by Fox Doucette
The “sports gods” are an odd concept. Even a church-going Christian will seemingly violate the First Commandment when talking about athletic competition. Football gods, basketball gods, boxing gods…they are a representation of chance, of the arbiters of random events and their outcome, the judge and jury who decide whether Schrodinger’s Cat lives or dies.
What’s more, there is something very Old Testament about these sports gods; they must be appeased by “playing the game the right way” and being an upright citizen off the field, or else divine retribution will be exacted…but really, tell that to Floyd Mayweather.
Nay, the problem with sports gods or actual religion gods or even Big G God, who does things like giving children leukemia and failing to smite serial killers with lightning bolts, is that their actions upon the world are at best arbitrary and at worst would make an atheist of the Pope if he stopped to think about the logic behind the whole theology thing.
This is not so in universes of the page. Gods have a flair for the literary, after all, and you don’t have to be a Calvinist New Englander to know that determinism comes part and parcel in the package. If Sonny Liston twice fought Floyd Patterson and twice knocked Floyd out in the first round, then Alternate Reality Sonny Liston is going to knock out Alternate Reality Floyd Patterson in the first round. Such is the way of the world, as the gods keep track.
Which brings us to 1977, and a tripleheader that came on October 1, six months to the day after the WBA announced that all its titles would be unified with the defunct WBC, the biggest boxing event of the year.
We’ve got three of boxing’s Old School Eight weight classes with titles on the line tonight; featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight will all decide a champion. At feather, Danny Lopez goes up against Rafael Ortega. Lightweight brings us Roberto Duran against Esteban De Jesus, and at welterweight, Carlos Palomino takes on Pipino Cuevas.
We begin at 135 pounds:
Roberto Duran TKO12 Esteban De Jesus
Why the spiel about gods keeping track at the beginning? Simple. In the prime timeline, on January 21, 1978, Roberto Duran scored a 12th-round TKO over Esteban De Jesus. We’re on October 1, 1977. Neither man had an intervening fight between their wins over opponents (tune-up fights both) in September, that here are being put aside so that the principal combatants can face each other three months early.
Sure, De Jesus won the first fight, by decision in 1972. But Duran won a convincing knockout in the return engagement in ’74, and the rubber match was always going to be a reflection of the state of the two men in the ring as of the date it occurred.
You can have all the butterflies flapping all their wings on the windward side of every mountain in Africa in every alternate-universe Serengeti from the prime timeline to a Disney movie where hyenas sound like Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin. You can argue whether the fight was closer than it turned out and whether there was anything Esteban De Jesus could have done to improve upon the result.
Or you can take as an article of faith that Roberto Duran was one of the top ten, possibly top five lightweights of all time, at the height of his powers and stylistically perfectly suited for the man in front of him, a champion who merely confirmed what people already knew about him in what was in that timeline the dead of winter, put the whole thing in a temporal blender, and spit it out the other side in October of 1977 for all the world to see.
Either way, the result was precisely the way it ended up in the historical record.
Welterweight: Carlos Palomino vs. Pipino Cuevas
Speaking of Duran, however, here we have two of his opponents from later in his career. Duran fought Palomino at welterweight in June of 1979 in the prime timeline, scoring a sixth-round knockdown en route to a near-shutout unanimous decision win over the course of ten rounds. The fight sent Palomino into retirement; he would not fight again until coming back on the same senior citizen circuit that cropped up around boxing in the late 1990s after George Foreman won a title at 46.
Duran would later fight Cuevas in 1983, starching him in four rounds and effectively finishing what Thomas Hearns had started in the course of ending Cuevas’s career as a serious fighter (Pipino had a stretch in the mid-Eighties including the Duran fight in which he went 3-7 over the course of ten fights in three years, and that’s not counting the Hearns fight.)
So “common opponent” is of only so much value here. But what else have we got in the prime timeline soup to play with?
