The top ten bantamweights of all time: no. 9: Carlos Zarate
With the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament about to begin, Boxing Monthly will be bringing you Kyle McLachlan's list of the top ten bantams of all time. The countdown continues today with knockout specialist Carlos Zarate...
9. Carlos Zarate 66-4 (63 KOs)
It’s 1977. Muhammad Ali is a bit past his prime, Carlos Monzon is nearing the end of his but is in the midst of a undefeated streak of over 80 fights. Roberto Duran is in his peak years, although no one has a clue about what he will go on to achieve and just how legendary he will become. The light heavyweight division is in bloom in a way it hasn’t been since the 1940s, and flyweight champ Miguel Canto is the purest boxer in the world, able to stand in the rain without getting wet. Ten stone teenage prodigy Wilfred Benitez could walk on water and no one would be surprised.
Yet 'Boxing Illustrated' has Carlos Zarate at the top of its pound-for-pound list, demonstrating the stature of the world bantamweight champion. He is perceived to be a monster, so much so that the respected publication deemed him the most likely to come out on top if all fighters were the same size.
It's not too far-fetched a notion either.
The Mexican had a jab like a battering ram. He was fairly straight up, but knew how to use his legs to establish first the range (the jab came after that) and how to avoid those that were brave enough to throw back. Those that were really brave? By the end of the most punk rock year in recorded history, Zarate was undefeated in 47 fights. Only one man had heard the final bell such was Zarate’s power.
The scariest thing is that Zarate didn’t need to throw the kitchen sink at his opponents. His game was built on the foundations of that jab, of carefully placed body work, of combinations that were efficient rather than flashy. He was an adept counter puncher, but one of those that would get off first in exchanges rather than slipping left and right. These were skills built from when he was still a little boy, forced by his older brother - a policeman - to box in order to channel the violence he had demonstrated on the streets of Mexico City.
Zarate had been arrested more than once by beating up grown men in street fights. His brother's intervention saw a natural fighter cultivated into a cerebral and deadly boxer-puncher. Measured, thoughtful, strategic, monstrous. A 5’8 bantam in the time of same-day weigh ins. And when he did throw the kitchen sink at his man? A literal sink might have been preferable.
Not only was Zarate naturally powerfully and technically proficient, he was also very difficult to hurt, and even harder to dissuade once stung as his brilliant paisano Rodolfo Gonzalez found out in 1976. Martinez, a switch hitter who could punch with either hand, had only lost thrice in 46 bouts, two of those to another great in Mexican bantam Rafael Herrera. He’d avenged that loss to take the WBC title before making three successful defences of his own, including a decision win over the terrifying Thai Venice Borkorsor after dragging himself off the canvas twice.
Using all of this experience to try and befuddle Zarate, Martinez kept himself in the bout and even seemed to get a leg up when he briefly stunned Zarate with a left cross in the third round only to find himself dropped on to his backside two rounds later.
Orthodox, southpaw, moving, pressuring, Martinez could not budge Zarate off from his path. With punches coming back ever more frequently, the champion wilted under the challenger’s devastating blows in nine rounds.
Zarate’s era was not a great one. His contemporaries ranged from proven world class such as Filipino tough guy Fernando Cabanela (rescued in three) and technically brilliant Alberto Davila, who gave Zarate a good test before being broken down in eight. Then there were those that were arguably world class, such as tough as nails Commonwealth bantam champ Paul Ferreri, who was pulled out in 12, and the excellent amateur and European class Juan Francisco Rodriguez who signalled no mas in five after being gutted by Zarate’s body blows.
Among Zarate's other victims was undefeated Brazilian Danilo Batista, who went on to achieve absolutely nothing in the sport after being stopped in six, an unheralded boxer who nevertheless passed the eye test; Orlando Amores was a world class flyweight, but Zarate dismissed him as an 118lber with a hefty left hook in two.
John Mensah Kpalogo, the ring moniker of one John Kodjo Mensan, another Zarate victim, lays right down at the wrong end of the spectrum. An apparently lauded fighter out of Togo who allegedly had 45 wins to his name, boxrec can only account for three. Is Boxrec the be-all-and-end-all of boxing records? As a historian who has unearthed previously unlisted bouts through his own research of primary sources, I can categorically state that it is not.
