The Mexican rivalry transcends boxing

Marco Antonio Barrera, right, and Erik Morales epitomized the Mexican big city-little city rivalry. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The boxing business has gotten a good, long ride out of the promotional juggernaut that is ethnic rivalry.

Back in the game's heyday, it was the Irish against the Italians, or the Irish against the Jews, or the Jews against the Italians. Later, one of the great rivalries was Mexicans against Puerto Ricans, and then Mexican nationals against Mexican-Americans. Those still play big. An emerging competition, fueled largely by the success of Manny Pacquiao, is Mexicans against Filipinos.

The upcoming rubber match between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez reminds us that of all the great rivalries, it's hard to beat those between a pair of Mexican stars. There is not another fight in this business that is as likely to produce as much blood, drama, pathos and passion as Vazquez-Marquez III.

Given the history of battles between Mexican icons, that should come as little surprise.

Think Ruben Olivares-Chucho Castillo. Think Carlos Zarate-Alfonso Zamora, and, most recently, Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales. All immense rivalries, but each driven, more or less, by different forces.

"If you're talking about Mexican nationals, it's based on where they're from within the country," said Don Fraser, who promoted many of the biggest fights on the West Coast in the 1960s and '70s, including many between Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans. "Whether it's Mexico City or Guadalajara, they have a lot of pride in the neighborhoods and regions they're from. Also, these Mexican fighters have so much courage and desire and that has so much to do with it. They don't want to lose."

Region was the driving force in the intense and very public rivalry between Barrera and Morales, two of the best lower-weight fighters of their era. Their wonderful three-fight series was fueled by the contempt they had for one another and that neither attempted to hide. You could say it climaxed out of the ring when Barrera sucker-punched Morales at a Las Vegas press conference before their second match.

"Barrera is from Mexico City and the people there think they're better than everyone else," said Ricardo Jimenez, a publicist for Top Rank and a former sports editor at the Spanish language paper La Opinion. "Morales is from Tijuana, where the people are more down to earth. Their personalities reflected that and that's why they never got along."

Naturally, there's another side to that argument about which region is at fault. Marquez is a native of Mexico City -- a "Chilango" -- and the neighborhood in which he grew up, Ejercito Constinalista, Iztapalapa, is severely blighted. Speaking with writer Brett Matteo Alderson, Marquez expressed a different recollection of the relationship between Chilangos and "Fronterizos," those who live in the border regions.

"When I was living in Tijuana, people were like, 'You're a Chilango and we don't want you guys here,'" Marquez was quoted. "I got into some fights because of that because people noticed my accent. People in Mexico City don't really care. They have something against us; we really don't have anything against them."

Whatever the case, other factors were at play too in the rivalry between Barrera and Morales. One was the fact that their evolution as fighters and national figures occurred concurrently, at a time when a large void was about to be created in the Mexican sporting psyche.

"What people don't remember is that they were coming up at the same time, both getting well-known at around the same time," Jimenez said. "And they both were so competitive. Mexico was looking for a new
guy to replace [Julio Cesar] Chavez, and they both wanted to be that guy."

Region played a heavy role in the myriad rivals of Hall of Famer "El Maestro" Miguel Canto as well.

Canto, the great 1970s flyweight champion, came from Merida, in the Southern state of Yucatan. In Canto's day -- and maybe now, too -- many of the fighters there considered themselves separate from Mexico, and superior. Canto and Guty Espadas, another flyweight champion from the same era and the same state, took great pride in repeatedly whipping the best challengers Mexico City could send him.

Regional pride had nothing to do with one of the biggest fights ever between Mexicans. The bout between Zarate and Zamora, which took place in California in April 1977, featured two guys with a combined record of 67-0 (66 KOs) and was likely the most widely anticipated fight in bantamweight history. Their KO records and undefeated streaks sold as many tickets as anything.

The personal enmity between the two (which didn't hurt ticket sales either) was due mostly to professional jealousy. Both were managed by Cuyo Hernandez and each one thought the other got more attention. Things got so intense that after Zarate stopped Zamora in the fourth round, Zamora's father leapt into the ring and attacked Hernandez.

Perhaps the greatest Mexican rivalry was the three-bout series between Olivares and Castillo, two polar opposites in and out of the ring. Olivares was the free-swinging, hard-punching and hard-partying playboy. Castillo wasn't. But he had no trouble expressing his dislike for Olivares, the beloved world bantamweight champion, before the first fight.

"Winning the title is not important," he said. "I'm only interested in beating Olivares. It is all I live for. Olivares is a loudmouth, and not deserving to be champion."

Three intense, dramatic fights later, Castillo and Olivares had drawn a total of 52,910 fans to the Inglewood Forum and provided Mexican fans -- and all fight fans -- memories that would last decades.

Vazquez and Marquez have done the same for fight fans today, even if their audience is smaller and even if their rivalry lacks the personal bitterness of Barrera-Morales or Olivares-Castillo. The pieces of themselves they've left in the ring in their first two matches stand as evidence of their worthiness as prizefighters and we expect no less from the third meeting.

If the barometer is what the fighters give of themselves in the ring, this Mexican rivalry is as good as any that came before it.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.