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The Great Mexican Fighters

Any listing of the top 10 anything is as much a generational question as a historical one. Your father's champion is quite seldom your own, with the obvious exception of Sugar Ray Robinson, who is everyone's champion unless they simply have no idea what they are talking about.

Putting aside the nearly universal acceptance of Robinson as the all-time best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, there are many gray heads who will tell you, for example, that what Joe Louis would have done to Muhammad Ali would have been criminal assault, just as there is a generation today that believes Roy Jones, Jr. would have blasted out everyone in his path regardless of what era they came from or that Lennox Lewis would have destroyed Rocky Marciano despite the fact no one ever even beat Marciano let alone beat him down.

Regardless of who you like, once an all-time top 10 is established over time it becomes increasingly difficult for more recent practitioners to fight their way onto the list, a fate present super featherweight champion Marco Antonio Barrera is wrestling with as a footnote to his preparations for a Sept. 16 rematch against Rocky Juarez. Barrera is without question one of the top Mexican fighters of his time and arguably of all-time, having won world titles at super featherweight, featherweight and super bantamweight while holding a 2-1 record against Erik Morales, his major challenger for modern day Mexican supremacy. But does he fit anywhere on a top 10 list of all-time Mexican fighters?

That is a debate that is likely to rage for some time, with devotees of Julio Cesar Chavez putting him atop any list of Mexico's all-time best fighters and then going from there. But even that point is debatable. Not for someone like six-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya perhaps, but ask his father, Joel, and you might get a different response. And if you put the question to one of De La Hoya's former trainers, Jesus Rivero, you'd get a different argument entirely, which is what makes these kind of debates fascinating fodder for a night of drinking tequila sunrises until sunrise.

Marco Antonio Barrera holding belt

"I would have to say Chavez,'' De La Hoya said when asked to name his top Mexican fighter of all-time. "He's been the best Mexican fighter in my time but "The Professor'' (as Rivero was called) would tell me Miguel Canto was the master. He was a tremendously crafty little boxer.

"My Dad would mention Salvador Sanchez to me all the time. He died so young (23) I never saw him but my father saw him live. He would tell me Sanchez had the potential to be much better than Chavez. He says Sanchez had something special. He was on his way up. It's hard to say what he would have done. And my father would always talk to me about Ruben Olivares. That was his all-time favorite."

Chavez? Olivares? Canto? Sanchez? Okay but what about Carlos Zarate or Kid Azteca or Vicente Saldivar? And what about perhaps the most under-rated Mexican fighter of all-time, the never defeated Ricardo Lopez.

"Finito'' was 50-0-1 when he said "finito'' on Nov. 28, 2002, retiring nearly a year after defeating Zolani Petelo to defend the IBF light flyweight title one last time after having successfully defended the WBC minimumweight championship a record 22 times before moving up to light flyweight and defending that title belt twice. Lopez, in fact, holds the record for most consecutive title fights without a loss (26), a streak that stretched over 11 years before his retirement and certainly argues strongly his case for a place in the Mexican top 10. So why does Lopez' name so often seem to come as an afterthought when the debate is greatest Mexican fighters?

"A lot of people overlook him because he was in the smallest weight classes and was always on the undercards of other fighters' like Chavez,'' De La Hoya theorizes. "People really didn't know him. He made so many defenses and he left the sport undefeated, which hardly anyone does. It's amazing he gets so overlooked. He should be on that top 10 list.''

So, then, other than those names who else belongs on such a list and would it include Barrera? His promoter thinks so.

"Barrera is right there with the top five of all-time from Mexico,'' insisted De La Hoya, whose Golden Boy Promotions will run the Barrera-Juarez rematch in Las Vegas. "Chavez is still on the top of the list for me but Barrera is not too far back. He's been down so many times and come back and proven he can be a champion again. He was dropped by Junior Jones and (Manny) Pacquiao but he's always come back.

"In talking with Barrera, he's a very proud man. He wants to be considered on top, like Chavez. He wants his name with those names. To secure his legacy he knows he has to beat Juarez again and then avenge his loss to Pacquiao. He wants the Pacquiao rematch so I was fairly surprised when he picked Rocky Jaurez to fight first but I can see why he chose that route. He wants any questions erased.''

If Barrera (62-4, 42 KO) can erase whatever questions some people might have of him, where might he fit, if at all, on such a list of best Mexican boxers of all-time? Here's one look which should surely spur debate.

1. Julio Cesar Chavez - Widely regarded as the greatest Mexican fighter of all-time, although old timers will debate you on that. They favor Olivares, Miguel Canto or maybe even Sanchez. Whatever they think, Chavez won world titles at 130, 135 and three times at 140 and retired with a record of 108-6-2 with 87 KOs. He was unbeaten in his first 91 fights (although a draw to Pernell Whitaker was a gift) before Frankie Randall beat him by well deserved split decision. One of his greatest performances was his last-second stoppage of Meldrick Taylor on March 17, 1990, a brilliant and brutal night in which Taylor administered a boxing lesson but took a beating from which he never fully recovered. Chavez used suffocating pressure, body punching and crushing right hands to wear men down and beat them up. He was 88-0 when he and Whitaker fought in San Antonio. He was a lesser fighter after that but he was also 31 and a veteran of an inordinate amount of ring wars. It will take a lot for someone to remove him out of this No. 1 ranking.

2. Ruben Olivares - One of the two or three best bantamweights ever to fight, Olivares held that title through two reigns between 1969-72 before moving up to twice win the WBC featherweight title. A powerful puncher, Olivares won his first 60 fights, 55 by knockout on the way to posting a record of 88-13-3 (78 KO). Perhaps no 118 pounder ever punched harder than Olivares. He could box but most often chose not to, relying instead on a shot to the liver and a menacing style that was all about coming forward. Classic Mexican brawler, Olivares was loved by Mexican fight fans. His three wars with Bobby Chacon are typical of why.

