Danny Lopez had defended his WBC world featherweight title eight times by February of 1980 when he stepped into the ring against the little known Mexican, Salvador Sanchez. Lopez was as gritty as they come, with a record of 42-3 and a thunderous punch. In fact, Lopez was written in at number twenty-six on Ring Magazine's list of the one hundred greatest punchers in boxing. On that night in 1980, however, Lopez's opponent stole the show and the legend of Salvador Sanchez began.
Despite his short career in the ring, Salvador Sanchez is considered one of the greats and a look at his work even at the tender age of twenty-one will tell you why. Sanchez was a complete boxer and fighter. Not the kind of fighter who could do a bit on the inside and have his way on the outside, or vice versa, but a boxer whose inside game and outside game played off of each other and worked in synergy. Against Lopez, Sanchez's smooth footwork and disciplined head movement allowed him to get the better of exchanges and avoid most of the big hits from 'Little Red'. Even on the occasions that he got caught out, Sanchez would pivot, move his head, change direction or move in to smother Lopez. This was a man with ringcraft well beyond his years.
Sanchez would show a stiff, snapping, non-committal jab and connect it at a high rate while retreating. But his jab served just as well to enable his offense. A level change off the jab would slide Sanchez in underneath Lopez's return and enable him to bang the body or return to an upright posture and throw a counter at Lopez's head.
In between his lovely jab and outfighting, Sanchez would duck in on Lopez's waist and open up with body work when Lopez got too aggressive in giving chase.
Through his jab and the long, level changing overhand which Julio Cesar Chavez and so many other great Mexican boxers have since come to love, Sanchez was able to close Lopez's left eye. In the thirteenth round another of this look-down, punch-over-the-top right hands snuck in on Lopez on his blinded side and sent him reeling for the TKO.
But if Salvador Sanchez was so good, why have you barely heard anything about him unless you are friends with some hardcore boxing fans or historians? Well within three years of winning this title he was dead. The twenty-three year old's Porsche smashed into a truck and a thousand questions were cut short or left unanswered. We are fortunate that while much of Sanchez's forty-six fight career was not caught on film, he defended his title ten times in the two and a half years between taking it from Lopez and his tragic death. What exists of Sanchez's work is wonderful to watch.
After besting Ruben Castillo, Sanchez dealt with Lopez in a rematch, this time catching the American with a beautiful inside flurry in the fourteenth round.
Sanchez rattled off four more defenses and in August 1981 he met the great Wilfredo Gomez. One of the greatest punchers of all time, the Puerta Rican had a streak of knockouts going back thirty-two fights. No one had been the distance with him since his professional debut and he had never lost a bout as a pro. It was the junior featherweight champion against the featherweight champion but the slightly smaller Gomez was the betting favorite.
The fight opened with Sanchez jabbing and moving, and Gomez trying to close the distance. Gomez got Sanchez to the ropes and began to open up with punches but suddenly he was on the canvas.
Sanchez smelled blood in the water and immediately leapt on Gomez after the latter had beaten the count. Gomez swung like a man in the rigging as Sanchez poured on the blows, but Gomez got to the end of the round. Once the early stoppage was out of sight, Sanchez got back to fighting more methodically and Gomez began to have some success on the inside. Sanchez utilized his jab but went to the ropes often and fought with his back to them rather successfully by weaving, jostling for head position, and using the reverse shoulder roll.
As Gomez's eyes began to close, Sanchez began to find the mark more. Sanchez painted backhands across Gomez's face in hopes of hurrying the swelling along and blinding his man.
By the eighth round Gomez's face was puffing up, leveling out his features so that he came more to resemble a cantaloupe. Gomez struggled to see the blows coming but ploughed forward heroically nonetheless. After Sanchez connected a good blow with his back to the ropes, he turned Gomez onto the ropes. Sanchez opened up with blows, the right hand snuck through again to put Gomez down, and the match was waved off.
That was when Sanchez's star began to shine. He had knocked out a fan favorite and he was just beginning to get the attention he deserved when he was killed in a traffic accident. Three weeks after knocking out the tough Azumah Nelson to make his tenth title defense in July 1982, Sanchez's story was over.
He might not have been the finest boxer you have ever seen but everything in Sanchez's story exists with that asterisk next to it: he was just twenty-three years old when he died. Imagine if Floyd Mayweather had disappeared a few months before he fought Diego Corrales, or if Roy Jones never got to that Bernard Hopkins fight. Or even if Muhammad Ali had left the game after the second Sonny Liston bout and never come back. There is nothing to say that Salvador Sanchez would have continued to improve and become the greatest featherweight of all time, he had some tough fights and some brawls and he had been fighting professionally since he was sixteen years old. But there is nothing to say that he could not have.
The unanswered questions of fighting are the ones which force speculation and debate decades into the future. The dream fights which came within an inch of being signed, or the fighters who teased a campaign in the next weightclass up but never got around to it. The potential of Salvador Sanchez might be boxing's most maddening and tragic enigma.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.