Jose Palacios fought Cuevas in 1975, getting knocked out in the tenth of twelve rounds when Cuevas was already 13-5; in prime-timeline 1977, Palomino stopped Palacios in 13 of a scheduled 15-rounder.
Incidentally, this was a bit of a weak spot for the welterweight division. Jose Napoles was the last unified champion, reigning atop the 147-pound class for six years from 1969 to 1975; the division would return to glory in the Eighties when Thomas Hearns, Wilfred Benitez, a heavier Roberto Duran, and Sugar Ray Leonard put up some classic fights during Ronald Reagan’s first term in office (we’ll have more on those guys later.)
Palomino and Cuevas came out of nowhere off the hobo circuit, and Cuevas had a better-than-his-record ability thanks to—seriously—having turned pro before he turned 14, getting knocked out by Alfredo Castro in Mexico City at lightweight. By the time he won the WBA title at 147 pounds in 1976 from Angel Espada, his record was a pedestrian 15-6.
Speaking of Espada, he was a paper champion himself; the guy he beat to win the vacant belt after the end of the reign of Napoles, Clyde Gray, was 49-3-1 and had never beaten anyone of note—indeed, Gray’s three losses were to the only three guys he stepped in with who could actually fight, namely Napoles, Armando Muniz (who himself twice lost to Napoles and also got smacked around twice by Palomino), and a long-past-his-prime Eddie Perkins, who was six years removed from his title reign at junior welterweight back when Muhammad Ali was still called Cassius Clay.
“All this is great, Fox,” you may be saying, “but who wins the fight?”
Well, here’s the thing. Pipino Cuevas was eight years younger but turned pro earlier, fighting pedestrian competition and putting up a mediocre record. Carlos Palomino was in a stretch where he was clobbering everything that moved, having ritually slaughtered Davey Boy Green in June of 1977 to not only send Green to his first pro loss in his 25th fight but to remove him permanently as a major player in the welterweight division (if there was any doubt of this, Sugar Ray Leonard erased it against Green in 1980.)
The fight looked good on paper, but there was a reason it was never made, and it’s because Palomino just flat had Cuevas outclassed. For Cuevas, it was a lot like the Thomas Hearns fight, except rather than using superior range, Palomino instead caught Cuevas leaning forward and put a perfect uppercut right on the point of his chin.
Point is, the fight was anti-climactic, and Palomino made Pipino Cuevas look like a club fighter.
RESULT: PALOMINO TKO2 CUEVAS.
Featherweight: Danny Lopez vs. Rafael Ortega
Lopez had fought a couple of tune-up fights in the summer of 1977, keeping himself fresh after winning the WBC featherweight belt from David Kotey in November of ’76. Perhaps his best-known prime timeline fight was the Ring Magazine 1979 Fight of the Year against Mike Ayala, a 15th-round stoppage that was the culmination of Lopez steadily breaking down his opponent even as Ayala fought like a demon to stay in the fight. Lopez might very well otherwise be known as the guy who Salvador Sanchez absolutely thumped twice in 1980 in the cause of putting his own stamp on featherweight history, but during his four-year reign atop the 126-pound ladder, Lopez put on exciting, all-action fights that rarely went the scheduled distance. He was a big puncher who fought all comers and at least until Sanchez showed up had a tendency to get the better of the exchanges.
Speaking of Lopez, fans of Sean O’Grady know him well as the guy who taught an 18-year-old and already 29-0 O’Grady a valuable lesson about not using a record as a means to claim greatness—every puffed-up unbeaten who’s ever been exposed in his first big step-up fight is a kindred brother to O’Grady, and every champion who’s taken an optional defense against a guy with a great record but an untested history knows what it was like for Danny Lopez that night in 1976. Lopez was the master and O’Grady was the dog.
Meanwhile, Rafael Ortega was one of those champions of no consequence who occasionally happens into a belt in the sweet science, a guy who only got a title shot in the first place because Alexis Arguello had vacated the WBA featherweight belt in order to move up and campaign at 130 pounds (where it’s between him and Azumah Nelson for the greatest junior lightweight of all time.)
