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Rediscovering Vicente Saldivar

On this date, 36 years ago, one of the greatest fighters Mexico ever produced fought his last battle. When great featherweight boxers of the past are discussed or ranked, one name always seems conspicuously low on the list to me. Not many fans recall or look back upon the dominating and equally exciting reign of Vicente Saldivar with fondness. Even among his countryman Saldivar is relegated to a second tier of nearly greats, despite triumphs which should merit more reverence. A shame really, when you consider that in a three year time-span between 1964 and 1967 (in which he made eight title defenses, five by knockout) Saldivar was considered virtually unbeatable.

Prior to a retirement, his first of two, Saldivar lost only once via a disputed disqualification, and he avenged that loss by knockout. Saldivar fit the mold of a Mexican boxing idol inside the ring. He was the prototypical Mexican brawler, with a dash of counter-puncher thrown in. However, away from the ring Saldivar did not have an outgoing personality, and he talked very little. Nor did he have a particularly macho personality, or engage the public. Saldivar was a quiet family man, who did not like to show off or need to be seen in the hot-spots with the stars. Because of this Saldivar, while respected, was never idolized by the Mexican public the way Ruben Olivares, Salvador Sanchez, and Julio Cesar Chavez were.

Anyone wanting to get a clearer picture of what Vicente Saldivar was like in the ring, need only envision a left handed Julio Cesar Chavez. Simply put, Saldivar could bang and break down opponents with the best. He had a stocky five foot three inch body, topped by broad shoulders that produced the power of a welterweight. Saldivar’s bodywork was exceptional, and a potent left hook to the ribs softened opponents up for the inevitable late round charge an exceptionally fit Saldivar always produced. Saldivar’s terrific stamina was attributed to being born with an unusually slow heart and pulse rate. This allowed him to recover from strenuous activities very rapidly. Every round was round one for Saldivar.

To cast Saldivar as all brawn is too simplistic. A stout package concealed his technique too readily, and his use of angles and solid jab are generally overlooked. However, since 1999 Saldivar’s image has underwent a minor renaissance, beginning with induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. In later years, Salidvar merited a rating in The Ring magazine’s list of the best fifty fighters of the last fifty years (# 50), and a respectable number 73 on their list of the top eighty boxers of the last eighty years. The Ring also cited Saldivar as the sixth greatest Mexican boxer of allp-time. At featherweight The Ring rated Saldivar as the 13th best featherweight ever, which I would argue is too low. The Ring did, however, sum up his game well. "A gifted, mercurial, and physically imposing featherweight. A southpaw dynamo who could box or bang, nearly perfect in his first career."

Vicente Samuel Saldivar Garcia was born in one of the many poor quarters of Mexico City, one of seven children. As a child Saldivar got in fights on the streets and in school, so his father decided to channel the misguided energy into boxing. Like many other Mexicans his father was a big boxing fan, so it was a logical move that quickly paid dividends. Vicente was taught by Jose Moreno, a veteran trainer of the Mexico City boxing circuit. Saldivar had a successful amateur career, crowned with a Mexican Golden Gloves title at bantamweight. The 17 year old surprised most by making the 1960 Mexican Olympic team, but was defeated in the first round. Having defeated the best Mexican amateurs, and not wanting to wait another four years for the next Olympics, Saldivar turned pro in 1961. He was still only 17, and quickly earned the nickname of “Zurdo de Oro” (Lefty of Gold).

Saldivar’s pro career was given a moderate pace. Even so, his amateur pedigree and exciting pro style fashioned him into a main event boxer after only four bouts. In his fifth fight Saldivar completed his first ten round bout, where he first began to show vast reserves of stamina, with a win over veteran Jose Mora (who owned a win over Jose Medal). In his second year as a pro Saldivar quickly worked his way up the ranks, becoming a contender inside Mexican borders. He scored nine wins that year, only allowing one opponent to last the distance. In his final bout of 1962 Saldivar suffered a hotly argued loss via disqualification to Baby Luis. Six months later the loss was avenged by knockout, and combined with a win over tough American import Dwight Hawking tagged Saldivar as a fighter star potential.

