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Long before there was a Canelo Alvarez, there was a Salvador Sanchez.
Sanchez was born in 1959 in Santiago Tianguistenco, a city of 60,000-plus residents in south central Mexico that sits about 325 miles from Tlajomulco de Zúñiga — were Alvarez arrived in 1990.
Both men became championship-level boxers within candle-blowing distance of their 21st birthdays, with Sanchez capturing the World Boxing Council’s (WBC) featherweight title exactly one week after his milestone in 1980 and Alvarez winning the organization’s super welterweight crown 135 days before his in 2011.
The similarities end, though, at age 23.
That’s when Alvarez was a party to the highest-grossing pay-per-view fight in the sport’s history, his 12-round majority decision loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 2013.
It’s also when Sanchez died.
A reigning champion with nine successful defenses, he was killed when the Porsche he was driving collided with a tractor-trailer on a highway north of Mexico City in August 1982. He was three weeks past a stirring defeat of future multi-weight world champion Azumah Nelson at Madison Square Garden — boosting his record to 44-1 — and a month ahead of a scheduled Garden rematch with Juan LaPorte.
Alvarez’s most recent fight, a defeat of Erislandy Lara in July, moved his record to 44-1.
Sanchez would have turned 56 this week.
“There are some tremendously good Mexican fighters out there but I can’t compare things with yesterday,” said James Toney, a former title-holder at 160, 168 and 190 pounds, whose first pro fight was six years after Sanchez’s accident. “Yesterday’s Mexican fighters, those were rock-hard fighters. Lupe Pintor, Salvador Sanchez. People like that. Those are the Mexican fighters I like.
“The greatest Mexican fighter of all-time is Salvador Sanchez, period. Hands down.”
The International Boxing Hall of Fame posthumously included him as part of its second class of inductees in 1991, and Boxing.com placed him at No. 62 on its list of history’s top 100 fighters in 2013.
“Who knows what we in boxing lost when we lost Sanchez?” list-maker Matt McGrain wrote.
“He consistently showed the understanding and awareness of a veteran in his early twenties, a testimony perhaps to the number of fights and defenses he crammed into his short career. As a veteran, he might have attained the rare heights of strategic genius reserved for the likes of Archie Moore and Bernard Hopkins.”
Sanchez’s title-winning fight against Sports Illustrated cover boy Danny “Little Red” Lopez — a 13th-round TKO — was broadcast on CBS, as was the rematch four months later that Sanchez captured by 14th-round stoppage. His initial bout with LaPorte and other title defenses against Patrick Ford and Ruben Castillo were shown on ABC, while ESPN carried a match with Nicky Perez.
A 15-round decision over Rocky Garcia in May 1982 was the first featherweight championship match ever broadcast on HBO, and Sanchez crossed over into closed-circuit success — the precursor to today’s pay-per-view format — with an eighth-round TKO of previously unbeaten Wilfredo Gomez that was billed as the “Battle of the Little Giants” and held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
His career earnings ultimately measured in the millions, then rare for a smaller fighter.
“Those who know him knew that he was untouched by his status as a national hero and a world champion,” said ABC’s Howard Cosell, as part of an eight-minute tribute that aired the day after Sanchez’s funeral. “The great thing about the kid was that he never forgot what he might have been had it not been for his success in boxing.
“When one is but 23 years of age and dies tragically in an accident, there is no fulfillment for the fullness of life, no opportunity to do all the things you wanted to do. In Salvador’s case, his dream was to retire in another year, study and become a doctor.
But no, no chance of that.”