A Boxing Memory: Wilfredo Gomez

A Boxing Memory: Wilfredo Gomez

Fighters fight for the present with no thoughts on the future. They know when they should stop, but pride, denial and delusion override any thoughts of reality.

Boxing history is littered with tales of old champions falling on hard times and worse. When the money goes, pride and dignity soon follow. Fighters never accept the truth, when enough is enough. There is a life after boxing, one or more fights too many shorten that life. The quality of it lessened by absorbing punches that were not needed. The tired and aching muscles may recover, the brain never does. The ageing process enhanced by living life to excess. A Puerto Rican superstar did that in abundance.

Reports of Wilfredo Gomez being carried, dragged even, out of his home in Puerto Rico in a wheelchair and then placed gently onto a stretcher and taken to a local Mental Institution did the rounds in March. There had been concerns for his well-being, apparently living in inhumane conditions. Gomez looked bloated, overweight and the speech problems he already had, courtesy of being punched in the throat in a fight, had become much worse.

Life in retirement has been hard, reported drug and alcohol problems is hardly a surprise. It’s an all too familiar story. A far cry from his heyday, Gomez, like many, suffered when the final bell sounded. But even in the peak years, it had been coming. You didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to know how the story would end.

Gomez retired in 1989, a three-weight world champion with 44 wins and only 3 defeats. The Hall of Famer is quite rightly regarded as the best ever fighter to come out of Puerto Rico. With competition from the likes of Wilfred Benitez, that is some statement.

Born in 1956 in San Juan, and raised in poverty, the fighting ability was seemingly always there. It had to be. Fighting off the bullies he encountered on the streets, the love and need for boxing soon developed. Gomez lied about his age and was only 15 when he fought in the 1972 Olympics as a fledgling flyweight. He won the World Championship in 1974, all his wins in Havana, Cuba came by stoppage. He turned professional with a 96-3 resume.

Gomez had his first professional outing in 1974, a fight with one Jacinto Fuentes that ended in a draw. That was the only blemish on his record until a move up in weight in 1981 ended in a brutal defeat.

There was the power, that earned him his nickname Bazooka, and underrated boxing skills, make no mistake, Gomez was some fighter. Time shouldn’t dim what he achieved and what he was. The images of an overweight Gomez being carried out on that stretcher shouldn’t be an everlasting memory.

Gomez won the WBC super-bantamweight title in 1974, and would defend his title seventeen times in total.

In 1978, Sagat Petchyindee, a legendary Muay Thai fighter and the inspiration for a famous villainous character, Sagat, in the video game Street Fighter, was given a world title opportunity against Gomez after just two fights as a boxer and was predictably stopped in three rounds. It is a fight and a tragedy lost in time, attended by over 40,000 fans in Korat, Thailand, 10 people lost their lives and 300 were injured when a structure collapsed.

A fight with the WBC bantamweight champion Mexican Carlos Zarate in 1979 is a forgotten classic. A combined record of 73-0-1, all but one of those wins had come by stoppage. Gomez vs Zarate was highly unlikely to go the distance. It didn’t. Zarate was down three times before it was waved off after five rounds. Gomez was masterful that night against an opponent who was unbeaten in over fifty fights. Perhaps his finest night.

Like his fellow countrymen Benitez and Edwin Rosario, Gomez also found that an extravagant lifestyle shortened his career, there were plenty of vices on offer that couldn’t be resisted. Gomez was no different to Benitez, Rosario and others, couple that with a confidence, arrogance even, that he could not be beaten, would aid his first professional defeat.

The unassuming Mexican Salvador Sanchez was the WBC featherweight champion and Gomez thought so little of him, that training was a tiresome ritual he felt he didn’t need. A month before the fight, Don King via a satellite phone, urged Gomez, who was enjoying himself on a cruise ship, to take the fight with Sanchez more seriously. Gomez woke up, he wanted the fight postponed. With too much money on the table, King wouldn’t or couldn’t. Gomez would pay with his first professional loss.

Not for the first time in his career Gomez struggled to make weight, he was dropped inside the first minute, and was stopped in the 8th round. The rematch Gomez always craved never materialised when Sanchez was killed in a late night car crash in 1982.

A return to super-bantamweight saw five more wins before a fight with another Mexican Lupe Pintor that took away much of what was left of his prime. Gomez had long struggled to ignore the temptations of his fame, Pintor nearly made him pay for his indulgence. On the brink of defeat several times during the war for supremacy and carried back to his corner after one of the middle rounds, Gomez somehow survived and stopped his Mexican opponent in 14 rounds. Victory had come at a price. One of those fights where both fighters leave a piece of themselves in the ring.

Gomez moved back up to featherweight in 1984 and won his second world title when he outpointed Juan LaPorte, his first ever win by decision, before suffering a brutal loss to Azumah Nelson in his first defence. Gomez partied harder than trained for Nelson. Like Sanchez did, Nelson made him pay.

A dubious hometown decision over Rocky Lockridge got Gomez a world title at a third weight. But Alfredo Layne ended his short lived reign when he stopped a faded Gomez in nine rounds in 1986. Retirement followed before the inevitable comeback that ended in 1989 after two low key wins.

Retirement was harsh, the drug and alcohol excesses threatened to consume him, there were periods of incarceration and attempts at rehabilitation. The photos we saw in March, were sad, regrettable but in many ways, predictable.

But the prime and what he achieved in the ring should be what we remember about Wilfredo Gomez. The hope is Gomez gets the help he badly needs and what’s left of his life can be lived in some form of peace and dignity.

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