An unbeaten champion who had knocked out all but one of his forty-eight opponents faced a challenger with the very unthreatening moniker of “Tweety.” Carlos Zarate was on his way to becoming one of the all-time great bantamweights. Alberto Davila rarely got stoppages but was winning plenty and doing so with style; the LA Times’ Jim Murray described him as “a picture boxer” and said that “every fight is a portrait by the artist.” Could Davila still paint amidst the bombs?
With no action of any note in the first round, spectators have time to compare the pair. In terms of size, it’s an almost comical mismatch. Zarate towers over Davila and his shoulders are vastly broader. Zarate begins the second with a neat left hook but is otherwise quiet. Too early to tell whether he is menacingly patient or ponderously ineffective. Davila’s face is etched with earnest concentration. We then get the first sight of what he’s capable of. Quick feet and quick hands combine to good effect as he sneaks in and delivers a three punch combination, concluded with a clean overhand right.
Zarate makes use of his reach advantage early in the third, stretching out to land a jab and then an upper cut. Being the little guy does, however, have its upside, as Davila ducks a few shots with ease and then counters with jabs. The fourth sees Zarate manage to get called for a low blow, a foul that is almost an achievement given the height difference. The champion threatens to assert control when he backs the challenger into a corner and begins to unload. The American, however, has no difficulty slipping out of trouble and within moments, he’s on top. He snaps Zarate’s head back before chasing him across the ring, as the champion flails ineffectively. Another sweet overhand right has the crowd on its feet.
Good strategy makes your opponent as uncomfortable as possible and in these early rounds Zarate is all discomfort, the master of knockouts left struggling to land cleanly. Yet while he’s uncomfortable, he is not suffering and that’s Davila’s problem. He has the pace and skill to trouble his illustrious opponent but not the power to hurt him. Zarate is frustrated but remains the man with all the power.
It’s easy to see that this is the moment when the fight swings back from the challenger to the champion but it’s much harder to understand why. Davila doesn’t appear to get caught. Perhaps he simply doesn’t have the legs to sustain the high-energy style. Whatever the cause, Davila starts the fifth with all the momentum but promptly loses it. Rather than trying to repeat his previous success, he instead stays watchfully on the outside. Unfortunately for him, this is perfect range for Zarate’s fabled left hooks. Davila does revive towards the end of the round and again it’s an overhand straight right. There appears to be something about the way he delivers that particular punch, ducking in and throwing from low to high which leaves Zarate struggling to pick it up.
The sixth follows a similar pattern, with the champion mostly dominant but the challenger finishing with a flourish. Again Davila stays at distance and again he pays for it, absorbing a hard left hook and right hand. Davila counters a jab with a lovely left but he is now feeding on scraps. Controlling distance matters in every fight but in this fight, it means everything. When Davila is able to move quickly inside, fire and get out, he’s a handful. When he hangs around on the outside, he’s just a target.
Now comes the most one-sided round of the fight, the kind of round that Zarate, as odds-on favourite, might have expected more of. Davila just isn’t offering much any more. Zarate has had a chastening night but now he’s visibly fired up by his opponent’s weakness. He hammers away to the body, then the combinations come and in a ridiculous few seconds, he lands a trio of left hooks. There is no rally from Davila and the end feels near and inevitable.
It comes with a combination early in the eight. Zarate stalks impatiently around the ring, mouthguard hanging out. He has to wait a while for the decision. Davila gets to his feet but the ref takes a long look at the fresh cut above his right eye. He calls over the doctor who indicates, with the briefest shake of his head, that the night’s over. Zarate bounds around the ring, both arms raised, with the heady relief of having got away from a tricky situation.
Zarate described it as his “toughest championship fight.” Davila claimed that “everything he (Zarate) threw he missed” which is an accurate description of the fight’s early rounds but certainly not of its concluding ones. He went on to say that the left hook that floored him was “a good punch - right on the money” but that if his hand had been up, he would’ve blocked it. “If” indeed.
Eight months on, Zarate would lose for the first time when he stepped up to super-bantamweight to face Wilfredo Gomez and found his power didn’t carry into the higher weight class. Later that year, Davila would again fight for a bantamweight world title and again come up short. He would finally claim a belt five years later but in tragic circumstances, with his opponent Kiko Bejines dying after the fight.
Another Zarate knockout, further proof of his awesome power and ruthlessness. And what of the challenger with the cartoon bird nickname? Back in 1977, Jim Murray predicted that thirty years on, fans would be “telling their kids, ‘Ah but you should have seen Davila! What an Artist!’”
I wasn’t there; I wish I’d seen him.