IT was an exotic fight, the Z-Men, two fighters from a Promised Land of boxers meeting at the irresistible Inglewood Forum. It was out of reach, alien in every single way to a British fight fan. It took me over 30 years to finally watch the 1977 fight between Carlos Zarate and Alfonso Zamora. The reports had been devoured, the fight’s iconic status secured long before the marvel of the fight was ever watched. They were both world champions at bantamweight, both unbeaten, both young and at one point, the Godfather of Mexican boxing, Arturo “Cuyo” Hernandez, managed and guided both of them. His role is part of the story. They were not just unbeaten, they were ruthless, capable of finishing men with just about every punch they threw. Zarate was 25, the WBC champion, and unbeaten in 45 fights, with 44 ending quickly. Zamora was 23, the WBA champion and he had stopped or knocked senseless every one of the 29 men he had met. This was not an ordinary fight at a time of great boxing history, not a fight that was ever in danger of being forgotten. In the decade of the Rumble and the Thrilla, a decade when any nostalgia struggles against the brilliance of the day, the two tiny Mexicans shared a few rounds of greatness. They belong, they are history.
However, before the first bell on a night of genius and lunacy, it is necessary to travel a bit further back in their timelines. We all know that the greatest fights in history are not flukes, they happen for reasons of pride, stupidity, wrongs, rights and the hundreds of outside reasons that motivate a fighter.
Hernandez had sold Zamora’s contract for 40,000 dollars to the boxer’s father. He never offered Zarate’s contract for sale. The move was personal and a simple blood feud was inevitable from the perceived betrayal. But, Hernandez was a ruthless man and business in boxing is always meant to be just business. However, to the Zamora clan he was a traitor, the enemy.
“I liked the boy, I still do. But to get rid of the father I would have sold Zamora’s contract for a sack of pinto beans,” Hernandez said. That is fighting talk.
A cabal of old Los Angeles fight people brokered the deal, promising each boxer a bantamweight record purse of 125,000 dollars. The Seventies was arguably the last decade that Los Angeles had a place at boxing’s top table and when the city delivered, it delivered. The fight was agreed at one pound above the bantamweight limit, it would be for the Macho belt only and each would leave the ring as champion.
The Forum was located in a part of the city often called Little Mexico and on the night 13,966 tickets sold. The place was sweating, make no mistake. Trouble was – let’s not deny it – expected and the riot police were there in their distinctive white helmets with their naked desire for confrontation. They are prowling at ringside, looking for a soft head to bury their long truncheons. And, like the fans, they would not be disappointed.
Richard Steele is the third man.
After just 54 seconds of the opening round something truly crazy happens. The crispness of the punches, the intensity from both boxers is interrupted when a fat man wearing a snug white vest and a pair of grey Y-fronts climbs through the ropes. The man gets between the two boxers, raises a finger, he has something to say, he is on a mission and then he takes up a pose from Kung Fu. This happens, the fight has stopped and Steele is just looking on. The man just stands there.
Then, the white helmets respond and invade the ring. It is savage, trust me. Five of the riot police evict the man from the ring, bundle and bash him as he flies. He is then dragged and kicked from the ringside, his departure screams buried under roars as the boxers start throwing punches again. The fight is not even a minute old.
Each punch is vicious, they are fighting like there is something evil on the line and Zarate is hurt in the first. It’s a fight of wonders and by round three Zamora starts to fade. Zarate drops his great rival in the third. In the fourth, Zamora is over twice more, once hit clean and late by Zarate. I would love to have been there in the cheap seats for this fight.
When Zamora goes down for the second time in the fourth round he is on his back. His father climbs through the ropes and throws a wet towel of surrender at his son and it lands on his face. However, he does not go over to his stricken boy. The fight is officially over at 71 seconds of the round. But, Zamora Snr has some unfinished business and cracks Hernandez with a punch or two or three. The boxer is still on the floor when the ring is put under siege again and men start throwing punches at each other.
The riot police return, six of them this time, and they get lost in the swinging melee of 30 that have taken over in the ring. It was the only possible ending.
Zamora lost his title in his next fight, lost three of his next seven and walked away from boxing when he was just 26. He is seldom mentioned in lists of Mexican idols.
Zarate lost his title the following year to Wilfredo Gomez, lost over 15 rounds to Lupe Pintor in 1979 and quit in 1988 after losing another title fight to Daniel Zaragoza.
Zarate is a Mexican great, he won this fight and his position will never be in doubt. It was a fight that could permanently change a man. The fate and life of the comic superhero in the Y-fronts remains unknown. What a fight.