But watch the African challenge Zarate, and you will doubt he even won the fights Boxrec credits him with - that the Mexico-based World Boxing Council fed their native hero this abysmal challenger should say more about the governing body than the fighter, but within a reign that didn’t feature much in the way of world class opposition it must be noted all the same.
Nevertheless, Zarate still belongs in the all-time bantam top 10. Davila, Martinez, Cabanela, Ferreri, were all top 10 bantamweight challengers or title holders. That his greatest win came above the bantam limit to avoid heavy sanctioning fees from both the green belt and the WBA shouldn’t sour it at all.
The Battle of the Z Boys
The then 22-year old Alfonso Zamora had been Mexico’s representative in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. A silver medallist, Zamora showed none of his amateur pedigree as a pro prospect. A T-Rex armed bulldozer, the diminutive Mexico City native blasted through all 29 of his opponents, and his record was not a manufactured one either: future all-time great featherweight champion Eusebio Pedroza was wasted inside two, deaf-mute Ali impersonator Thanomchit Sukhothai offered some resistance before getting annihilated in four rounds, and South Korean hero Soo-Hwan Hong gave Zamora a 12-round dogfight only after being knocked out in four rounds in their first shootout.
Zamora’s offensive potency was undeniable. He was seemingly the heir apparent to the greatest Mexican fighter that had ever lived up to that point (fellow bantamweight champ Ruben Olivares) with a longer knockout streak than even Zarate had ever managed.
At 26 years of age and with 54 wins to his name, the WBC title holder might as well have been geriatric compared to the WBA title holder. Yet Zamora was a friend, a former stablemate Zarate had shared the gym with. They had become estranged due to Zamora’s father and Zarate’s manager having contractual disputes. Indeed, Zamora was on his fourth manager in his sixth year fighting for pesos rather than medals. He had come from a wealthy background by Mexico City street kid standards, his dad had sold his business in order to fund his son's boxing career. Zamora was barely past 20 but he was married, with two kids and more-than-modest dwellings.
The taller man was the polar opposite. Zarate was still unmarried, unassuming and fighting to pay for surgeries that could help restore his ailing mother's sight. His father had died before he had reached his third birthday.
They had both won the national title as amateurs. Zamora had gone to the Olympics and been greeted by the Mexican President upon his return from Germany. He’d won his first world strap after less than two years as a professional, while Zarate had been in nearly 40 paid scraps before he had gotten his first chance at a world title.
That these two had ever been friends is a surprise. That they remained great friends even with the bad blood between Zamora’s father and Zarate’s long-term mentor Arturo 'Cuyo' Hernandez is even more surprising.
That they would meet in an all-time classic is not. Their combined records when they squared off were impossibly good - both unblemished, Zarate with 45 wins, only one not inside the distance, Zamora having knocked out 29 men. 74 fights, 74 wins, 73 knockouts.
What are the chances of two fighters, both holding one world championship each, both from the same city, both formerly of the same gym, coming up at the same time, in the same weight division, with the same modus operandi, guaranteeing a fight that would not disappoint?
Yet it wouldn’t come off without a hitch and the showdown would not even be for all the baubles.
Made at 120lbs but with both men only coming in at a shade over the championship limit, the question of weight was the one thing that strained the relationship between the opposing champions. Zamora claimed to be withholding his title in a potential unification for both he and Zarate’s benefit: big money from the super fight, more of it staying with the fighters due to avoiding hefty sanctioning fees, and - with both of them walking out of the ring with gold strapped round their waists regardless of the result - more earning opportunities for them both afterwards.
Zarate took the opposite stance, with 'Sports Illustrated' publishing the words of a fighting champion in direct opposition to the plans of his friend:
"I like him, but we should settle this business of two championships. It is stupid to talk of a non-title fight. No matter what they called it, one must win and one must lose.”
Both wore red shorts, waving the other bull on. When the first bell sounded, Zamora did not fight like someone only thinking of the pay cheque. He tried his darnedest to leave Zarate unconscious. Zarate, ever patient and methodical, fought back when he had to, but tried to find his footing against his younger, more energetic opponent.
