiple belts and therefore ‘softer’ challengers. So, in reverse order….
10) Ricardo Lopez; 51-0-1 (38 KOs); WBC/WBA/WBO strawweight and IBF light-flyweight champion; IBHOF Induction 2007.
Having never tasted defeat, Lopez ranks sky high on most contemporary lists. The modern boxing fan is intoxicated by an ‘0’, but that often means a career of avoidance or risk assessment, especially in the multi-belt, 17-weight division era. In Lopez’s case, it was through no fault of his own. He was a superb box-fighter and globe-trotting champion, but his diminutive frame left him marooned in an unexceptional weight class without the rivalries to elevate him higher on this list. But he remains a great Mexican, just not the greatest. In an astonishing eight-year reign, Lopez racked up an eye-watering 22 defences of his WBC strawweight crown, many on Don King undercards, halting WBO king Alex Sanchez and emerging triumphant from a unification duet with WBA champion Rosendo Alvarez (one technical draw, one defeat) before earning the IBF crown at Light Flyweight by schooling Will Grigsby. He retired without the defining fights to rank him higher on this list of immortals, but still merits inclusion as one of the best little men of all-time.
9) Marco Antonio Barrera; 67-7 (44 KOs), 1 No Decision; WBO super-bantamweight, WBC featherweight, WBC/IBF super-featherweight champion; IBHOF Induction 2017.
Now it seems foolish to write off Marco Antonio Barrera, but for much of his career that’s what happened. After eight successful defences of his WBO 122lbs crown (including eye-catching wins over former champs Kennedy McKinney and Jesse Benavides), Barrera suffered back-to-back losses against the skilled but brittle Junior Jones. He returned to claim back his own crown (inevitably vacant as WBO titles seem born to be) before a bitter loss to WBC champion Erik Morales, where a late knockdown appeared to have underlined a Barrera victory in an epic encounter. Fourteen months later, ‘The Baby-Faced Assassin’ was a 3-1 outsider against the brilliant Naseem Hamed, but this underdog status delivered his career’s finest moment as he toyed with the Sheffield sharpshooter for 12 rounds to earn widespread recognition as the finest featherweight on the planet. Big wins kept coming over arch-rival Morales (to claim the WBC 126lbs crown), Johnny Tapia and Paulie Ayala, but when Manny Pacquiao bulldozed him in 11 rounds he was underestimated again. Yet a move up to 130lbs saw Barrera clinch his series with WBC champ Morales and unify against IBF king Robbie Peden before losing championship recognition and his WBC crown against boot-tough compatriot Juan Manuel Marquez in 2007. Barrera’s time at world level effectively drew to a close with a decision loss to Pacquaio that same year, but he mixed it with the best and, generally, he came out on top.
8) Vicente Saldivar; 37-3 (26 KOs); WBC/WBA featherweight champion; IBHOF induction 1999.
Masterful southpaw Saldivar is best known in UK for his trilogy with Welshman Howard Winstone, but at his peak he was virtually unbeatable. A clever and aggressive body-puncher with a dangerous left hand, Saldivar only lost once early via disqualification en route to halting Cuban maestro Sugar Ramos to snare the WBC/WBA crowns in a strong era. Yet after seven largely dominant defences of the undisputed title, he abruptly retired, aged just 24, with no viable challenger left to conquer. Saldivar departed at the summit of the 126lbs division, having defeated future champions Winstone (thrice), Raul Rojas and Ismael Laguna. Inevitably, the game lured him back. In May 1970, after decisioning former and future king Jose Legra, a rebooted Saldivar outscored Johnny Famechon in Rome to reclaim his old WBC crown. But his flirtations with retirement had dulled his edge and he forfeited his title to Kuniaki Shibata in his first defence. After another three-year hiatus, a further comeback resulted in defeat against the brilliant Brazilian (and fighting vegetarian) Eder Jofre, but Saldivar’s greatness in Mexico and beyond was already assured.
7) Miguel Canto; 61-9-4 (15 KOs); former WBC flyweight champion; IBHOF Induction 1998.
One of the finest flyweights of all-time, Canto’s omission would be something of an injustice. Reigning supreme in the mid to late 1970s, ‘El Maestro’ is now criminally overlooked in the roll call of great Mexicans, perhaps because he brought finesse rather than firepower. He proudly owned the longest reign of all flyweight champions before the bewildering blur of multi-belt era. Canto’s first title tilt resulted in a majority decision loss to crack Venezuelan Betulio Gonzalez in August 1973, but less than two years later the slick Canto travelled to Japan to beat Shoji Oguma for that same crown (also by majority decision) and held onto that belt with his considerable skill and workrate. That triumph sparked a four-year, 14 title fight reign with defences worldwide in Japan, Venezuela, America, Chile, Mexico and Korea including two revenge wins over Gonzalez. The wily Canto finally lost and then drew on the cards against to Chan-Hee Park, both in Korea, but this defensive master’s place in flyweight history was already secure having trumped past and future champions Gonzalez, Oguma, Antonio Avelar, Gabriel Bernal, Lupe Madera, Susumu Hanagata and Sung-Jun Kim. Don’t forget him.
