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Original Issue

The Mexican machine makes his mark

WBC featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez stamped out Ruben Castillo

Salvador Sanchez was lying on a Tucson hotel-room bed last Thursday, idly folding a $10 bill into a tight half-inch-by-one-inch rectangle. Then he and his buddies would chortle at the uninitiated who couldn't figure out how to unfold the bill without tearing it. "Doing this kills time," Sanchez explained.

What else do you do to kill time?

"I hammer watches."

And with that, the WBC featherweight champion afforded himself the luxury of another small laugh. He doesn't laugh much, on the grounds that boxing, for those who do it well, is serious business. On Saturday afternoon in Tucson, the stoic, 21-year-old Mexican said, "I like to take care of my responsibilities properly." Then he walked out and made all 45 minutes of his bout against the No. 3-ranked contender, Ruben Castillo, count as he won a unanimous 15-round decision. It was a brilliant display of nonstop aggression and classic boxing.

It was also Sanchez' first defense since he upset Danny (Little Red) Lopez on Feb. 2 to win the championship. Sanchez' defeat of Castillo served notice that his 13th-round TKO of Lopez was no fluke. Don Georgino, president of Five Star Promotions, which, with Madison Square Garden, put on the fight, said of Sanchez, "I look on him as a machine."

If, as Webster's has it, a machine is a "device...which may serve to transmit and modify force and motion so as to do some desired kind of work," Sanchez was all of that. And because of television's renewed interest in boxing (ABC put up $450,000 for rights to televise this fight and a summer rematch between Lopez and Sanchez), it could be that Sanchez will join Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Pipino Cuevas and Wilfredo Gomez as one of those non-heavyweights who can generate a following and make very big bucks. When Sanchez, who is starting to draw squeals on the streets with his good looks—though he attracted only 3,875 paying fans to the 9,000-seat arena at the Tucson Community Center—is asked if he thinks of himself as handsome, he says, "Certainly not. I think of myself as very, very handsome."

Sanchez was born and raised in Santiago Tianguistenco, a village of 3,000 people some 30 miles south of Mexico City that prides itself on the quality of the corn it grows. He is one of 11 children; his father, Felipe, owns a small construction company and wishes his kids liked loading sand and bricks onto trucks better.

Like so many who gravitate to the sport, Sanchez got into fighting early. At school? "No, only before and after school," he says. "Trouble would start when the other guys would look me over and see how little I was and then steal my books and pencils." It got more serious when they began to call him nena, or little girl. "Then I would have to show them I had the tools," Sanchez says. "There were a lot of bloody noses and bloody eyes. Unfortunately, sometimes they were mine."

Understandably, he sought more formal instruction in boxing, and, "I found I liked to defend myself." And hit others? "Sure, sure, mostly to hit others." So his interest grew, despite the fact that nobody else around the Sanchez home gave boxing very high marks. Salvador's oldest brother, Thomas, 26, recalls that their mother "was always after Salvador to stop fighting. We all were. None of us paid any attention to his boxing. Actually, we thought it was a thing youngsters go through and then get over. We kept telling him that there was nothing for him in boxing and we never took it seriously."

But Salvador did, running up a 14-0 amateur record before turning pro in 1975, at age 16. His record is now 34-1-1; his sole loss came in 1977 to Antonio Becerra (says Sanchez, predictably, "I was robbed"). The draw occurred in a 1978 bout with Juan Escobar (which most neutral observers think Sanchez actually lost).

"I am an intelligent boxer who changes depending on my opponent," says Sanchez. The best example of this was in his preparation for the Lopez fight. Sanchez' handlers warned that he would have to be far more mobile than he had been and that the most effective punch against Lopez would be an overhand right—which Sanchez didn't have. But by fight time, he was a changed man. He moved in and out, side to side, bobbing and weaving. "He looked like Willie Pep," says matchmaker Mickey Davies. And eventually it was Sanchez' overhand right that did in Lopez.

A most interested observer in Tucson last week, Lopez recalled that dismal day. "He had my style all figured out," Little Red said. "Then I proceeded to fight a totally stupid fight. Sanchez is a boxer. There wasn't one punch that hurt me, but all of them did. He just peppered the heck out of me. He surprised me last time, but next time I'll be in there with my blood pumping."

