By Patrick Kehoe
In the middle of the 1970s, Zee-whiz kids Carlos Zarate and Alfonzo Zamora made their reputations by scoring shuddering knockouts as co-rulers of the bantamweight ranks. Alfonso Zamora presented a fire plug ferocity, as a left-hooking prodigy, who simply blasted out his opposition with violent authority-laced attacks the bantamweight division had rarely seen. In his first five title fights no opponent heard the bell for the fifth round.
The 20 year-old phenomena took the WBA bantamweight crown from Korean strong man Soo-Hwan Hong with a blistering fourth round stoppage on March 14, 1975, in Los Angeles, California. Just as boxing fans were set to conced the balance of the decade to Zamora, his gym mate Carlos Zarate broke through winning the WBC bantamweight crown on May 8, 1976 from Rudolfo Martinez, slowly dismantling the champion over nine rounds.
Both champs were Mexican's who graduated from the small men warrior's factory that was Mexico's club boxing environment. In many ways Zarate was Zamora's physical and tactical opposite. The string bean Zarate used his jab and fencers stance to launch the most vaulted right hand in boxing along with middleweight champ Carlos Monzon. A patient boxer with a burning set of eyes, who never forgot to ravage the body, Zarate also had the good fortune to own a devastating left hook. Zarate was as conservatively destructive probing patiently for advantages to exploit, where as Zamora ruthlessly exploded beyond his opponents attempts to counter punch, savaging the body first then cutting off the head with his signature left hook to the temple.
Virtually the day after Zarate surmounted the WBC title the story line was inevitable that these two fighters were destined to wage the bantamweight fight of the decade, at least, if not the bantamweight war of the ages. Inspecting their respective careers further confirmed this speculation with Zarate a perfect 46-0 (45) and Zamora a slightly more modest 28-0 (28). The highlight here was, of course, that only a single fighter had ever survived being in the ring with these two - the now footnoted Victor Ramirez - what fireworks indeed was to come of such a showdown! For boxing fans in Mexico, the West Coast and South West of the US, there simply was not a more anticipated fight in the sport. Devastating perfection facing off against prime perfection; however, making this super-fight proved to be a nightmare!
The 1970's was also the decade when the informal irritations between the WBC and WBA became formal animosities. Champions from middleweight king Carlos Monzon to lightweight king Roberto Duran became unwitting pawns in the power struggle for championship sanctioning fees that was to fracture the construct of legitimate world title holders, one that finally evolved into the chaotic alphabet splintering known as championship boxing that exist today. At that time promoters did not have the resources of mega-telecasting entities to underwrite most all of the indiscriminate costs of hosting rival "organizational" champions.
Notable as well was the territorial rivalries promoters and managers waged with respect to making match ups aligned to one or the other sanctioning organizations. The resulting networking of favours and loyalties, pay-offs and debts represented another layer to the problem of making unification fights. Add to that both the WBC and WBA were directly competing to displace the other in a game of global hegemony to rule the world of boxing in the dawning mass communications age.
Thankfully, in 1977, the primary fracturing was essentially restricted to the WBC and WBA, a frustrating but seemingly manageable dichotomy. Duran would eventually re-stabilize his title, as did Monzon, though never for long, the re-cycling of unification showdowns became the replacement in boxing to champ-ex-champ rematches, which had previously been the normal type of mega-bout.
Having won titles both Zamora and Zarate were essentially based out of Los Angles, the Inglewood Forum under the direction of Don Fraser often hosting their fights. When Zamora began to fight outside of Inglewood, Fraser sought to bar him from fighting there again. In the end though it was Fraser who was able to sign the two fighters to a contract - for April 23, 1977 - but to the dismay of fans neither the WBC nor the WBA sanctioned the fight as a unification championship bout. The fighters were nevertheless guaranteed championship money - $125,000 a record sum for bantamweights. In 10 rounds or less the matter of whom the dominant bantamweight would have to be settled. Bad blood, managerial betrayal and personal vendettas made for a pre-fight chemistry that seemed to make certain that 10 rounds would not be necessary anyway.
Arturo "Cuyo" Hernandez had managed both fighters, though going into the Battle of the Z's he was with Zarate. Zamora's father - who trained his son - felt that Hernandez had short sided his son financially prompting the Zamora's to turn to "Pancho" Rosales to make the new champions fights. And the 12,500 fans that jammed the Forum knew every nuance to the blood feud between the handlers of both fighters, the fighters themselves finally not able to keep above the controversy.
The fight proved that to win the first round doesn't always set the tide of a winning performance. No belts need to be at stake as pride fired Zamora into Zarate with characteristic furry. What the taller and more accurate Zarate knew was that Zamora was the ultimate fast starter and weathering the first round was the key to the fight. When a fan jumped into the ring after a minute gone and began shadow boxing before being hustled out of the ring. Seeing that Zarate's concentration was broken, Zamora attacked scoring with some big left hooks near the end of the round.
If Zarate needed a wake up call in the biggest fight of his life he'd just received it in spades. The slim betting favourite came out to meet Zamora behind a punishing jab before moving to the body attack in the middle of round two. At the bell both fighters were exchanging clean hard blows.
In the third round, Zarate's class proved the difference as his left hooks began to find Zamora on the way in until capped off by a crisp right cross that sent Zamora down for a mandatory eight count. In those final moments of the third Zarate cut Zamora and bloodied his mouth with rapier combinations that would have dropped any other fighte in his tracks. But even in surviving the round, Zamora came face to face with a force he had never encountered and a set of skills he must have known were superior to his own.
Showing heart and going for broke Zamora opened the fourth trying for a big left hook lifesaver, but it only lead him into the path of Zarate's guided missiles. Twenty-one seconds into the round Zarate displayed the best of his attacking mantra, the ending right hand of a combination dropping Zamora again. Up and willing to fight on Zarate tore into the shorter Zamora with left hooks and a finishing right hand to the jaw. A young Richard Steele gave the fallen Zamora the extreme limit of chance in letting it go on until the 61 year-old father of the WBA champion called it off at 1:11 of the fourth.
Then like a bolt Zamora senior turned to attack Hernandez in Zarate's corner claiming he had put an illegal substance on Zarate's gloves in between rounds. The scuffle was broken up by security guards as the fans went crazy in astonishment. Even with such a finalizing ending to the match, fans and writers were convinced the two would one day meet in a unification match-up. They never did, though the probable answers to most questions concerning them had already been explained in full.
In his dressing room, graciously meeting the press, the loser had the perfect epitaph for what had occurred between the two bantamweight giants. "I thought I was doing fine... until the third. After that... I really don't remember too much."