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Unsung 20th Century Fights: Salvador Sanchez vs Wilfredo Gomez

Two legendary featherweights clashed in 1981.

Salvador Sanchez and Wilfredo Gomez met in August 1981
Salvador Sanchez and Wilfredo Gomez met in August 1981

On Aug. 21, 1981, two of the most gifted pugilists put it all on the line for supremacy in the featherweight division.

Reigning WBC and The Ring featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez made his sixth title defense against Wilfredo Gomez, a former WBC and The Ring title holder himself at super bantamweight.

For Gomez, making the jump from 122 to 126 lbs meant forgoing his championships in order to set his sights on new challenges. With a polished record of 32-0-1, Gomez had done everything but hear an unfavorable decision on the scorecards, or feel the dispiriting hug of the referee calling off a fight.

Meanwhile, Sanchez heard the chill-inducing pre-fight announcements sing to the tune of his 40-1-1 record, his only loss coming by split decision in 1977 against Antonio Becerra.

Many pundits label Sanchez as the greatest what-if story, and in some cases, the most special fighter boxing has ever seen. Gomez cared little about this natural apt that Sanchez was blessed with, as the fight took its course in a fashion that should be talked about to this day.

The Fight

Sanchez began crafty with his combinations and counters, and zealous with his uppercuts. Gomez retorted with a string of wild hooks, which Sanchez weaved. A very short left hand sent Gomez to the canvas in round one, and established momentum for the Mexican legend. The round ended with an all-out onslaught of every punch imaginable from Sanchez, making Gomez retreat, and succumb to buckling knees in one of the best pugilistic rounds you’ll ever see.

Sanchez proceeded in round two with an unbelievable jab, and trying to stay alive, Gomez threw with the verve of a Rocky Marciano. Midway through, Gomez and Sanchez gave viewers one of the most exhilarating 30-second sequences in boxing history. Gomez had Sanchez boxed into a corner, and they both threw a series of errant uppercuts before going crazy with a bunch of hooks that landed in a true test of chin strength. Gomez stole the round to even the fight.

Seemingly over the early knockdown, Gomez began throwing a bevy of feints to throw off Sanchez’s relentless attack, getting very low and animated. Gomez caught Sanchez with a nice uppercut midway. Sanchez retaliated with a left hand that sent Gomez backpedaling after a brief sequence of whiffed uppercuts. Gomez weaved several punches and went to the body with power in a wowing defensive exhibition. What once looked like a fight Sanchez would end early, Gomez took a 29-28 advantage heading into the fourth.

Both fighters mirrored each other with a round four of innumerable punches thrown. Nevertheless, Gomez took a convincing round, putting him up 39-37 on my card.

Otherworldly speed slowed down for Sanchez, who compensated with great head movement in round five. Gomez was touching up Sanchez’s chin, temples and abdomen to put it lightly. Sanchez had some strong moments in the round but Gomez began running away with the fight, and duplicated such efforts in round six. In the blink of an eye, Gomez was up at least four rounds after six, and five on my end.

A champion weathers every storm. The calm came at the bell of round six. Within those 60 seconds, Sanchez did whatever it was that he needed to do in order to turn the tide, and turn the tide he did.

In round seven, Sanchez remained stoic as ever, never gritting his teeth, showing his mouthpiece when hit flush in the face, or showing any emotion for that matter. Sanchez now went for the body with vicious intent, looking to put a dent in Gomez’s ribs. A short right and extended left cross rattled Sanchez upstairs. Nonetheless, Sanchez returned to form, and made it a fight once more.

Round eight would be the last round of the event, as Sanchez hit Gomez with three Ryan Garcia-type crosses to the right side of his body, winding up madly for each punch. The referee stood and watched as Sanchez decked Gomez with a mean overhand right and a series of shots to the head that left Gomez dazed once more. This time, there was no resurfacing for the Puerto Rican warrior, as the fight was called as a TKO.


Sanchez displayed natural talent, grace, impeccable hand speed, fundamental footwork and the will of a champion. Gomez exhibited resilience, heart, power and skill. The fight was a beauty to behold from start to finish, and added to the legacy of a Sanchez who would only enjoy the limelight for so much longer.

Sanchez would fight three more times, going into round 15 in all three bouts. He would come away with the victory in each, ending his career with a Hall of Fame-worthy record of 44-1-1. Unfortunately, Sanchez crashed his Porsche while driving in his home country of Mexico. He died from impact. He left the world with many questions as to how much further he could have extended his boxing legacy.

The 23-year-old phenom accomplished so much in such a short amount of time. Assuming he followed a similar career trajectory as many of the greats before and after him, especially of Mexican descent, Sanchez could have usurped 100 professional bouts. It remains a conversation for the ages.

Gomez solidified an all-time career after his fight with Sanchez as well. The Puerto Rican would move up in weight one more time to super featherweight, capturing the WBA and The Ring titles at said weight class against Rocky Lockridge in 1985. He would only lose twice more after his fight with Sanchez, before hanging up the gloves.

Both boxers were inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame – Sanchez posthumously in 1991, and Gomez shortly after in 1995.

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