6) Erik Morales; 52-9 (36 KOs); WBC super-bantamweight, WBC featherweight, WBC/IBF super-featherweight, WBC super-lightweight champion; IBHOF Induction 2018.
A four-division champion, ‘El Terrible’ is widely noted for his epic battles with Marco Antonio Barrera though he was much more than that. But every great fighter needs a nemesis and Morales found his in Barrera. Morales grew up in the barrios of Tijuana while Barrera hailed from a middle class family in Mexico City, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. After KOing veteran champion Daniel Zaragoza and registering eight WBC title defences at 122lbs, Morales was dropped and deemed fortunate to win their opening skirmish while the reverse happened in a WBC 126lbs title return with Barrera down from a body shot (not counted by referee Jay Nady) and perhaps lucky to prevail (certainly, my interpretation at ringside). Morales regrouped to regain the WBC featherweight title against Paulie Ayala before rising to 130lbs to take the WBC and IBF belts from Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez respectively. Fittingly, the Barrera rubber match went down to the wire with the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ soaking up a late bombardment to eke a majority decision, but Morales wasn’t finished. He outfoxed the great Manny Pacquiao (W12), illustrating his machismo late on in a 2005 upset, before succumbing inside the distance in their second and third instalments. A mix of politics and persistence saw Morales earn the vacant WBC 140lbs crown against Pablo Cesar Cano before closing his career with two losses against the larger, fresher Danny Garcia. But Morales’ list of victims ranks among the most impressive in Mexican boxing history including champions Pacquiao, Barrera, Zaragoza, Chavez, Hernandez, Ayala, Junior Jones, Wayne McCullough, Guty Espadas Jr and In Jin Chi.
5) Juan Manuel Marquez; 56-7-1 (40 KOs); former WBA Super/IBF featherweight, WBC super-featherweight, WBO/WBA Super lightweight champion; IBHOF Induction 2020.
Originally the less celebrated of the featherweight troika featuring Barrera and Morales, Marquez outlasted his rivals to be widely regarded as the best of a Mexican golden era. A granite tough, heavy-handed and industrious counter-puncher, Marquez proved to be the kryptonite of the great Manny Pacquiao taking him to three hotly contested decisions (one draw, one split and one majority decision defeat) before earning overdue vengeance with a spectacular sixth round knockout in 2012. After suffering a debatable points loss early against Freddie Norwood in 1999, Marquez’s quality finally shone through with the first of five titles against gritty, five-time world champion Manuel Medina in 2003 (10 years after Marquez’s pro debut). He picked up the WBA Super 126lbs crown against Florida box-fighter Derrick Gainer before the rivalry with Pacquiao began with a controversial stalemate, which saw Marquez recover from three opening round knockdowns to push the Filipino to the brink. A sour defeat to Chris John in Indonesia did not keep Marquez down for long as he rebounded to outhustle Marco Antonio Barrera for the WBC 130lbs crown before stopping ‘lineal’ 135lbs champ Joel Casamayor (WTKO11) and double lightweight king Juan Diaz (WTKO9). Marquez was a nightmare for all he faced (bar Floyd Mayweather) and, in his penultimate bout, he lost a hairline split decision to the much bigger Tim Bradley to narrowly miss out on the WBO welterweight crown. One tough hombre, Marquez was still mixing in world class 21 years after his debut before injuries brought a close to a phenomenal career.
4) Carlos Zarate; 66-4 (63 KOs); WBC bantamweight champion; IBHOF Induction 1994.
A monster puncher, Zarate blitzed his peers with a power rarely witnessed at 118lbs before or since. He blazed through the bantamweights after knocking out Rodolfo Martinez in nine rounds to win the WBC crown in May 1976, reeling off nine successful defences all by KO. He is perhaps best noted for his non-title affair with fellow ‘Z-Boy’ and WBA champ Alfonso Zamora (then 29-0 (29 KOs) with Zarate 45-0 (44 KOs)!), which took place without any belts at stake to sidestep sanctioning fees before a rapt Inglewood Forum in April 1977. The shrewder Zarate prevailed in four thrilling rounds to claim the ‘lineal’ title. Having cleared out the division and halted future champ Alberto Davila, Zarate gambled as the greats truly do, falling to brilliant WBC 122lbs champion Wilfredo Gomez in five-rounds in 1978. The following year he lost his WBC bantamweight crown to Lupe Pintor by hotly disputed split decision (Associated Press had Zarate winning by nine points) and felt so disgusted he walked away from the game for seven years. Incredibly, Zarate returned in his mid-thirties and worked his way back into contention as a super-bantam, but lost back-to-back WBC title shots against future Hall of Famers Jeff Fenech and Daniel Zaragoza. But as a bantamweight bomber, Zarate knew no master with only two hearing the final bell.
3) Ruben Olivares; 89-13-3 (79 KOs); former WBC/WBA bantamweight, WBC/WBA featherweight champion; IBHOF induction 1991.
