Salvador Sanchez seemed to come out of nowhere. In February of 1980 he shocked the boxing world by knocking out featherweight kingpin Danny Lopez, handing "Little Red" a painful defeat over the course of 13 brutal rounds. A year and a half later, having already defended the featherweight crown six times, he stood toe-to-toe with super bantamweight champion and legendary puncher Wilfredo Gomez, whom he would also knock out, this time in only eight rounds. In July of 1982, less than two-and-a-half years after bursting onto the scene, Sanchez fought his last fight, a short-notice bout against the deceptively novice Azumah Nelson, who would go on to establish himself as an all-time great in the coming years. Nelson too was knocked out in the 15th round of a grueling back-and-forth war.
Less than a month later, Sanchez died in an automobile accident. That was 33 years ago today. He was only 23 years old.
Over the course of 29 months and 10 title defenses, Sanchez faced and beat the best the featherweight division had to offer. He came out of nowhere, and then he was gone.
It can be difficult to accurately place Sanchez among the ranks of the greats. Unlike most fighters, Sanchez's meteoric rise to the top is not countered by a similarly dramatic fall. His early death makes it all too easy to imagine an equally bright future, in which Sanchez went on to rule his division for many more years. Unfortunately, we can't rank fighters based on hypothetical accomplishments.
We can, however, watch Sanchez in action and come to the conclusion that he was a truly special fighter. Matching his defensive genius with a truly potent set of offensive tools, Sanchez was undeniably one of the craftiest fighters the sport has ever seen, with a counter puncher's instincts and a brawler's will.
In the ring, everything Sanchez did led to something else. That sounds like an obvious observation, but there are many boxers for whom a fight is a messy, chaotic thing, their actions as unpredictable to them as they are to their opponents. Not so for Sanchez. He was a master of bridge building, each defensive position linked to another, or primed for a punch, as the case may be. Archie Moore called this building of bridges "escapology." The term implies a scientific approach, and that's exactly what it is.
Watching Sanchez move and defend, one gets the impression of a man with supernatural reflexes, when in reality Sanchez was never that spectacular of an athlete. He simply knew how and where he could go from any given position, and he made it his goal to never wind up in a position without several of those options available. Here's a relatively simple example.
Here, Sanchez evades some punches from Azumah Nelson, an incredibly awkward and aggressive opponent whom Sanchez very impressively beat on short notice, a true testament to his skill.
First Sanchez throws a few punches of his own, ending with a missed right hand that leaves his head over his left hip. From here, with the right side of his head exposed, Salvador knows he is open for left hook. So does Nelson, but Sanchez is ready for it, and rolls under the punch before popping back up into his stance. As he does, however, Nelson follows his hook with a fierce right hand. Sanchez already has his weight moving backward, so he simply extends his movement, pulling back from his stance and turning, bringing his shoulder in front of his chin should the right travel farther than expected. As he pulls, Sanchez keeps his right hand next to his chin, ready to parry or block any left-handed attacks that may follow Nelson's right. Again, Nelson obliges, and Sanchez is easily able to pick off his jab as he circles around to center ring.
Now let's take away all of the chaos and look at this sequence of defensive movements in simple diagram form.
Sanchez goes from his starting position, head inclined slightly over the right hip, toward his left hip. Here he knows he is outside the line of Nelson's right hand, but vulnerable to a left hook, or potentially an uppercut. He also knows which ways he can move from this position: either he can slip to the opposite side, which might run him into the expected hook, or he can change levels, dipping down before rolling back to his right hip, traveling under the arc of the left hook. With his options narrowed down, Sanchez can more easily make snap decisions, and he does so.
Now, standing more upright with the left side of his head slightly exposed, Sanchez knows he can be hit with either a right hand or a jab. Since Nelson has just sold out on a heavy left hook, the right hand seems more likely, and Sanchez senses it coming almost immediately. From this position, his options are many, but he wants to create some space for some momentary relief, and he is already traveling back away from Nelson, so the most natural conclusion is to pull back, changing distance and avoiding the punch.
All of these actions and decisions are "felt" more than "thought," but they are educated decisions nonetheless, each of them informed by Sanchez's current circumstances, and years upon years of drilling and practice. His movements fine-tuned in the gym, Sanchez is always balanced enough to make an adjustment, meaning that he is essentially never out of position--or at least very rarely.
If we like to think of boxing as "the sweet science," then this approach is the pinnacle of scientific fighting. As if following a flowchart, Sanchez managed to turn the wildness of combat into a relatively straightforward dance, no less subtle for its simplicity.
And it doesn't just work for defense; defense alone doesn't get you a 70% knockout rate, after all.
Sanchez, like many counter punchers, struggled most against fighters who could force him to lead (the underrated Pat Cowdell comes to mind), but he was nonetheless very skilled in hiding and setting up his punches, using the same movements outlined above.
You see, not only does a given position afford a number of follow-up defensive movements, but it leads to a selection of attacks as well. A left slip, for example, loads one's bodyweight onto the left hip, priming the legs and torso to unwind into a vicious left hook. Likewise, a right slip pulls the weight back onto the rear leg, springloading a powerful right cross. For Sanchez, each position was as likely to produce a punch as it was to facilitate further evasion.
Here, Sanchez mixes offense into his slips and rolls, dropping his weight into each punch as his moves up and down, from one side to the next.
An added layer of deception makes this serpentine movement very difficult to figure out: once the opponent began to understand the threats of each position--right hand from right hip, left hook from left hip, etc--Sanchez would start playing with his expectations. Sometimes he would load the left hip and throw the left hook, sometimes he would load the left hip and throw nothing, and sometimes he would load the left hip and throw the right hand.
And the moment an opponent began to anticipate one thing, Sanchez would mix in just enough of the other to keep them off balance.
Here you can see Sanchez playing this devilish game with Danny Lopez. Slipping left and throwing right, slipping right and throwing left, and sometimes appearing to load up a punch without throwing anything at all. Sanchez was a counter puncher through and through, but his game still centered on the idea of taking initiative away from the opponent. If he got the other man doubting his ability to lead, he could get him to hesitate, and that made predicting and countering his punches all the easier.
And just to emphasize how well Sanchez played this game: the selection of attacks and feints above, each one befuddling poor Danny Lopez more than the last, are all from the very first round of the fight. Imagine yourself dealing with eleven more rounds of that, and you can imagine what it's like to face a truly great boxer.
33 years ago Salvador Sanchez left the world far too soon, but as boxing fans we were lucky enough to see him at the top of the sport for two incredible years. If that was Sanchez in his prime, then it is a prime few men can rival. And if Sanchez had yet to peak, then we can only imagine how great he would have become, and the years of great fights he would've given us.
But whatever might've happened, what did happen was pretty damn amazing.
If your keen to hear more talk of boxing history, check out The Fistorical Perspective, a laid back podcast dedicated to the boxers of yore. This week, hosts Kyle McLachlan and Connor Ruebusch rank the Fab Four, and analyze their most underrated fights.