Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez is largely regarded as the greatest Puerto Rican boxer in the island’s history. Although some regard lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz, but for the most part on the island it’s unanimous. Bazooka Gomez lived up to his nickname by winning all of his fights except his pro debut by knockout at 122 pounds. He made 17 defenses of that title and won them all by knockout. There are few fighters in boxing history who are undisputed without competition or variance in opinion as the best in their weight class. There are other greats who in fantasy match-ups would make for all time great fights at 122 such as Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, but none were as great as Bazooka Gomez at 122.
Wilfredo Gomez won his first world championship in 1977 against WBC super bantamweight champion Dong-Kyun Yum. Afterwards Gomez made 5 defenses of that title in his native Puerto Rico with one defense taking place in Thailand, another in Japan against Royal Kobayashi. This led to the first big Mexico vs. Puerto Rico bout; this one as they say is the one that started it all. No, it wasn’t the first match up between a Mexican and Puerto Rican boxer, but this was where the rivalry between these two countries began (in boxing).
Mexico’s Carlos Zarate had been the WBC bantamweight champion since 1976 and had proven himself against another puncher in 1977 when he faced off at the famed Forum in Inglewood, California against Alfonso Zamora. Zarate at the time was considered one of, if not the biggest puncher, in the sport at the time as he came into the fight with an amazing 52 – 0 with 51 knockouts. There haven’t been many bouts in boxing history where two men would meet with an almost 100 percent knockout ratio between the two of them. Gomez entered the fight with a record of 21-0-1 with 21 knockouts. The fight took place at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 0ctober 28th, 1978. Zarate entered the match up as huge favorite with fans, pundits and was expected to win his second world championship in his second weight division. What took place in the ring that night was a different story as Gomez dominated Zarate from the start of the fight and knocked Zarate down twice in the 4th round and the fight was stopped in the fifth after Zarate’s corner threw in the towel. The fight is controversial as the second knockdown in the fourth round happened when the round was over. This rivalry started off with some bad blood over the controversy of the knockdown, however Gomez was dominant throughout the entire bout and got the stoppage in the fifth.
After the fight Gomez was at his most confident and he went on another streak of knockouts while defending his WBC championship. Bazooka finally made it to the United States and had fights in Madison Square Garden, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Miami, Florida. Gomez may have been at his most confident, but he may have been overconfident and began to take his opponents lightly; for his first fight in Madison Square Garden after the Zarate win he came in 6 pounds overweight against Nestor Jimenez. This was foreshadowing what would become the biggest and most important fight in the Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry.
By 1981 Bazooka Gomez was rated near the top of all the pound for pound lists and was the prohibitive favorite over anyone he stepped in the ring against. Gomez decided it was time to move up in weight and try to get his hands on the WBC featherweight championship. The champion at the time was Salvador Sanchez; a young, but highly experienced boxer who’s only blemishes was a loss by decision at 18 years of age and a draw at 19 years of age. Sanchez had proved himself at the weight class by defeating the likes of Felix Trinidad Sr. (Yes, the trainer of Hall of Famer Felix “Tito” Trinidad), perennial Puerto Rican featherweight contender Juan Laporte and displayed all time great skill against Danny “Little Red” Lopez in 1980 in two bouts where he scored a 13th and 14th round TKO’s.
The stage was set in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada on August 21, 1981. Before the bout there was some animosity between the two camps, rumors around Puerto Rico that Gomez wasn’t taking the bout seriously and taking challenger Salvador Sanchez lightly.
When both men were in the ring Gomez exuded arrogance and Sanchez looked very calm and focused for the task ahead of him. The fighters each entered the ring with music of their respective countries who dueled it out in a battle of the bands (Salsa vs. Mariachi) for almost a half an hour before both fighters were introduced. The battle of the bands, the crowd, and the fighters involved made this the biggest fight in the Mexico – Puerto Rico rivalry and really pushed that agenda through the lead up to the bout. Bazooka Gomez entered the bout with an impressive record of 32-0-1 with 32 knockouts and 13 title defenses of his 122-pound championship under his belt while Salvador Sanchez had a 40-1-1 record with 30 knockouts.
The fight started cautiously, but in the last minute of the 1st round Gomez put himself against the ropes and was knocked down very hard by Sanchez. The fight then turned into a back & forth war where Gomez was able to mount a comeback in some rounds, but was always the one who looked the worse after each round. Gomez’s face looked like a train wreck while Sanchez was cool and calm. No matter how much Gomez attempted to change the momentum by landing big shots on Sanchez and backing him up, Sanchez never lost his composure. The end came in the 8th round as once again Sanchez caught Gomez with a barrage of punches that forced that referee to stop the contest. Gomez was all heart and protested the stoppage, but it was not his day and needed to be saved from himself. The aftermath was a huge victory for Sanchez and Mexico, as Sanchez not only dispatched of Gomez by stoppage when he was the underdog, but also garnered the biggest victory in the Mexico – Puerto Rico rivalry.
There were talks of a rematch, but unfortunately Sanchez met his untimely demise in a car accident in Mexico. Sanchez’s last fight took place in July of 1982 against a young Azumah Nelson who he stopped in the 15th round of a close fight where Sanchez’s experience proved to be too much for Nelson.
Bazooka Gomez mourned the death of Sanchez and famously visited the gravesite of Sanchez, gave his condolences to the only man to defeat him as a professional. Sanchez was a prodigy and at the age of 23 had already accomplished a Hall of Fame career. Who knows how many more great battles we could have witnessed had his death, not occurred but what we got was still good enough to be remembered as one of the best to come out of Mexico.
The boxing world and Gomez had to move on. Bazooka Gomez decided to move back down to 122 pounds and go back to defending his championship. Gomez fought two non-title fights after the Sanchez fight, and then went back to defending his championship against Juan Meza in New Jersey. After two more title defense victories by knockout Gomez was now ready for another challenge and this came in Mexico’s Lupe Pintor. Pintor like Zarate was a former WBC bantamweight champion and even faced Zarate in 1979 and won a very controversial 15 round split decision.
The fight was set to take place on December 3rd, 1982 on the under-card of the Thomas Hearns – Wilfred Benitez Junior Middleweight Championship fight at the SuperDome in New Orleans, Louisiana. What took place stole the show that night in New Orleans. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this fight as a boxing fan you owe to yourself to give it a watch. The 3rd and 12th rounds are two of the best all action back & forth rounds in the history of the sport. The fight had many changes in momentum and was a war of attrition. There times in the fight where Gomez’s corner would grab and carry Gomez back to the corner to save him some energy. Gomez won the fight by stoppage in the 14th round but to describe the fight would be to say that Gomez survived and was the last one standing. Largely considered one of the best fights of the 1980’s, this fight holds the honor of being the most exciting Mexico – Puerto Rico match in history.
After this fight Gomez would go on to win titles at 126 and 130 against Juan Laporte and Rocky Lockridge, but he never again reached the same heights as he did before the Sanchez fight. Gomez would lose famously by brutal knockout to Azumah Nelson in 1984 in Puerto Rico at featherweight.
Wilfredo Gomez was the man who started the Mexico – Puerto Rico rivalry and brought it to its greatest heights and brought its greatest fights. Gomez never lost any of his fights at 122 pounds and won all of his fights at 122 by knockout. Gomez ended his career in 1989 with a record of 44 wins, 3 losses with 42 wins by knockout. When it comes to Wilfredo Gomez and Salvador Sanchez, Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alavarez will not be able to fill those shoes, as they are too big to fill. They can, however, give us what Gomez gave us every time he stepped into the ring and that’s all his heart and courage while giving the fans their money’s worth.