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Fight #21: Salvador Sanchez vs. Azumah Nelson

Fight #21: Salvador Sanchez vs. Azumah Nelson, July 21, 1982, Madison Square Garden, New York City This fight is the story of what could have been and what almost wasn't, but not in the way you probably think. Of all the boxing matches on this list, none were more completely defined by the losing fighter than this one was. Azumah Nelson, now regarded as perhaps the greatest boxer in the history of the African continent, was nobody before this fight. He had a record of 13-0 with 10 knockouts, but all but one of his fights had taken place on the African continent, most in his native country of Ghana. And to boxing aficionados at that time, fighting in Africa might as well have been fighting on Mars. The ring was comprehensively defined by the United States and Latin America, maybe with the occasional European or Asian fighter sprinkled into the mix. So when Nelson got named as a last-minute replacement for featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez's mandatory challenger, pretty much everyone assumed the Ghanaian was in way over his head. Sanchez, hailing from Mexico, was perhaps the greatest puncher in the history of the featherweight division, and he had bulldozed his way through nine defenses of his WBC world title, including knockout wins over future Hall of Famers Danny Lopez and Wilfredo Gomez. Now he was facing a nobody from Accra, an inexperienced, unknown boxer who had never gone more than 10 rounds in any contest, and had certainly never fought on a stage like the one he encountered at Madison Square Garden. Boxing produces these types of mismatches all the time. A top fighter goes into an intensive training camp to defend his title, and at the last minute, his opponent backs out, forcing him to find whoever is available on short notice to take the fight instead. Usually, the person selected is a club fighter, or a veteran who is already on the back nine of his career, or an overmatched youngster without the promotional backing to save him from demolition. Except, every century or two, that opponent ends up being a future Hall of Famer, a tough bastard who actually thinks he can win and actually has the skill to make victory possible. One almost feels for Sanchez in this situation. Nelson was such an unknown that, going into this fight, he had never seen any film on him. Neither had the announcers, who at the opening bell had absolutely no idea who Azumah Nelson was, though they would quickly find out. Nelson wasted little time at the opening bell. Instead of falling into any kind of predictable pattern, such as throwing a cautious jab or keeping his distance, Nelson methodically walked down Sanchez with unpredictable punches. I'm talking leaping lead right hands, left hooks, and uppercuts thrown from odd angles. Sanchez was one of the greatest punchers in the history of boxing, and Nelson just kept walking towards him. In fact, the only time he took a step back was when he would do his imitation of the Ali shuffle after landing a particularly nice combination. For the first five rounds, Sanchez looked confused. Here's this nobody walking *him* down, throwing creative punches, keeping a high guard that made it difficult to push him back. And beyond that, when Sanchez did get his offense going, Nelson showed early on that he had a solid chin, and would gladly take a punch in order to land two or three on the inside. By rounds 4 and 5, Nelson was landing thudding, hellacious shots to Sanchez's stomach and ribs, shots that you could hear clearly from the television feed, shots that made heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, providing commentary for the fight, squirm in his seat. For those first five rounds, Nelson thoroughly outworked Sanchez, and if he had gone no further than that, if he had been blown to bits in the sixth round, he would have at least secured a reputation for himself as a legitimate fighter with a future. But then the fight changed. In the sixth round, Nelson took a bit of a breather after dominating the previous five rounds. The shots momentarily stopped coming towards Sanchez, and he was able to gain a rhythm for the first time. Sanchez, the knockout artist, carried the round just by moving around Nelson, landing a steady jab and not much else. Then in the seventh round, Sanchez modified that left jab into a left hook that caught Nelson hard on the point of the chin. Nelson staggered backwards for the first time in the fight, and Sanchez went in for the kill. A few seconds later, he landed another left hook to the chin, and Nelson went down. At that point, the announcers seemed certain that the fight was about to end, and that Nelson had made his point but now it was time for the champion to do what champions do. Nelson got up at the count of eight, and when Sanchez went after him, Nelson instinctively fired back with everything that he had. A few shots landed. Not enough to hurt Sanchez, but enough to tell Sanchez that he would be hurt if he got reckless with Nelson. That bought Nelson time. Sanchez carried the eighth and ninth rounds, but allowed opportunities to finish the fight slip through his fingers. Every time he caught Nelson on the chin with that left hook, Nelson wobbled. And every time Nelson wobbled, Nelson started firing back more and more, and Sanchez had to back off. That gave Nelson the time he needed to get back into the fight. He carried round 10 as Sanchez seemed to tire and become frustrated at his inability to dispense with Nelson. Then in the 11th round, which was one round further than he had ever gone with any of the undistinguished fighters he had faced up to that point, Nelson hurt Sanchez with his own left hook, right uppercut combination. For the next three rounds, both men looked exhausted. But Nelson won the rounds on my card with relentless pressure, cutting off the ring to pin Sanchez against the ropes. Sanchez fought him off when he needed to, but couldn't really impose his will on the fight. He seemed to be tired, frustrated, and looking to catch Nelson with another shot to put him down. Heading into the fifteenth round, I had Sanchez losing the fight by three points, meaning that he needed a knockout to win. He got it thanks to Nelson's sheer exhaustion. Now five rounds further than he had ever been, Nelson came out for the 15th round on very weak legs, and a left hook and a right hand sent him tumbling to the canvas. Nelson managed to get to his feet, but was still staggering around the ring when the fight resumed, and a couple more clean shots to the head convinced referee Tony Perez to stop the fight with about 1 minute and 10 seconds remaining. As far as a narrative arc is concerned, this was the best fight I have watched so far on this list. Was the referee wrong to stop it when Nelson was perhaps a minute away from pulling out a victory? I don't think so. Nelson had pushed his body beyond all previous limits and simply could not go any farther. As soon as a fighter can't defend himself, the fight needs to be stopped, regardless of how much time is left. But given how the fight played out, I feel convinced that if Nelson had previously fought for 15 rounds, he would have had the endurance needed to beat Sanchez on the cards. But then, if he had previously gone 15 rounds, he probably wouldn't have been a last-minute replacement to fight Sanchez in the first place. For Nelson, this fight is the story of what almost wasn't. If he had never been plucked from obscurity to take on Sanchez, who knows if he ever reaches the bright lights of American boxing and all the accolades that come with it. But once he seized a hold of that prominence, he never let go. After the Sanchez fight, Nelson went undefeated for eight straight years, winning the world featherweight title over Wilfredo Gomez in 1984 and successfully defending it six times, before moving up one division and winning another title, which he defended four times. His attempt to win a world title in a third weight class fell short in 1990, when he suffered his first loss since the Sanchez fight to Pernell Whitaker. After that, he went back down in weight and became a two-time world champion at 130 pounds. He mostly wrapped up his career in 1998, except for a brief comeback 10 years later that lasted just one fight. He ended his career with a record of 38-6-2, a reputation as the greatest African boxer of all time, and induction to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. As for Salvador Sanchez, despite winning this fight he wears the label of what could have been. After his victory over Nelson, Sanchez was eyeing bigger fights against Alexis Arguello and other champions in higher weight classes. It never happened. Twenty-three days after defeating Nelson, Sanchez crashed his Porsche in Mexico and was killed instantly. Despite already having compiled a record of 43-1-1, he was just 23 years old. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame nine years after his death, in 1991, the same year Nelson became a two-time world champion at 130 pounds. Here is a video of the fight:



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