Welcome to another edition of What If, the mean kid pulling the wings off of chaos butterflies:
While doing the research for this article, the biggest overarching theme of discussion of the career of Salvador Sanchez was very, very familiar. “My gods,” I thought, “it’s Saul Alvarez with an Afro!”
Look at the parallels. Mexican? Check. Came through the ranks as a very young fighter? Mexico allows 16-year-olds to turn pro, and Sanchez was no different. Compiled a record against piñatas before ever fighting in the States? Well, Sanchez did have a few fights in Texas on the way up and one in Los Angeles (a draw against 8-2 Juan Escobar in which Sanchez hit the canvas in the fifth), but for the most part, he fought in and around Mexico City against nobodies for his first 35 fights before shocking the world against Danny Lopez.
Speaking of that fight, how about “won WBC belt after what most regarded as an utterly undeserved title shot because Jose Sulaiman is Mexican”? You think Canelo Alvarez invented that narrative? If so, you need to read up on your classic fights. Even better, Sanchez never shook the criticism that dogged him that he was a paper champion even as he beat some solid guys in his division.
We all know how the real-world story ended. Shortly after Sanchez beat Azumah Nelson in his ninth defense of the WBC featherweight title, he crashed his Porsche 928 on a highway in Mexico and passed away on August 12, 1982.
But what if Sanchez had lived? He was training for a rematch with Juan Laporte, a guy Sanchez had beaten by a fairly comfortable 15-round unanimous decision in December of 1980, at the time of the accident, so let’s start there:
September 15, 1982: Salvador Sanchez TKO13 Juan Laporte
At the time of their first fight, Sanchez was 21 years old, still finding his strength, while also adjusting to what was still at the time a sharp step up in class—his fights against Danny Lopez, while ending in late-round KOs, were still a recent surprise to commentators at the time, and Laporte was only Sanchez’s fifth fight against true world-class competition. This is the same Juan Laporte who later gave Julio Cesar Chavez all he wanted and more; a good argument could be made that Laporte actually won that Chavez fight.
Against a bigger, stronger, more seasoned Salvador Sanchez, Laporte showed what happens when you’re doing 65 on the freeway and someone comes up on you at 140. You’re gonna get passed, and the overtaking had occurred in the intervening two years. There was some controversy on the scale before this fight; Sanchez had plenty of trouble making featherweight over his past few fights, and there had been talk of Sanchez fighting Alexis Arguello all the way up at lightweight.
The fight wasn’t a squash—Laporte was way too good a fighter for that—but the incipient size disparity combined with Sanchez’s having grown into his style as a boxer-puncher and having developed an uncanny ability to counter led to Laporte eating one too many counter left hooks before referee Carlos Padilla mercifully stopped the fight in the first of the championship rounds.
Picking up the narrative, Sanchez decided after this fight to campaign at lightweight, moving up nine pounds to something closer to his walking-around weight. Even though Alexis Arguello ducked Sanchez by moving up to 140, the WBA decided that there was plenty to be said in favor of letting Sanchez fight their lightweight champion, which gave us:
November 13, 1982: Salvador Sanchez W-MD15 Ray Mancini
Alert boxing fans know this date—it’s the date that in the real-world timeline, Ray Mancini killed Duk-Koo Kim and indirectly killed boxing on network television as executives started getting squeamish about televised executions (and perhaps rightly so.) It’s also the day that the 15-round fight became an endangered species; the WBC immediately put an end to 15-round title fights after the Kim slaughter, and the WBA and IBF would follow suit in 1987 and ’88 (the WBO, formed in 1988, never sanctioned a 15-rounder.)
The thing is, some no-name Korean wasn’t going to stand a chance against a money fight, even if the Korean in question was the WBA’s #1 contender. The WBA allowed the fight to go on as an optional defense for Mancini, mandating that the winner would face Kim no later than May 13, 1983, six months out from this fight.
The fight itself was a chess match and a brawl rolled into one, the 1982 Fight of the Year, and a helluva candidate for the best lightweight fight of all time. Sanchez wanted to hang back and counter the bigger Mancini, whose size advantage was cited by commentators before the fight as one of the keys to the outcome. Mancini, knowing that if he could get inside and work that he could wear Sanchez down, would sometimes come in effectively behind his jab as he tried to, as Teddy Atlas is fond of saying, “walk through a bad neighborhood.”
Sometimes it worked. Usually, it worked. But it came at a dear cost as Sanchez’s left hook found its mark often enough to make for a very competitive fight, even putting Mancini on the floor in the seventh round. That represented the biggest problem for Ray; one thing he could not afford was to count by eights while his opponent counted by nines in lost rounds.
