Sunday, June 22, 2014

Who's the greatest Puerto Rican boxer ever?

One of the beautiful things about boxing, is the never-ending variety of debates one can have surrounding the sport. With the multiple champions in each weight class who won't fight each other, one can debate who is the best. You can debate fighters from different eras in fantasy fights and so much more.

With Miguel Cotto becoming the first Puerto Rican boxer to win world titles in four different weight classes two weeks ago, I've had my own debate brewing inside of me. Does this distinction make Miguel Cotto the greatest fighter to descend from this boxing crazed and rich country?

Below I will list, in my opinion and in no particular order, the five greatest Puerto Rican fighters to ever step into the ring and their accomplishments. However, even more importantly I will also discuss their impact on the sport and their legacy in the eyes of their biggest fans, their fellow Boriqua countrymen. Puerto Ricans, not unlike Mexicans and other Latinos are extremely proud people. I know because I am one of them.

First up on my list is Cotto (39-4, 32 KO's). The credentials are impressive; as previously stated above a champion in four weight classes ranging 140-160 lbs. His amateur career includes being a former Olympian in the 2000 games representing his native Puerto Rico. His list of victories includes wins over the likes of Sergio Martinez and Shane Mosley, however that may be his downfall. Those two are the only victims on his list of wins that are of Hall of Fame caliber. He's fought and defeated good, but not great fighters.

The great fighters he has fought such as Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao he's lost to. He lost to Austin Trout, who is a very good fighter, yet he has gone on to lose his next two fights. As for Antonio Margarito, I won't count that loss against him because of Margarito's cheating history, but it's hard to count the win against him as well because we now know why Margarito was any good. Cotto is a future Hall of Famer who deserves proper recognition; but the greatest Puerto Rico has ever produced? I don't think so.

Next up is the late great Hector 'Macho' Camacho (79-6-3, 38 KO's). Easily one of the biggest showmen the sport has ever seen, Camacho's ego was bigger than his punch. However, while he may not have been the biggest puncher, his hand speed and boxing skill in his prime were second to none. A Nuyorican, which is a term for Puerto Ricans born and raised in New York, he was never fully embraced by Puerto Rican fans the way Cotto and others were; eerily similar to the way Mexican fans viewed Oscar De La Hoya.

As for accomplishments, if you want to get technical Camacho actually supersedes Cotto in world titles in different weight divisions with five as his goes from 130-160 lbs. However, the last three of those were won in the IBC and WBF, which for some reason isn't truly recognized in the alphabet soup world of boxing organizations; I mean what makes the WBA, WBC, IBF and even WBO that much more special; because they've been around longer?

While he had wins against some names in his career, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, Edwin Rosario, (albeit questionable), and Ray Mancini; he, as did Cotto, came up short against the biggest names like Felix Trinidad and De la Hoya. Those two were clearly out of his weight class, but Julio Cesar Chavez wasn't, which at the time was a mega fight. Regardless, Camacho is another future Hall of Famer who was great in his time, but not the greatest Puerto Rico had to offer.

I mentioned Felix Trinidad, which brings me to the next one my list. AKA 'Tito' Trinidad (42-3, 35 KO's), this was and still is one of the island's most beloved sons. A champion in three different weight classes from 147-160 lbs., Trinidad has the distinction of being the longest reigning welterweight champion for over six and a half years with the second most title defenses at 15. A skilled boxer who possessed a lethal left hook, he had a propensity for getting dropped early in his fights, only to get up and finish his opponents.

His resume includes wins over the aforementioned Camacho and Fernando Vargas; but his biggest win is also his most controversial. He won a decision over De La Hoya in what was then billed as the 'Fight of the Century' when both fought each other as undefeated 26-year-old welterweight champions in 1999. After viewing the fight many times over, I have each fighter winning six rounds each, thus the reason for controversy.

However, as with the others, it's whom he has lost to that will forever stay with him. His first defeat was to the ageless Bernard Hopkins as a stunned Puerto Rican crowd at Madison Square Garden watched just weeks after the tragedy of 9/11. He would go on to lose lackluster decisions against Winky Wright and Roy Jones, Jr. to end his Hall of Fame career, just being inducted earlier this month. Great and beloved yes; but the greatest in Puerto Rico's history, no.

Next up is my personal favorite Puerto Rican fighter of all-time, Wilfred Benitez (53-8-1, 31 KO's). Nicknamed 'El Radar' (The Radar) for his uncanny ability to dodge punches and (or) 'The Bible of Boxing' for his superior skill, Benitez is the ultimate "What could have been" story. A three-division champ from 140-154 lbs., Benitez won his first world title at the tender age of 17, six months before his 18th birthday in 1976.

That world class skill at such a young age had all-time great written all over it; however, so much fame and fortune at such a young age also has train wreck written all over it as well. The life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll would eventually take its toll, but not before he made history. Wins on his resume include names such as Antonio Cervantes, Carlos Palomino and Roberto Duran. While 15 round decision losses to Thomas Hearns and the legendary classic to Sugar Ray Leonard will forever have people like myself saying, "If he had only trained and took his career seriously."

It's difficult for me not to call him the greatest the island has ever produced because of my bias towards him as my personal favorite; but if he isn't, he is a close second only to the final name on my list Wilfredo 'Bazooka' Gomez (44-3-1, 42 KO's). Without question, the most revered champion ever produced by Puerto Rico, Gomez is considered one of the sports greatest. A Hall of Famer, who won championships in three different weight classes from 122-130 lbs., Gomez had unbelievable power for a fighter of his size.

He too was an Olympian competing in the '72 Munich games, however, just like Benitez, Gomez's downfall was success at a young age during the mid '70's. What people have to realize is that the '70's was a much more freer lifestyle than today; so things like drugs and sex were easily accessible, especially for celebrities. For a guy like Gomez who won his first title at 21, life was a non-stop party.

Nonetheless, his natural skill and punching power got him by legendary names such as Lupe Pintor, Carlos Zarate and Rocky Lockridge; but it was when he faced serious craftsmen such as Azumah Nelson and the late great Salvador Sanchez that he realized that could only take him so far. The loss to Sanchez literally moved me to tears at 18 as I had witnessed a national hero falling before my eyes. This one would forever haunt Gomez as nearly a year later amidst talks of a rematch; Sanchez was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.

I was lucky enough last year to come upon this living legend at a fight card in my hometown and he was kind enough to take a photo with me. There is something to be said when you are standing next to true legendary greatness. It is though you can feel an aura around them. That is how I felt standing next to Gomez, who I consider the greatest Puerto Rican fighter to step into the ring.

In closing, some names I'd like to recognize with honorable mentions include Sixto Escobar, Alfredo Escalera, Esteban De Jesus, Carlos 'Sugar' De Leon, Edwin 'Chapo' Rosario, Wilfredo Vasquez, Juan LaPorte, John John Molina and Danny Garcia. With such a rich history and tradition of boxing in Puerto Rico, to even be mentioned in this piece says something about these fighters. Who's the greatest? That is up for debate; let me know what you think.

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