Ortega, who’d stumbled into a couple of wins over prospects when he probably should’ve been regarded as the opponent, beat 15-9 Francisco Toro Coronado, a guy who himself had “earned” the title shot by turning a losing record (8-9 after his 17th fight) into a title shot by winning seven in a row in 1975 and ’76, not a single one of those fights against anyone who would be seriously considered a world title contender, and not one of those fights outside of Ortega’s native Nicaragua. As Nicaraguan fighters went, he was no Alexis Arguello.
So what happened when Lopez and Ortega met in the ring? Simple. An all-action pressure fighter came forward chucking leather and out for blood, and the journeyman in front of him was powerless to do anything but do his best to stand up to the attack. Ortega wasn’t a slick enough boxer (even a raw as hell Sean O’Grady was a better boxer than was Ortega), and he wasn’t a big enough puncher, so all he had left was to surrender the foolish paper-champion belt the WBA had bestowed upon him and bow before his new redheaded overlord.
When the end came, it came in skull-crushing fashion, as Danny Lopez landed a spectacular left hook right on the temple of Ortega with only thirteen seconds gone in the third round. It was swift. It was brutal. The fans loved it. And any pretense the WBA had toward the value of its belt was swept aside, but ultimately to the WBA’s benefit as all of its titles were now unified. One champion per belt.
After all, paper champions have been around for as long as there have been multiple organizations to crown champions—indeed, it’s as old as the old battles between the New York State Athletic Commission and the WBA’s US-based national forerunner going back all the way to 1921. But when you’ve got paper champions and real champions and you manage to get them to fight? The gods keep track.
So, now that that’s done…
We begin our weaving of the nonlinear threads of boxing as 1978 dawns. Indeed, not everything will be title fights here. The champ is the guy everyone’s gunning for; there are no safety-valve paper champion belts to be had the way there were in our timeline’s 1977. Fighters on the way up will find themselves doing what fighters rarely do in today’s boxing world; fighting each other with no belt on the line in fights between Hall of Famers.
Consider than in 1974, when Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the second time in Madison Square Garden, that fight was not for the heavyweight championship of the world. Frazier had lost that distinction to George Foreman. Instead, that fight was for the right to fight Big George; it was naught but a title eliminator. Ali’s next fight was the Rumble in the Jungle, but if he’d lost to Frazier, he’d have had to wait for his chance (and possibly fight the likes of Ken Norton or Earnie Shavers or maybe even multiple mid-tier heavyweights of the time) all as his career drew ever closer to its twilight.
Today? Ali would’ve sought out the IBF champ or the WBO champ or waited for the WBA to elevate Foreman to “super” champ so he could get after the “regular” title, and Foreman would’ve been free as a bird to duck him forever.
When going through undisputed champs is the only way to get a belt, it’s funny how fights get made—everyone’s chasing the big prize and the money that goes with it.
Of course, money also tends to corrupt, so don’t expect some clean-cut Boy Scout version of the fight game either.
We return to a Tuesday posting schedule (long story involving insomnia, a day job, schedule slip becoming a habit, and simple lack of inspiration—these factors should be resolved in time for next week). What If: One Champ Per Weight will be seen at noon Eastern, 9 AM Pacific, every Tuesday from here out.
Meanwhile, fans of one-off historical battles are as always encouraged to enjoy Historical Fight Night every Friday at 6 PM Eastern; those comments sections are a great argument about who beats whom (plenty of folks not buying my argument that Alexis Arguello was shopworn at 140 pounds and above, for example), so come join the fun.
But anyway, next week, we turn the calendar to 1978 and start examining just what it takes to be the top dog in a one-champ-per-weight world. Stay tuned.
Fox Doucette covers boxing news and trends for Boxing Tribune News and writes the What If and Historical Fight Night alt-history series for The Boxing Tribune. This was supposed to be up a day earlier. Schedule slip is a cruel beast. Fan mail, hate mail, and rumors of my death to greatly exaggerate can be sent to email@example.com.