3. Salvador Sanchez - Sanchez (44-1-1) never lost a title fight and defeated a roster of top opponents like Danny Lopez (twice), Azumah Nelson, Wilfredo Gomez, Juan LaPorte and Ruben Castillo before dying at 23 in a car wreck. He had made nine successful defenses of the featherweight title at the time of his death. Sanchez was not the typical Mexican brawler but rather a defensive expert and sharp counter puncher. His greatest night was when he destroyed Gomez, who was 32-0-1 at the time, in eight technically perfect rounds.

4. Miguel Canto - A defensive master, he's the Mexican version of Willie Pep. He successfully defended the flyweight title a record 14 times, winning all but one of those fights by 15-round decision, a record that will never be approached for dominance by virtue of pure boxing skill.

Canto finished 61-9-4 with only 15 knockouts with four of those losses coming at the end of his career and most of the rest in the first two years of it. He was more difficult to hit than Sandy Koufax.

5. Carlos Zarate - Polar opposite of Canto, Zarate was a power puncher locked in a bantamweight's body. Zarate won his first 45 fights, 44 by KO, and retired with a record of 66-4 with 63 knockouts. That's punching power.

He made nine defenses of the bantamweight title in three years, stopping nearly all of the best opposition available to him, making him one of the greatest bantamweights of all-time. Perhaps his greatest moment was knocking out his nemesis of the '70s, Alfonso Zamora, who was 29-0 at the time with 29 knockouts himself, in an over the weight fight. Zarate dropped Zamora three times before stopping him in the fourth round in their April 23, 1977 showdown.

6. Ricardo Lopez - Grossly underrated as De La Hoya says because of his size and the fact promoter Don King kept him hidden behind Chavez for so long.

7. Marco Antonio Barrera - The best Mexican fighter of his era (unless you include Chavez in it). Erik Morales would like to prove otherwise but he's 1-2 against Barrera and the gap between them is widening. Barrera became a complete fighter, rather than just a warrior, after Junior Jones beat him twice. He still loves to brawl but he can box, too. What featherweight of his time was better? A match with Sanchez would have been a Mexican dream fight.

8. Vicente Saldivar - Elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999, Saldivar finished his career 37-3 with 27 KO, having won the featherweight title in 1964 by upsetting Sugar Ramos. He held that title for four years, including three wins over Howard Winstone during that stretch before retiring after their third fight in 1967. He returned to the ring 21 months later and won the featherweight title a second time in less than a year, although this reign was short-lived.

9. Kid Azteca - A tremendous body puncher whose liver shot Micky Ward would have loved, Azteca went a phenomenal 151-41-8 with 81 KOs during a 29-year career that went from 1932 to 1961, a span of four decades.

10. Jose Becerra - The most popular fighter in Mexico by July 8, 1959 when he stopped bantamweight champion Alphonse Halimi, conqueror of Becerra's idol Raul Macias 21 months earlier, for the first of two times to become world champion. Becerra retired at 24 however with a 71-5-2 record (42 KO) less than a year after killing Walt Ingram in the ring. Because he fought mostly in the '50s he is all but forgotten these days, overshadowed by fighters like Humberto "Chiquita'' Gonzalez or Pipino Cuevas. They were good but his skills exceeded theirs at their best.

Chavez? Olivares? Canto? Sanchez? Okay but what about Carlos Zarate or Kid Azteca or Vicente Saldivar? And what about perhaps the most under-rated Mexican fighter of all-time, the never defeated Ricardo Lopez.

Barrera, not surprisingly, has his own list of top Mexican fighters and does not include himself in the top five or Chavez at No. 1. The former was out of modesty because he places Morales, who he's beaten twice, on his list. The latter was out of the belief some fight fans hold that no one would have been better than what Sanchez promised to be had his life not been snuffed out at so young an age.

"To be a Mexican fighter you first have to be a warrior,'' says Barrera, which explains his exclusion of the slick-boxing Canto among his top five.

"Throw punches from the first bell to the last. It doesn't matter that you get hit as long as you land. That's why I put Olivares on my list. He was a typical Mexican fighter. He was always going forward looking for a knockouts. To me, the list is Salvador Sanchez, Chavez, Ruben Olivares, Vicente Saldivar and (Erik) Morales.''

One fighter likely to be on De La Hoya's top 10 Mexican fighters is one excluded here, former welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas. When De La Hoya was a young amateur his father used to take him to the dusty Main Street Gym in downtown L.A. when Cuevas would be there training for a title fight.

He was the first great fighter De La Hoya ever saw up close and it's a sight he's never forgotten.

"He was the first professional fighter I ever saw workout live at the old Main Street Gym,'' De La Hoya recalled fondly. "We paid $2 to see him train. He'd knock down or knock out his sparring partners. Back then they didn't wear any headgear! Oh, my god! He was pretty impressive. I was intrigued by his power. He really wasn't a technician but oh that left hook.''

Despite having twice faced down Chavez, in the end he remains atop De La Hoya's list however because he concedes what many Mexican fight fans will always argue about their two meetings.

"When I first watched him vs. (Edwin) Rosario I was a kid,'' De La Hoya said. "My father took me to a bar to watch him. He was loved by so many fans. He packed the bars and arenas when he fought. A Chavez fight was a big party.

"To this day, in my eyes, he's one of the best to come out of Mexico. If I faced Chavez in his prime it might have been a different outcome. It would have been a hell of a fight.''

If he could put on a few pounds and Chavez could take off a few years, Marco Antonio Barrera would probably feel the same way.

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