1964 was Saldivar’s breakthrough year. Despite winning 19 of 23 bouts by knockout Saldivar was the underdog in a challenge of Juan Ramirez for the Mexican featherweight title. Not only did Saldivar win, he stunned the capital city crowd with an impressive two round destruction of Ramirez. After defending his Mexican title once, a 12 round decision of Eduardo Guerrero (who in his previous fight beat former world champion Hiroshi Kobayashi in Japan), Saldivar gave up the belt to pursue a world title. Next the quiet kid from Mexico City made big noise on the international scene, scoring a second upset by taking an easy 10 round decision from future world champion Ismael Laguna. The win earned Saldivar a number two world ranking, and with it came a title shot at ferocious punching Cuban Sugar Ramos.

A twenty-one- year-old and still maturing Saldivar was not given much of a chance to defeat Sugar Ramos. Saldivar again proved experts wrong by fighting intelligently instead of engaging Ramos head on. Saldivar came out strong early (he was usually a slow starter) outboxing Ramos, darting in and out while avoiding Ramos’ retaliatory hooks. Cheered on by countryman Saldivar took control of the fight in the eighth round, sensing that Ramos was weakening. From that point on Saldivar gave Ramos a beating, knocking him down in the 10th round. Ramos was saved by the bell, but had nothing left. After another round of punishment Ramos was not allowed to continue by his corner. Saldivar became an active champion in his four year reign. Three months after winning the title he defended it against Fino Rosales, notable because it was the first all Mexican world championship fight. Saldivar next traveled to America, successfully retaining the title with a fifteenth round kayo over Raul Rojas.

Saldivar’s reign was highlighted by a trilogy of fights with European champion Howard Winstone. It is one of boxing’s most underrated trilogies, mostly because Saldivar won all three fights by the slimmest of margins. Entering the first Winstone bout Saldivar had won 21 of 26 fights by knockout. Winstone, a stylish Welsh boxer with superb footwork, would be a different task for Saldivar. But fighting at home Winstone played against his strong suit, spurred on by fans he slugged with the more powerful Salidvar. It seemed to be working, until the late rounds. Stamina would again prove the savior of Salidvar. After eight rounds the Mexican came on strong, behind lead right hands that cut Winstone over both eyes. After 15 rounds of great two way action, Saldivar was awarded a narrow decision win. The quality of the fight made a rematch inevitable.

Before the rematch Saldivar defended his title three times in Mexico City. Once against Floyd Robertson of Ghana, who some considered the ’uncrowned champion, by second round knockout. The two other victories came against resilient Mistunori Seki, by 15 round decision and a seventh round knockout. Saldivar then agreed to a rematch with Winstone in 1967. A crowd of 30,000 hoped Winstone would box this time, chanting “Don’t fight, don’t fight”. For ten rounds Winstone did well to avoid the hard charging Saldivar, but never looked in control of the action. Saldivar then found holes in the tiring Welshman, rocking him with straight right hands. The tenth through fifteenth rounds were filled by classic exchanges, leads and counterpunches. It’s hard to imagine what kept Winstone up in the 14th, taking a significant battering before collapsing to take an eight count. At the end of 15 rounds the referee, and sole judge, made Saldivar the winner by just half a point. In 1999 The Ring magazine ranked the fight as the 65th best title fight ever.

The epic trilogy was completed four months later in Mexico City. It was the most one sided of the fights, but did not lack for drama. In this fight Winstone used a stiff jab to control the early rounds. Again, Winstone faded late, suffering under a combination of body punching and the altitude which wore on the proud son of coal miners. Finally, in the twelfth round, the corner of Winstone threw in towel. The three fights forged a lasting friendship between the two combatants, in spite of a language barrier. During the 1968 Mexico City Olympics Winstone was the guest of Saldivar, and they later visited each other’s homes on a couple of other occasions.

