Mexico vs. Puerto Rico burns hot

Julio Cesar Chavez-Hector Camacho in 1992 was a gem in the ever-growing Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry. Getty Images

"Standing or dead, but never on my knees," said Wilfredo Gomez before taking on Salvador Sanchez in their famous 1981 duel -- at the end of which the Puerto Rican star was left in precisely the position he sought to avoid, kneeling and bleeding in the ring after a convincing knockout.

"Cotto hits like a little girl," said Mexico's Antonio Margarito, his face bloodied and disfigured by blows from his Puerto Rican rival, immediately after falling by TKO in 2011 to Miguel Cotto at New York's Madison Square Garden.

The arrogance and (blissful) ignorance of both statements are better understood in proper context, within the tempest of boxing's most torrid rivalry: Mexico versus Puerto Rico.

"Nothing resembles, among Hispanic fans, the battle waged for 30 years among the best fighters in Mexico and Puerto Rico," said Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood shortly before Cotto put a hurting on Margarito at MSG to avenge his loss in their first fight, in 2008.

The mention of those three decades is significant. Farhood, as do many boxing experts, implicitly assigns the modern start date to this glove war at Aug. 21, 1981, when Gomez, a devastating bantamweight champion, moved up to featherweight to challenge Sanchez.

Even though Gomez had faced undefeated puncher Carlos Zarate in 1978 in the fight many still consider to be the most significant in Puerto Rico's history, Gomez and Sanchez's fight, held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, exceeded it -- both in global exposure and patriotic fervor, fueled not only by fans but also the fighters in their remarks before entering the ring.

As it turned out, it was also the first great boxing victory for Mexico over Puerto Rico.

Thereafter, the rivalry became a permanent fixture in the sport and was further crystallized by stellar encounters featuring some of boxing's brightest stars. It's now the fight game's elephant in the room -- an inescapable fact that must be addressed -- whenever a Mexican fighter measures himself against a Puerto Rican rival, as will happen Saturday in Dallas when Juan Manuel Lopez challenges Mikey Garcia, a Californian of Mexican descent, for a featherweight title.

"It's always mentioned," said Los Angeles-based trainer Rudy Hernandez, "but it's more special when the two fighters are established boxers, idols in their respective countries. Then it does seem to bring out their best."

For the uninitiated, a simple question must be answered: Why?

The roots of the rivalry took hold when fighters from both lands simultaneously began to excel in international boxing. In 1934, bantamweight Sixto Escobar became Puerto Rico's first world champion when he scored a ninth-round knockout of legendary Mexican Rodolfo "Baby" Casanova in Montreal.

Carlos Ortiz cemented the rivalry when he became the second fighter from Puerto Rico to capture a world title, knocking out Raymundo Torres in the 10th round of their 1960 junior welterweight fight.

By the mid-1970s, when welterweight Pipino Cuevas became the first Mexican to dethrone a Puerto Rican champ by knocking out Angel Espada, both Mexico and Puerto Rico had become world powers in the sport. In all, Mexico has produced roughly 200 world champions (Puerto Rico has nearly 60) and thousands of professional fighters, to the extent that the country is represented on almost every boxing card in the United States.

"The rivalry? It is because we are both Latinos," said Juan Laporte, the Puerto Rican former champion who fought both Sanchez and Chavez. "And there are so many Mexicans!"

It's not quite so simple, of course. In this conflagration, national pride can ignite jingoism and stereotypes that, for better or worse, heat up tensions between the sides.

Some Mexican fans, for example, refer to the typical Puerto Rican boxer as a "correlon," a coward who refuses to exchange pure blows in a straightforward fashion. The slippery Ivan Calderon and Hector Camacho weren't the first fighters from the island to hear such taunts, and they aren't likely to be the last.

Puerto Rican fighters also have a reputation, at least in the eyes of some Mexican fight followers, for being loud-mouthed and disrespectful. Edwin Rosario talked so much before his 1987 fight with Chavez that many believe the legendary Mexican champion purposely extended Rosario's punishment in the ring.

Not surprisingly, the Puerto Rican perspective dismisses a typical Mexican fighter as slow and lacking technique, always (and often foolishly) coming forward and taking too many blows.

They are all convenient fictions or, at best, gross generalizations that nonetheless keep the rivalry's fires burning.

"If you look closely," Hernandez said, "in boxing, there isn't a lot to choose from. Either a guy is a boxer or a raw fighter and a puncher, regardless of nationality.

"In Puerto Rican boxing, there's a little bit of everything. There's Gomez, who depended on his punch and strength. But there's also Wilfredo Benitez, who had an incredible boxing sense."

And just as there have been Puerto Rican stars who indeed talked the talk, there have been plenty of others -- Cotto, Calderon and Trinidad, for example -- who are or were characterized as being respectful of their opponents.

On the flip side, many Mexican fighters -- from Sanchez, and surely further back, up to the present day -- shatter the stereotype of the raw, go-for-broke brawler. How about counterpuncher Juan Manuel Marquez? Or the powerful but precise Canelo Alvarez?

Manny Siaca, a veteran Puerto Rican trainer who has been in the corner of dozens of world champions, including Rosario, holds a vision of Mexican boxing that is far removed from the stereotype.

"They have a great situation because they train at elevation," he said, "and because they spar so much and have so many fighters. It's not like here [in Puerto Rico]. You even have to bring sparring partners from outside the country."

Siaca agrees that Mexican fighters are often tight-lipped and respectful -- although Margarito and Fernando Vargas would certainly have a lot to say about that -- yet exposes the true heart of the rivalry: the competition.

"They are quiet before a fight," Siaca said. "But in the ring, you really have to fight with them."