This rivalry packs real punch

Times Staff Writer

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Carlos Palomino knew something was wrong the minute he saw the boxing ring laid out in San Juan's main baseball stadium beneath a blazing Caribbean sun.

"The ring's in the middle of the field with a tarp over it," he remembers of his welterweight title fight against Puerto Rico's Wilfredo Benitez. "Half the ring's in the shade, half the ring's in the sun. He's in the shade, I'm in the sun."

That wasn't the worst of it. In the week leading up the bout, promoters threw open the doors to Palomino's San Juan gym, allowing Puerto Rican fans to swarm the Mexican-born boxer and disrupt his workouts. And then there were the locker rooms.

"The dressing-room situation was criminal as far as I'm concerned," Palomino said. "I was sitting there soaking wet, sweating from the humidity. No fan, nothing."

Next door, he learned after the fight, Benitez prepared in air-conditioned comfort before going out and taking the world championship in a split decision Palomino still insists, nearly 30 years later, he really won.

But while that bout marked the beginning of the end of Palomino's career -- he fought just six more times, losing twice and retiring twice -- it also helped fuel one of the most passionate rivalries in sports. And it's a rivalry that will be renewed later this month in Las Vegas when Puerto Rico's Miguel Cotto puts his world welterweight crown and unbeaten record on the line against Tijuana's hard-punching Antonio Margarito.

Depending on who's doing the counting, there have been nearly five dozen world title fights between boxers from Mexico and Puerto Rico and most have been classic brawls.

"In other countries people go crazy to see a soccer game between Spain and Italy, Italy and England," said boxing writer Gerardo Fernandez of the Puerto Rican daily Primera Hora. "Well, it's the same ambience for a boxing match between Mexico and Puerto Rico."

It's not hard to figure out why. They are Latin American lands with similar backgrounds and cultures. And in both lands, boxing is revered.

"They're two countries in which boxing is the national sport," said Jose Sulaiman, president of the World Boxing Council. "It's the sport that's in their hearts. There's a special rivalry over which Latin country has the best boxers."

Adds Francisco Valcarcel, president of the competing World Boxing Organization: "When you have Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, for sure that will be a war. You are fighting for you, your country and your heritage and the history."

The rivalry even extends to the sport's sanctioning bodies since Sulaiman's Mexico City-based WBC recognizes three Mexicans and no Puerto Ricans among its 16 world champions while Valcarcel's San Juan-based WBO lists two Puerto Ricans and one Mexican among its 17 titlists.

But there's little disagreement that the fight that got the rivalry started was the 1978 super-bantamweight title bout between Puerto Rico's Wilfredo Gomez and Mexico's Carlos Zarate, who were a combined 75-0-1 when they faced off in San Juan.

"I was sick. I didn't want to fight," Zarate remembers. "I tried to get out of it, but I was told I'd have to pay three times more than my purse not to fight."

The brutal fight was over soon enough, though, with Gomez knocking him out in five rounds -- after repeatedly punching Zarate while he was down.

The rivalry grew more heated three years later when the still-unbeaten Gomez met featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez. And that was five months before they even stepped into the ring.

According to Valcarcel, during negotiations for the bout Gomez grabbed a pair of scissors off the table and charged Sanchez, who soon grew tired of the Puerto Rican's trash talking.

"He told me 'I'm not going to knock him out. I'm going to punish him,' " said Palomino, who served as an interpreter for Sanchez. "He had him out in the second round and he let him [go]. Then he just started pounding and pounding him."

And Gomez's fights didn't always end in the ring -- at least not as far as his fans were concerned. Valcarcel was leaving the arena after one bout when he came across the mayor of Guaynabo, one of Puerto Rico's most prominent cities, trading punches with a Mexican fan in the parking lot.

"The rivalry, I think it's more intense between the fans. There's more fights in the stands than there is sometimes in the ring," Palomino said. "And that's what fuels it, the fans. It's more than just a bout. It's like the fourth 'Rocky' movie. It's for the country."

Yet when Sanchez died in a traffic accident a year later a solemn Gomez, who would knock out Mexican Roberto Rubaldino five days later, left his training camp to fly to Mexico where he laid flowers at Sanchez's grave site.

"In the ring it's another thing. We have to fight. I've got to kill him," said Puerto Rican featherweight Mario Santiago, who earned a draw in his first title fight last month against Mexican American Steven Luevano. "But after the fight or before the fight, I don't have anything personal with any Mexican."

It's personal for the fans, though. Which is why the rivalry continues to thrive, said Bob Arum, who is promoting the July 26 Cotto-Margarito bout.

"What people forget about boxing is that it's a sport like other sports," he said. "In order to catch the attention, people have to care, they have to have a rooting interest. That's why the old fights, where they had Jews against Italians in New York, were well-attended and the fans cared. They identified with one or the other of the fighters.

"Now when you have a Mexican and a Puerto Rican, Mexican fans and Puerto Rican fans identify with that fight because it's a natural rivalry. It's like the Dodgers playing the Giants."

Only the Dodgers and Giants represent cities. Cotto and Margarito will be representing something far larger.

That's why Julio Cesar Chavez said he feared Mexico would never forgive him if he lost his title fight with Puerto Rico's Hector Camacho. And that pressure hasn't faded over time.

"I want to give this title to Mexico," Margarito said. "Because of the rivalry you try harder to win, you try harder to beat Puerto Rico."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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Fists of fury

The long and storied rivalry between Mexican and Puerto Rican fighters has produced some of boxing's best bouts. Here are five of the more memorable ones:

* Escobar-Casanova, June 26, 1934: Bantamweight Sixto Escobar, who now has a stadium named after him along San Juan's shoreline, becomes the island's first world champion with a ninth-round knockout of Rodolfo "Baby" Casanova in Montreal in what's believed to be the first title fight matching a Mexican and Puerto Rican.

* Gomez-Zarate, Oct. 28, 1978: Puerto Rico's Wilfredo Gomez hands Carlos Zarate his first loss in 53 fights with a fifth-round knockout in a super-bantamweight title fight in San Juan.

* Sanchez-Gomez, Aug. 21, 1981: Gomez's promise to die in the ring before he'll lose almost comes true with Salvador Sanchez breaking Gomez's jaw and his spirit while nearly closing both eyes before the featherweight title fight is stopped in the eighth round in Las Vegas.

* Gomez-Pintor, Dec. 3, 1982: An exhausted Gomez takes Lupe Pintor's junior-featherweight title with a 14th-round knockout in New Orleans.

* Chavez-Camacho, Sept. 12, 1992: Julio Cesar Chavez said he wouldn't be able to return to Mexico if he lost to Hector Camacho, so he doesn't, winning a unanimous junior-welterweight decision in Las Vegas.

-- Kevin Baxter

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