Wilfredo Gomez vs. Salvador Sanchez Part I: The Calm Before the Storm

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Heading into the historic 1981 matchup, Mexico legend Salvador Sanchez and Puerto Rican hero Wilfredo Gonez were both relentless, but in different ways.

The offensive-minded Wilfredo Gomez mirrored Roberto Duran’s attacking style where he didn’t stop punching for the entire three minutes of each round. He was a marvel with head feints, slips, and footwork, and rarely got hit with big punches. However, he didn’t possess the same one punch knockout power of Alexis Arguello, nor was he as elusive as countryman and friend Wilfred Benitez. Still, he may have been the most tantalizing to watch of all three Latin champs in 10-second bursts. Similar to Duran, Arguello, and Benitez, when Gomez walked into a fight in shape, he was nearly unbeatable. Away from the ring, people clamored to be near him as he was both charismatic and polarizing.

One aspect about Gomez that could never be challenged was his love for his homeland. Gomez was born in Las Monjas, Puerto Rico on October 29, 1957, and was forced to get a job selling candies on his bicycle to help support his family. By the age of 17, Gomez had cemented his amateur legacy through his domination in both the Caribbean Games and the Pan-Am Games, but  was forced to move to the professional ranks to help his family get out of poverty. When he signed to fight professionally, Gomez made sure to buy his father a taxi cab. Ironically, Gomez began his career with a draw.

His opponent, Salvador Sanchez was born on February 3, 1958 in Santiago Tianquistenco, Mexico. He began to box at age 14. Similar to Gomez, Sanchez made his professional debut at age 17. Sanchez disposed of his first opponent in three rounds. By February 1980, Sanchez had decisioned Danny Lopez for the WBC Featherweight crown.

Inside the ring, few parallels existed. Sanchez relied on his height and incredible stamina, but he lacked Gomez’s speed, movement, and power. The Puerto Rican champ had knocked out every challenger leading up to the bout with the exception of a draw to Jacinto Fuentes in his first pro bout; Sanchez, less heralded, but just as dangerous, hadn’t always won with such panache. Despite defending his WBC title five times prior to the Gomez showdown, Sanchez pounded out a lackluster unanimous decision over lightly regarded Nicky Perez a month before his sixth defense.

One of the underlying storylines was the revenge factor. Gomez had earned a reputation for beating Mexico’s greatest champions, and Sanchez’s countrymen never truly recovered from the beating Gomez gave Carlos Zarate.

Gomez didn’t hold back from the pre-fight bluster. The insults and provocations were not lost on Sanchez, who used them as motivation when he entered the ring. Having been around the sport long enough, Sanchez knew the benefits of hyping a fight at all costs, but Gomez stepped over a line by challenging Sanchez’s masculinity. Not as effusive or arrogant, Sanchez vowed to make the Puerto Rican pay for his transgressions. Loyalist fans took sides as the salsa and mariachi bands signaled the emergence of each fighter.

Not one to initiate a confrontation, Sanchez was laid-back and his playful nature often came out in interviews. The odds were in Gomez’s favor as fight fans were not completely sold on Sanchez. Even though Sanchez had clearly improved with each bout, he wasn’t as decorated a fighter as Gomez was.

The more compact 5’6 inch Gomez, whose staple mustache belied a baby face, was significantly shorter than Sanchez. His frame lacked the sharp muscular tone of a fighter who demanded precision and perfection in training sessions, but the appearance didn’t fool anyone; Gomez punched to hurt his opponent. Each offering was more dangerous than the next one. Although most fighters of Gomez’s stature struggle to obtain position on the inside against a taller fighter, that was his strength. When he did find his way inside, Gomez relied on accuracy and an innate skill to avoid any significant counters. What he did was fight in bursts, so ferociously that all 32 opponents succumbed to his attack. No fighter in the world could match Gomez in that category; violence was his forte.

When told of Gomez’s bold prediction that he would knock Sanches out in the late rounds, Sanchez calmly replied, “Gomez is just another challenger.”

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