At the conclusion of the third Winstone fight Saldivar took the ring microphone, and shocked the audience by announcing his retirement. The whole Mexican nation was perplexed. Why would a prime Saldivar, who was only 24, retire at the height of his popularity and skills? Part of it was that he had just married Mexico’s biggest film star, Saldivar’s dislike for the spotlight also played a role. Some close to him claim he never got over the fact that he was not accepted in the hearts of Mexican fans. The in ring speech gave the most resounding answer. "I have made more money as a boxer than I can ever spend. I am tired of always training, and never enjoying life. I am still young..., this was my last fight."

At his next appearance at a boxing match Saldivar cheered for Howard Winstone, who won the world featherweight title against Mitsunori Seki. Just as surprising, to many, as his retirement was the announcement that Saldivar would make a comeback. After a 21 month absence Saldivar wasted no time by going after easy prey. Instead, he challenged number one contender Jose Legra who had held the featherweight title a year earlier, in Los Angeles before 14,000 fans that welcomed his return. Ring rust showed early, with Legra scoring a flash knockdown in the third round. Then Saldivar went about beating Legra the same way he had others before his retirement, he worked the body before stepping up the pace and outworking his world class opponent in the late rounds. The win over Legra along with his previous resume ensured Saldivar a shot at the title, against yet another young gun champion in his prime.

Six months later Saldivar faced Johnny Famechon, an young French born Aussie who just defeated celebrated legend Fighting Harada. For the first time in years Saldivar entered as the underdog, the folly of which became evident early. It looked as if Saldivar had never left. Vicente proved everyone wrong by taking the fight to the champ, punching through the precision counter of the champion. Famechon did surprise by rallying late, usually the strong suite of Salidvar, but was knocked down in the 13th to seal the win for the challenger. A puffy eyed Saldivar earned an unanimous decision. Boxing Illustrated wrote, "His 15 round decision was clear cut. Southpaw Saldivar stuck to the old fashioned belief that the guy who throws the most punches must merit reward."

What should have been an easy title defense against the ordinary Kuniaki Shibata turned into a nightmare, as Saldivar suffered a fractured cheekbone early in the bout. Even before the injury Saldivar struggled in the early rounds, as he did often, and never found a rhythm to the fight. Cuts and swelling prevented Saldivar from finding his target, and as the rounds wore on Shibata’s advantage in strength was telling. Saldivar continued to battle through the cuts, but the referee wisely stopped the bout to prevent Saldivar from taking further punishment. After a ten round return win over Frankie Crawford, Saldivar again retired.

On a whole great champions have great egos. That was not the case with Saldivar in public, but he did retain great self belief in his ring abilities. At age 30 Saldivar succumb to the temptation of an offer to fight fellow Hall of Famer Eder Jofre. It was a battle of aging legends, in which Jofre retained an advantage by virtue of two years of ring activity that Saldivar had sat out. This time it was obvious Saldivar had not been in the ring for a long time, his lack of timing and fluidity was evident from the outset. Except for a 40 second period in the second round Jofre dominated. In the fourth round Jofre tore into the lethargic Saldivar with precise power shots, and a left uppercut ended the fight in chilling fashion. Saldivar fell to the canvas, and was counted out for the only time in his career.

This time it was truly over for Saldivar, vowing never to return to a ring. His days as an active boxer were over, at age 30 Saldivar threw is final punch. In subsequent years Saldivar found a release for his love of boxing by training young boxers. The champion returned to his roots, teaching at the gym where he first began to box as an amateur. He became a successful trainer, molding and putting the final touches on many young ringmen from Mexico. No one saw that the end was fast approaching. Tragically, Saldivar died of a heart attack at the age of 42.

Anyone who had the privilege to witness the stamina and heart Saldivar showed would have ever guessed it would be this portion of his body that would ultimately betray him.

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