Nonetheless, Sanchez is expected to beat Lopez in the rematch. At 27, Little Red appears suddenly to have grown too old. His punches against Sanchez had no snap, his movement was slo-mo. Sanchez agrees. "You ask me is Lopez too old," he says. "As a person, no. As a boxer, yes." Whatever, according to the terms of the rematch clause in the contract for the first Lopez-Sanchez fight, Sanchez will get a $100,000 payday to back up his words while Lopez will get $130,000.

There are other reasons, aside from his considerable boxing skills, for Sanchez' success in the ring, notably his physical condition. He exudes good health, maintains a rigorous diet—backsliding only for an occasional soda or chocolate bar—and gulps vitamins. He and his handlers brag about his powers of recuperation between rounds. Before their bout, Castillo was a little put off by all this chatter and said, "What if I hit him on the chin and he only has eight seconds to recuperate? Look at his nose all over his face. He didn't get that from having his picture taken." Sanchez' doctor countered that the configuration of the schnozz is hereditary and unrelated to anyone's gloves.

Once Felipe Sanchez got used to the idea that his son was going to box regardless of family wishes, he offered only one piece of advice: "No matter how good you are, never underestimate your opponent."

"That made sense," said Salvador in Tucson. "I've never forgotten that."

So can Castillo win?

"No, no, not hardly."

In truth, Castillo, who's 22, almost did win, and Sanchez' old man would have ample reason to say, "I told you so." While the three judges scored the contest 145-141, 147-144 and 146-142, it was closer than that in most eyes.

Castillo is a colorful little guy who was called a "chicken" by Jesus Hernandez before their fight in Bakersfield, Calif. in 1978. Ruben beat Hernandez and since then has taken to bringing a rooster with him when he enters the ring. Castillo's record is now 44-2, and he boxed magnificently and effectively against Sanchez. After the fight he groused, "He hit me with some good shots. I hit him with better ones. Why should I feel bad? I won the fight. The way it looked today was I had to knock him out to get a draw."

Castillo started off strong, winning most of the first half-dozen rounds and generating gasps from the crowd with his celebrated left hook. At the end of the fifth, Castillo walked to his corner, confidently gesturing that victory was at hand. By the end of the sixth round, the judges still had him ahead. It seemed then that he was well on his way to winning a world championship, which wasn't exactly what Castillo's Catholic school education in Bakersfield was supposed to prepare him for. "We were taught always to turn the other cheek," he says. "The only trouble is when you do that, you get your butt kicked. So what I really learned is never to turn the other cheek."

He didn't Saturday, fighting with discipline, hoping for a chance to pin Sanchez against the ropes, where he would abruptly switch from his conventional right-hand style to that of a southpaw. But he never got the opportunity, and by the end of the seventh round, Sanchez had moved ahead in the scoring, and he stayed ahead.

The key to the fight was that while Sanchez clearly lost the early rounds, he just as clearly was the aggressor. "Castillo's problem is he backs up," said Sanchez before the fight. "So I will press him." Effective as Castillo is as a counterpuncher and as powerful as his left hook is, Sanchez made the fight throughout. In the 10th round, Sanchez erupted with his best bit of fighting—two overhand rights and four left jabs that ruffled Castillo seriously. But he couldn't put Castillo away, because, as he admits, he lacks a knockout punch.

In the 11th, Castillo got back in the bout, connecting with more left hooks. In the final round Sanchez, grinding his teeth in frustration, was surely ahead, but the crowd was cheering his opponent. Then came a correct but well-booed decision.

Despite his claim that his best punch is "both hands," Sanchez won with his straight right. He was generous afterward, saying of Castillo, "I tried to bust him up but I couldn't." Yet he bristled at the idea that he might not have really won. "Sure I did," he said. "He kept backing away and I kept hitting him. So I win." Castillo reacted to Sanchez' analysis by saying, "There's a time to back up, and if you don't do it, there's a time when you sure wish you had."

For a good effort, Castillo was paid $22,500. For a better effort, Sanchez collected $110,000, which is a lot of $10 bills to fold into little rectangles.


After six rounds, Sanchez (left) was trailing, but he came on relentlessly for a unanimous decision.


Castillo (top) sought to rule the roost, but it's Sanchez who went home with the championship.