Belt and bragging rights on the line when Cotto meets Margarito

Salvador Sanchez's only regret about beating Wilfredo Gomez in eight rounds was that he couldn't beat Gomez for 15. AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

After stopping Wilfredo Gomez in eight rounds in Las Vegas in August 1981, Salvador Sanchez, not a sadistic sort by nature, told the assembled media that he was pleased enough with the victory but disappointed that the fight didn't go the scheduled distance.

When asked why, he replied, "Because I wanted to punish him, to beat him for 15 rounds."

Certainly some of this had to do with the arrogance Gomez had displayed going into their featherweight clash and with the oddsmakers' having installed Sanchez, the WBC 126-pound champion, as a 2-1 underdog. Undefeated Gomez, after all, was moving up from super bantamweight to try for Sanchez's crown, and no self-respecting champion takes that sort of insult lightly.

Just as clearly, Sanchez's words reflected the depth of the unique rivalry that exists between the best Mexican and Puerto Rican fighters. Sanchez was a product of Santiago Tianguistenco, Mexico (population: 3,000), and Gomez hailed from the slums of San Juan.

Their meeting -- dubbed "The Battle of the Little Giants" by Don King -- was one of the biggest fights of the era.

Another chapter to the Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry will be written when Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, two of the world's best welterweights, meet in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Margarito, who lives in Tijuana, is well versed in the competition, having twice met Puerto Rican stylist Daniel Santos. Neither match ended in Margarito's favor; they fought to a no-contest in 2001, and Santos scored a technical decision win in the rematch three years later.

Margarito exacted a bit of revenge with two knockouts over Puerto Rican Kermit Cintron, the latter for Cintron's IBF title April 12. Before their most recent bout, Margarito delighted his Mexican fan base by announcing that after beating Cintron, he would go after the other Puerto Rican belt holders in the division: Cotto, who holds the WBA title, and Carlos Quintana, who at the time owned another alphabet title (he has since been relieved of that belt by Paul Williams).

For his part, Cotto has spoken little of the Puerto Rican-Mexican rivalry, but only because he speaks little in general. He wasn't born yet when Gomez won what some have called the biggest fight ever held in Puerto Rico, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know about it.

There isn't a person on the island who hasn't heard about Gomez's knockout of Mexican icon Carlos Zarate in 1978. Gomez's fourth-round win in a packed-to-the-rafters Roberto Clemente Coliseum made him a cultural and national icon. He and Zarate were a combined 75-0-1 (with 74 knockouts), and it was thought beforehand that the winner might be the best in the world.

Gomez was never fully forgiven for losing to Sanchez three years later, but when he obliterated Zarate, there wasn't a fighter more deeply loved by his people.

In Puerto Rico, it's always wins over Mexicans or, in some cases, Mexican-Americans, that are celebrated most passionately. Felix Trinidad's win over Oscar De La Hoya in their September 1999 welterweight title unification fight was a blockbuster. A full 11,610 fans packed the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. The fight did 1.4 million pay-per-view buys, generating $71.4 million in pay-per-view revenue.

After winning a highly questionable decision, Trinidad received a hero's welcome in Puerto Rico. Tens of thousands of fans greeted him at Luis Munoz International Airport. A throng of 4,000 police and security officers tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to control them. Business on the island more or less ceased as Trinidad's victory procession wove through the streets of Little San Juan.

"I had stated before the fight that I was going to dedicate my victory to Puerto Rico," Trinidad told the crowd. "My win over De La Hoya last Saturday was for each and every one on our beautiful island. It is for me an honor to bring this newly acquired crown to all of you. I don't want anyone to leave, because it is fiesta time!"

Of course, Mexico is no less fervent when it comes to this rivalry. Before facing Puerto Rican Hector Camacho in their superfight in September 1992, Julio Cesar Chavez, arguably the greatest Mexican fighter ever, told the media, "My fans do not want me just to beat him. They are begging me to give him a bad beating. They do not like Camacho. The Mexican people will never forgive me if I lose. They will lynch me if I lose. I couldn't return to Mexico."

Of course, he didn't have anything to worry about and in retrospect it seems silly that there was any question as to who would win. But no less an expert than Angelo Dundee picked Camacho to outbox Chavez, and the fight did big numbers. Chavez was 81-0 and 21-0 in title fights. Camacho was 41-1, with his only loss avenged. All of Mexico rejoiced when Chavez pounded Camacho all over the ring on the way to winning a unanimous decision in front of almost 20,000 fans at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

There can be little question that Chavez's dominance over Puerto Rican rivals contributed to his immense popularity in Mexico. Puerto Rico's thunderous-punching Edwin Rosario was ultimately a three-time lightweight champion as well as junior welterweight titleholder, but he was no match for Chavez when they met in November 1987.

A little more than 8,000 fans filled the Las Vegas Hilton outdoor stadium to see whether Rosario's power and skills could overcome Chavez's already legendary chin and indefatigable aggression. They could not. Chavez brutalized him before referee Richard Steele called off the fight in the 11th round.

On Saturday, we'll get the latest chapter of the Puerto Rico-Mexico rivalry, a chapter that, by all indications, will be a worthy addition.

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