Sanchez Takes on Young Olympic Champion Pernell Whitaker
By March 1988, Salvador Sanchez was a 54-1 legend in his own time, adored by legions of Mexican fans. The 29 year old Mexican warrior had not lost a fight in 11 years, virtually cleaned out the featherweight and super featherweight divisions, and stood as the reigning WBC Lightweight Champion making the second defense of his title. That defense was against 15-0 Pernell Whitaker, a Gold Medal-winning member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team.
The pundits criticized Sanchez for taking the Whitaker fight, claiming he was doing exactly what he did in fighting Azumah Nelson – picking off a promising, but inexperienced boxer. They said why not fight Nelson himself again, who was now the WBC Super Featherweight Champion? As usual, the pundits were wrong. While not a veteran, Whitaker already had enough stuff at this stage of his career to beat around Roger Mayweather, and in his historical career he would box rings around Jose Luis Ramirez and Greg Haugen in 1988 and 1989.
Both fighters cautiously probed each other early, with Sanchez steadily building up pressure. The problem was that Whitaker just wasn’t there to be pressured. Able footwork and the southpaw stance kept Sanchez from finding the right footing to land fully half the time, and when he missed Whitaker’s speed and skill were sufficient to time Sanchez’s head movement and land sharp, single counter-punches. Hector Camacho’s superior speed had given Sanchez some trouble, but Camacho made the mistake of standing and fighting and was not as elusive as Whitaker.
Sanchez’s best round came in the 5th. Whitaker still had not quite figured out Sanchez’s timing, but Sanchez got his lead foot in the right place and connected with a straight right that drove Whitaker onto the ropes. With Whitaker surprised and pinned, Sanchez unloaded all his frustration from the previous four rounds and hammered Whitaker straight to the canvas. More overwhelmed than hurt, Whitaker got up, dusted his trunks off and answered a Sanchez left hook by sticking a double right jab in the champion’s face.
The fight was very close, and you could hear a pin drop as the announcer took the microphone to read out the results. 115-111 for Sanchez brought the Mexicans to their feet, cheering their hero. 114-112 for Whitaker silenced them, as they realized Sanchez’s victory was still in doubt. Then the word came: 114-113 for the new WBC Lightweight… and the roaring boos drowned out the rest. At long, long last, Salvador Sanchez had lost a fight and in a close Split Decision.
Defeat as an established professional was new for Sanchez, and he took it hard. He let his contracted option for a rematch with Whitaker lapse, and even mused about giving up the fight game and becoming a full time student – maybe he could get his medical degree before his 35th birthday? Ultimately, he decided to not let Mexico down and retire on a loss.
Six months before, his bitter arch-rival Julio Cesar Chavez defeated Edwin Rosario to win the WBA’s black strap, making a rubber match with Chavez a logical choice. Sanchez wanted a rubber match with Chavez, but the two defeats had brought out his rival’s mean streak. Chavez, who had taken to calling Sanchez a maricon whenever he was asked about him, insisted that as champion he receive 3/4s of the purse. Chava predictably balked.
Instead, Sanchez took his star power to IBF Lightweight Champion Greg Haugen. Haugen had won a rubber match with arch-rival Vinny Pazienza in February, and was delighted with the prospect of a career-high payday. Sanchez came out and delivered a classic Chava performance in September 1988: storming forward, forcing the action, making Haugen miss and countering, and throwing plenty of leather.
Haugen fought well, but suffered a cut on the eybrow in the 6th. While it looked like it was under control for a while, a hard counter in the 10th busted it wide open. The fight was stopped, awarding Sanchez a TKO victory and the IBF’s red belt.
Now Sanchez was set with a world title of his own, and clamor for a unification fight and rubber match with Chavez rose to a roar. Chavez ridiculed Sanchez and avoided the question of another fight with Sanchez, and finally announced that he was moving up to 140 lbs. to challenge WBC Champion Roger Mayweather instead. Outside of Mexico, Chavez was widely derided for ducking Sanchez.
Sanchez had a number of options for his next fight, but he took the one that gave him the greatest personal satisfaction. Azumah Nelson was in negotiations to fight Pernell Whitaker. Sanchez elbowed Whitaker aside, brought much more money to the table, and offered Nelson a chance to avenge his 1982 defeat. Salvador Sanchez vs. Azumah Nelson II was inked for February 1989.