6. Oct. 28, 1978 – Wilfredo Gomez (21-0-1) KO 5 Carlos Zarate (52-0), Coliseo Roberto Clemente, San Juan, Puerto Rico
If ever a fight were made for TV it was Gomez vs. Zarate. First, it was a continuation of the historic geographic rivalry between Mexico (Zarate) and Puerto Rico (Gomez).
Second, this fight paired two of the most prolific punchers in the sport and , in Zarate’s case up to this point, in boxing history. Zarate recorded 51 knockouts among his 52 victories, which translated to a fabulous .981 knockout percentage, and his eight consecutive knockouts in title defenses was two short of Roberto Duran’s all-time record to date.
Meanwhile Gomez was on his own knockout tear. After recording a six-round draw against Jacinto Fuentes in his pro debut, he stopped his next 21 opponents and his victims included Fuentes, perennial contender Albert Davila, WBC super bantamweight titlist Dong Kyun Yum and five subsequent title challengers.
But in America, for reasons that defy logic, ABC showed only clips on tape delay. Go figure.
Despite having to travel to the challenger’s homeland, Zarate was perceived to be the favorite, albeit a slight one. At 5-foot-8 and owning a 67-inch reach, Zarate was three inches taller and had a similar reach edge. He also boasted superior world class experience and it was thought his lean frame would benefit from the extra weight.
Gomez, however, also had his assets. Just one day short of his 22nd birthday, Gomez was five years younger, was fighting before a frenzied fan base and proved he could box and slug with equal dexterity. That said, Zarate represented a quantum leap up in terms of opponents as he was the first foe to be considered a future Hall of Famer.
As it turned out, both men struggled mightily to make the 122-pound championship limit as each scaled 124 on their first attempts. This was par for the course for Gomez, who made 122 on his next try, but for Zarate it was a shock given the leeway the heavier limit was supposed to give him. In all it took Zarate three more tries before he officially sweated off the two pounds, an effort complicated by flu-like symptoms.
The first three rounds followed the same script. For the first two minutes Gomez circled left and right around the stalking Zarate while flicking jabs that fell intentionally short of the target. “The Bazooka” was showing proper respect to his hard-punching but lead-footed rival but once he spotted a chance to attack, he pounced. In the final 60 seconds of the first three stanzas Gomez shifted into attack mode and as he pelted Zarate with pinpoint combinations that prompted ear-splitting roars from the the boisterous San Juan crowd. Zarate got in a few solid punches in the third but they weren’t enough to overcome Gomez’s flashier work.
The first two-thirds of round four looked much like the previous three but the final 60 seconds were much, much different. A hair-trigger left to the face floored Zarate near the ropes and a pumped up Gomez stood over Zarate and hooted and him before referee Harry Gibbs guided him toward the neutral corner. The electrified crowd was so loud that neither man heard the bell and thus Gomez got in three late punches, one of which sent Zarate tottering to the floor for a second time.
For those accustomed to Zarate’s dominance at 118, the fourth round was a surreal sight but for Gomez and his fans it was a dream come true. Gomez was within reach of the biggest victory of his life thus far and at the start of round five he tore after Zarate with both fists flying. With a wall of noise enveloping all three men inside the ring, Gibbs ignored a but-for-the-ropes knockdown of Zarate as well as Gomez striking the challenger with a right to the temple after Zarate slipped. As Zarate arose, his brother/chief second tossed in the towel to end the match at the 44-second mark.
Photos / John Gichigi-Getty Images, THE RING
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for autographed copies.