Then, in one of the more bizarre moments in boxing history, and pre-dating the fan man by nearly twenty years, a local man in his underpants and vest stormed the ring. For reasons that remain unclear but appear to be centreed around convincing these two extremely violent and powerful men to let peace rule the day, the intruder brought a brief halt to proceedings before being bundled out and battered by baton-wielding Mexican policemen who set the tone for the war that ensued.
Zamora forced Zarate to concede ground in a way that no one since Rodolfo Martinez had. Whereas that had been a brief buckle, here Zarate appeared to be briefly disorganised. He wrapped his body shots around Zamora’s shorter but stockier frame, and brought the uppercuts up through the middle, but the younger man was dissuaded. He pasted Zarate with uppercuts and hooks of his own, throwing more leather and pushing the pace.
Zarate was stung in the first, claiming afterwards he was numb and fighting on instinct for the rest of the fight. To his credit, Zarate kept himself together. He blunted Zamora’s attacks by staying in close, using his taller frame to push Zamora back, creating room for his own shots.
Whereas Zarate had survived when pushed onto the back foot - that jab keeping him in it - Zamora started to become ragged. Zarate then upped the ante, battering Zamora against the ropes. Zamora fired back with shots that would fell an elephant, but Zarate had found the measure of his man, and simply walked through him.
In perhaps the ultimate show of domination, it was Zamora’s father who threw in the towel, saving his son from any further punishment, and conceding to Cuyo Hernandez that he had retained the superior bantamweight.
While the parameters of this countdown have been made clear - and will be strictly enforced as much as possible - Zarate besting Zamora a pound over the bantam limit doesn’t suggest that the result would be any different had they shed it and unified the championships. It was ostensibly the two best bantams in the world going at it, with politics and money being the reason for championship weight being neglected.
It was so significant a scalp that by the end of 1977 Zarate sat atop the fabled pound-for-pound rankings. Indeed, one post-fight report noted that Zarate now held ‘the only belt that mattered’.
True pound-for-pound greatness eluded Zarate; he moved up to truly prove himself the best man south of featherweight, but was utterly bamboozled, battered and then vaporized by Wilfredo Gomez.
But that doesn’t effect my perception of him too much, as it’s hard to imagine any bantamweight in history faring much better with the ‘Bazooka’ from Puerto Rico.
Nevertheless, the relative weakness of the men he faced at the bantamweight limit should give us pause for thought when ranking him among the greats. This criticism is not with the benefit of hindsight either. 'Sports Illustrated' called out Zarate for some of the soft touches he faced when weighing up the merits of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers in the sport, with Zarate mentioned in the same company as featherweight demolition man Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez and ‘Hands of Stone’ Roberto Duran himself:
“The hoary "pound for pound" claim is admittedly impossible to prove. For one thing, 126-pound featherweights and 220-pound heavyweights never get into the ring together. World lightweight champion Roberto Duran, he of the fabled stone hands, has knocked out 79.6% of his opponents compared with 85.7% for Lopez. Bantamweight champ Carlos Zarate has knocked out 52 opponents in 53 fights, but it has been suggested that Zarate has fattened his record on an assortment of adagio dancers and tamale makers.”
Zarate’s bantam era was not the strongest, but as the publications and fans of the sport at the time recognised he was a truly great champion, and the opposition he beat in the manner he did makes him worthy of his place on this list.
He bested one of the great punchers the division has ever seen, as well as some fellow Mexican greats. Tellingly, he was never convincingly defeated at the bantamweight limit. He has one loss there, still disputed to this day in some quarters, and when well past his prime too.
He never came close to being knocked out south of super bantam either. Nearly everyone above him in this list was, even those in the top few spots. Was that due to the level of his opposition? Or should he be higher and placed in the upper echelon of bantamweight greats? That is for you to decide.
The eighth ranked bantam of all time is also a fighter whose legacy is debatable. Like Zarate, he was also a freak of nature.
Log on to Boxing Monthly's website next Thursday, Friday and Saturday for Kyle McLachlan's choice of the number eight, seven and six bantams of all time...