Mancini went down again in the 11th round, again from a counter left hook, and after a 15th round regarded by all in attendance as all but impossible to score, as Mancini, believing himself down on the scorecards, went for broke and Sanchez matched him punch for punch in what would come to be known as the Round of the Year for 1982, the fight went to the scorecards, where the judges had it 142-141 and 143-140 for Sanchez and one judge scoring it 142-142, eight rounds to six for Mancini with the 15th even but accounting for two 10-8 rounds. Salvador Sanchez was lightweight champion of the world, which set up…
March 20, 1983: Salvador Sanchez KO4 Duk-Koo Kim
Salvador Sanchez is not Ray Mancini. His counter-punching style turned out to be the worst-case scenario for the Korean fighter, who never saw the punch coming that ended his night in the fourth round. This was a squash match of the finest order, and it saw Kim slink back to Korea where he compiled a career’s worth of wins against guys who never seriously threatened him. Nobody got killed, and perhaps more importantly, the concept of the 15-round title fight, which had been discussed but never seriously acted upon in the absence of a landmark in-ring death in the championship rounds, would endure, and yes, we will get to this in a future edition of What If.
Meanwhile, the departure of Alexis Arguello to junior welterweight finally got resolved by the WBC, as the vacant title went to Edwin Rosario on May 1, as Rosario defeated Jose Luis Ramirez. This set up…
July 16, 1983: Edwin Rosario KO2 Salvador Sanchez
Salvador Sanchez always had a suspect chin. His massive improvement as a counter-puncher and subsequent shift to a more defensive fighter in the Mancini fight may have made it appear that Sanchez was a wall, but when Rosario’s right hand crashed home, the same right hand that would wreck Livingstone Bramble in the real-world timeline, Sanchez was in all sorts of trouble. Sanchez then found himself leaning forward, trying but never quite properly managing to clinch, which Rosario seized upon as he started throwing uppercuts with both hands. It was another right hand, this time one of those uppercuts, that caught Sanchez right on the point of the chin and ended his day.
This fight was an absolute blowout, and Rosario was able to unify what in 1983 were still the only two “major” belts in boxing, the IBF being still in an embryonic state (it would not crown a champion of genuine note until Greg Haugen seized the belt from Jimmy Paul in 1986) and the WBO not yet in existence.
For Sanchez, this left a question of what to do next; having been clobbered by a guy who wasn’t much interested in a rematch against a guy he’d squashed, the 24-year-old looked to other opportunities elsewhere on the scale. Which, in turn, led to:
December 24, 1983: Alexis Arguello KO7 Salvador Sanchez
Fighting on Christmas Eve, the long-awaited matchup between two fighters who in 1982 had talked of fighting for the lightweight title. Arguello was coming off his second knockout loss to Aaron Pryor, who had vacated the WBA belt at junior welterweight after beating Arguello in September; the WBA licensed this as an eliminator fight for the vacant title. Sanchez was making his return to the ring after the Rosario slaughter, but there were those who speculated that he’d lost the eye of the tiger after that knockout loss. Coming in at junior welterweight should’ve been easy for the former featherweight who’d only five months before come in at 133 for a lightweight title fight, but Sanchez had to weigh in a second time in order to finally weigh 140 on the nose. There were rumors in training camp that Sanchez had been walking around as heavy as 165 before starting to get into fighting shape.
Whatever the stakes, Arguello seized the moment and beat the snot out of Sanchez. The Mexican found himself too sluggish to effectively counter, and the Nicaraguan in front of him unleashed a constant barrage of punches, seeming to pick his spots with impunity.
Another crushing uppercut not dissimilar to the one Rosario had landed put Sanchez on his ass as referee Richard Steele could have counted to fifty. Sanchez’s chin, coupled with his loss of fire upon no longer being champion of the world, had caught up with him. As a title contender, he was done; Sanchez would go on to fight a few nobodies and get into a nostalgia-driven attempt at a comeback as late as 1997, but his relevance was a footnote in history.
Sanchez would come to be known as a good-but-not-great fighter, a champion but not a legend, and the Hall of Fame would elude him. It’s a funny thing about people cut down in their primes; we tend to remember them at their best and overrate their potential when plotting out their careers after the chaos butterfly flaps its wings.
The real winner in this? Duk-Koo Kim. He’s alive!
Next week: We’ve got a Mayweather Fight Week special here at What If; what if Floyd Mayweather had lost his undefeated record to Oscar De La Hoya in 2007? Stay tuned.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If column for The (New And Improved) Boxing Tribune. He covered ESPN Friday Night Fights for this publication from 2011-13. Fan mail, hate mail, and speculation for 12-round title fights that could’ve gone 15 can be sent to email@example.com.