A prodigious puncher and national icon, Olivares tore through a deeply talented bantamweight division with skill and savagery to epitomise the moniker of ‘Rockabye Ruben’. Beloved by his countrymen and emblematic of pure Mexican machismo, Olivares was unequalled as a prime bantam, impressively halting Lionel Rose in five to win the WBC and WBA crowns in August 1969 to top the division with a menacing 51-0-1 (49 KOs) slate. He stirred passions with a fierce three-fight rivalry with compatriot and shrewd counter-puncher Jesus ‘Chucho’ Castillo that saw Olivares decked in the first and third fights before winning on the cards, having lost his titles on cuts in the rematch. Struggling to make bantamweight and also battling a fondness for the good life, Olivares outgrew the division and forfeited his crowns to countryman Rafael Herrera in March 1972, but rose to separately win the WBA and WBC crowns at 126lbs with stoppages over Zensuke Utagawa and Bobby Chacon before losing to Alexis Arguello and David Kotey respectively. An erratic puncher at featherweight, he wasn’t quite the same force and his world title aspirations effectively ended with a 12th round loss to WBA king Eusebio Pedroza in 1979, but late blemishes could not remove the gloss from a glittering career. With a devastating left hook and boundless charisma, Olivares’ greatness was already cemented at bantamweight where he is widely regarded as one of the premier (if not the best) 118-pounders of all-time.
2) Salvador Sanchez; 44-1-1 (32 KOs); WBC featherweight champion; IBHOF Induction 1991.
A heartbreaking case of what could have been, Sanchez is still rightly regarded as Mexican boxing royalty. With the fight world at his feet, fate took him too soon in a car accident, aged just 23. A stiff-punching stylist, Sanchez had already touched greatness, handily dissecting the seasoned Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez (WTKO13) in February 1980 to win the WBC featherweight crown before amassing nine successful defences against robust competition. England’s Pat Cowdell arguably pushed him closest in December 1981, but in that remarkable reign Sanchez repeated the trick against Lopez and defeated future WBC champion Juan Laporte, unbeaten super-bantamweight maestro Wilfredo Gomez (then 32-0-1, 32 KOs) and the soon-to-be-great Ghanaian Azumah Nelson among others. Three weeks after grinding Nelson down in the 15th and final round at Madison Square Garden, Sanchez passed away in a tragic car crash. With an intriguing confrontation against Alexis Arguello off the table due to the Nicaraguan’s move to 140lbs, Sanchez had surprisingly talked about retirement at the end of the following year. “I’ve already distinguished myself in boxing. Now I’d like to distinguish myself in life. I want to carry on studying and become a doctor,” said Sanchez. His greatness in the ring was already guaranteed, yet one wonders what he might have achieved but for fate’s cruel hand.
1) Julio Cesar Chavez; 107-6-2 (85 KOs); WBC super-featherweight, WBC/WBA lightweight, WBC/IBF super-lightweight champion; IBHOF induction 2011.
‘El Gran Campeon Mexicano’ remains the standard by which all other Mexican fighters are judged. Arguably the greatest 140-pounder in boxing history, Chavez cut a swathe through the 130lbs and 135lbs divisions before cementing his greatness as a brutal body-puncher, fearsome technician and pound-for-pound supremo at super-lightweight. Chavez took your soul, one aching piece at a time. His almost ridiculous record includes an eye-watering 37 world title fights (31-4-2, 21 KOs) while he defeated 15 of the 19 world champions he faced in the ring. At 43-0, the journey began in earnest with an eighth round KO of Mario Martinez to secure the WBC 130lbs crown leading to nine defences before he seized the WBA lightweight title against puncher Edwin Rosario and WBC version against compatriot Jose Luis Ramirez. But it was at 140lbs where he captured the admiration of the wider boxing world after stopping former foe and WBC king Roger Mayweather in 1989. His first win over Meldrick Taylor featured one of the most remarkable and controversial finishes in boxing history. Trailing on the cards and poised to lose his cherished 68-0 record, Chavez halted the Philadelphian hotshot with just two seconds remaining after a last gasp knockdown saw Taylor rise bleeding and bemused. Taylor’s trainer Lou Duva was incandescent with rage, but Chavez won the war with his brutal persistence. In 1993, an incredible 132,274 fans crammed into the Estadio Azteca to watch Chavez slice and dice Greg Haugen in five rounds, but as he crept to welterweight his powers waned. Worn out at 87-0, he was the beneficiary of a bum drawn verdict against the uber-slick Pernell Whitaker before returning to 140lbs to fall to Frankie Randall in his 13th defence – an upset no one saw coming. That was controversially avenged via technical decision and Chavez creaked into a fifth defence of his second reign before falling to ‘Golden Boy’ Oscar De La Hoya twice. Like many legends, he boxed on far too long, but his highlights will last for immortality.
Boxing Social’s Top 10 Greatest Mexican Fighters Of All Time
1 Julio Cesar Chavez
2 Salvador Sanchez
3 Ruben Olivares
4 Carlos Zarate
5 Juan Manuel Marquez
6 Erik Morales
7 Miguel Canto
8 Vincente Saldivar
9 Marco Antonio Barrera
10 Ricardo Lopez