By Elliot Worsell
WHEN Julio Gonzalez was presented with the unenviable task of trying to dethrone Roy Jones Jnr in 2001, one of the fight’s selling points – perhaps its only one – centred on the idea of Gonzalez becoming the first Mexican in history to win a world light-heavyweight title. For Mexico, a nation steeped in boxing history but mostly in the lower weight classes, this was deemed a big thing and Gonzalez, if he could have pulled it off, would have been considered quite the trailblazer.
Others had tried, of course, though hardly in their droves. Yaqui Lopez, for example, was a fine light-heavyweight from Zacateca who unsuccessfully challenged for the WBC (against John Conteh and Matthew Saad Muhammed) and WBA titles (against Victor Galindez, twice) and is today considered one of the best light-heavyweights never to become a world champion. (Even at a cruiserweight, where he ended up, Lopez challenged Carlos de Leon for the WBC belt only to find himself stopped in four rounds.) Then there was Saul Montana, known as “La Cobra”, who ended his career as a dependable heavyweight journeyman, but before that, in 1993, challenged Virgil Hill for the WBA light-heavyweight title. Some years later, in 2000, Montana then also challenged Vasilly Jirov for the IBF cruiserweight belt and wound up getting stopped in nine rounds.
Given this history, as well as the quality of his opponent, Gonzalez falling short against Jones in 2001 hardly came as a surprise. Indeed, when the Baja California native finally did succeed in his original mission, beating Dariusz Michalczewski two years later, it was a win celebrated back in Mexico with no small amount of fanfare.
This, you see, was no ordinary accomplishment. Toppling Michalczewski in Germany was one thing – something nobody else had so far managed – but to make it even more special Gonzalez would, by being something of an anomaly, now stand out among the huge pantheon of Mexican boxers. That is, he would no longer be competing with the achievements of the many great Mexicans in the lower weight classes, but would now be remembered fondly as one of The Big Ones. One of the oddities. One of the outliers. Not only that, he would be remembered as someone who showed that Mexico can produce heavier boxers and good ones at that.
Since then there have been others. Gilberto Ramirez, a former WBO super-middleweight champion from Sinaloa, ventured to light-heavyweight to challenge Dmitry Bivol in 2022, though he was soon put in his place, and now, like Lopez before him, competes as a cruiserweight. There is also Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a one-time welterweight who chose to dabble at light-heavyweight to dethrone Sergey Kovalev, the WBO champion, in 2019. That, again, was a big victory for Mexico in the higher weight classes, even if the speed with which Alvarez then dropped back down to super-middleweight was rather telling in terms of figuring out where he naturally belongs.
In fact, one could argue it is there, at super-middleweight, both Alvarez and Mexico have found their sweet spot in recent times. After all, look around. It’s not just Alvarez thriving at 168 pounds, but also Jaime Munguia, who won on Saturday night against John Ryder, and David Benavidez, who was last seen stopping Demetrius Andrade in rather impressive fashion. Together, Alvarez, Munguia and Benavidez now represent perhaps one, two and three at super-middleweight, with only the order to be decided in the coming months and years.
Already, to this end, there is talk of Alvarez, the big star, soon fighting both Munguia and Benavidez in showcase Las Vegas fights; maybe one in May and one in September. That, as a plan, would make a lot of sense and provide more than one compelling storyline. The Mexican angle will of course have to be pushed hard, and act as its main selling point, but you also have the idea of the passing of the torch as well as the novelty of having Mexican rivalries at a weight normally so alien to fighters from Mexico. That alone will ensure these fights, should they happen, distinguish themselves from the myriad great all-Mexican fights of the past. That alone should give the promoters reason to strike while the iron’s hot and while the super-middleweight division, a division once dominated by Europeans, is suddenly headed up by three brilliant Mexicans.
Make no mistake, this new trend is unusual. Indeed, visit any boxing gym in Mexico and you will struggle to find boxers competing in divisions above welterweight, let alone middleweight. This was something I discovered firsthand in 2016, when I paid a trip to the gym of Raul Hirales in La Paz and saw a gang of boxers no taller than the top rope, all separated by approximately 14 pounds. Flyweights to featherweights, each of them looked at me – a mere super-middleweight – as though I were a heavyweight (one looking for sparring) and had therefore come to the wrong place. Hirales, 5’5 and 126 pounds, even said that had I been a boxer there would be no room at the inn. “You would struggle for sparring,” he explained. “What’s great about this gym is that we are all the same weight and can all spar whenever we need to spar. You don’t even need to bring in people from outside to spar. We can do it on a daily basis if we want.”
Big, in other words, is not always better, particularly in Mexico, and particularly if wanting an athletic career as a boxer. In fact, if you look at this list of 10 Mexican boxers who competed – and to different degrees flourished – in the higher weight classes, you will see just how rare the phenomenon of the Big Mexican Boxer really is.
1) Yaqui Lopez
As a light-heavyweight, the all-action Lopez unsuccessfully challenged for the WBC (against John Conteh and Matthew Saad Muhammed) and WBA titles (against Victor Galindez, twice) but always gave it his all. Finally, as a cruiserweight, he challenged Carlos de Leon for the WBC belt.
2) Julio Cesar Gonzalez
Famous for unsuccessfully challenging Roy Jones Jnr in 2001, Gonzalez was an exciting, aggressive light-heavyweight contender who became the first man to beat Dariusz Michalczewski, doing so in Germany via split-decision. The win landed Gonzalez the WBO title.
3) Andy Ruiz Jnr
Though many have mocked his physical shape, Ruiz Jnr possesses fast hands and a good boxing brain and has lost to only Joseph Parker and Anthony Joshua in a 37-fight pro career. His biggest moment to date arrived in 2019 when he shocked Joshua to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
4) Gilberto Ramirez
Known as “Zurdo”, the 32-year-old Ramirez is a 6’2 southpaw who held the WBO world super-middleweight belt from 2016 to 2018. He has since unsuccessfully challenged Dmitry Bivol for a version of the light-heavyweight crown and now finds himself at cruiserweight.
5) Manuel Ramos
Competing in the sixties and seventies, Ramos, from Hermosillo, Sonora, beat contenders Eddie Machen and Ernie Terrell and eventually landed a shot against NYSAC heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in ‘68. He wobbled Frazier in the first round but succumbed to a barrage of hooks in the second.
6) Chris Arreola
California-based Arreola won 27 fights in a row before challenging Vitali Klitschko for the WBC world heavyweight title in 2009. He was stopped in 10 rounds and then lost two further attempts to win the same belt, against Bermane Stiverne and Deontay Wilder respectively.
7) Saul Montana
“La Cobra” ended his career as a dependable heavyweight journeyman, but, in 1993, challenged Virgil Hill for the WBA light-heavyweight title and then, in 2000, challenged Vasilly Jirov for the IBF cruiserweight belt.
8) Joaquin Rocha
Rocha represented host country Mexico as a heavyweight at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games and won his nation a bronze medal. He decided against turning professional.
9) Alex Garcia
“The San Fernando Hammer” took up boxing after spending five years in San Quentin for assault with a deadly weapon. Garcia made it to 32-1 and was on the verge of securing a fight against George Foreman, only for journeyman Mike Dixon, a supposed tune-up opponent, to put a spanner in the works with a second-round knockout win.
10) Humberto Soto
Not to be confused with the world super-featherweight champion of the same name, this Humberto Soto was a heavyweight prospect undefeated between the years 2006 and 2017 (even if he only managed 10 fights in that time). His first and only loss came against Jean Pierre Augustin. He hasn’t boxed since.