Boxing's Super Bantamweight Heat Wave

By Jake Donovan
Photo (c) Tom Casino/Showtime

If the weather could be defined by a weight class, then the current record heat wave (at least in this part of the country) would perhaps be classified as the super bantamweight division. Thanks to the efforts of Israel Vazquez, Rafael Marquez and Daniel Ponce de Leon in the past two weekends, more than ever before has water cooler talked involved the division otherwise best known as a bantamweight overflow and pit stop to featherweight.

Not since the days when future Hall of Famers Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera roamed the 122 lb. halls has there been so much reason to pay attention to a. The month of August has given plenty of reason to have all eyes affixed on the division, with back to back weekends showcasing its biggest players in significant bouts, including the frontrunner for Fight of the Year.

The recent run of relevance began with and currently centered around its two-time linear champion, Israel Vazquez. The power punching Mexican met with Oscar Larios in December 2005 to complete the final leg of their trilogy in 2005. Vazquez emerged, scoring a first round knockdown before forcing an injury stoppage in three rounds to become the division’s first true universally-regarded world champion since Morales edged out Barrera nearly six years prior.

The very first 122 lb. champ came 85 years ago, when Jack “Kid” Wolfe defeated bantamweight king Joe Lynch in 1922, in a bout billed by the bouts promoter as the inaugural junior featherweight world championship. It was the only title Wolfe would claim, though he never managed to successfully defending it, losing a year later to Carl Duane, who never defended the title and allowed the division to fade into bolivian.

The division was revived 54 years later, when one alphabet organization crowned Panamanian brawler Rigoberto Riasco its champion. Three defenses and less than a year later, Riasco was an ex-champion, with various 122 lbers playing hot potato with the title before Wilfredo Gomez, perhaps the division’s best ever, and seized control in 1977. Gomez’ reign lasted 5 ½ years and 17 defenses, both of which remain division records. His lone loss during that stretch came four pounds up, when he showed up out of shape for his superfight with legendary featherweight titlist Salvador Sanchez. Gomez managed to hold his own, but never quite along the suggestion that he’d emerge victorious, eventually succumbing in eight rounds.

Gomez’ reign ended in 1982 in an instant classic against Lupe Pintor. In most other years, the bout would’ve been declared Fight of the Year with the next best candidate a very distant second. But in a year which also featured Aaron Pryor’s classic first battle with Alexis Arguello and Bobby Chacon’s blood-soaked fourth fight with Rafael Limon (all three bouts being within a four-week span), Gomez’ bout with Pintor becomes just another great fight, one that ended a great reign – and the end of a definite leader at 122.

Many have tried to fill the void – Pintor, Jeff Fenech, Daniel Zaragoza, Kennedy McKinney, Tracy Harris Patterson and Vuyani Bungu, to name a few. All plead a case for their being the best during their respective reigns, but none were ever universally recognized as the best.

It wasn’t until Marco Antonio Barrera gained some steam – and the support of major American network HBO – in the mid 1990’s that people once again entertained the idea of claiming a top dog at 122. His classic 12th round stoppage of Kennedy McKinney kicked off HBO’s Boxing After Dark series, and also what appeared to be a Fighter of the Year campaign before being derailed by resurrected Junior Jones late in the year. Barrera the fire-breathing dragon became Barrera the calculated boxer-puncher in the rematch, but fell just short on the cards.

Meanwhile, his cross-town rival Erik Morales was just beginning to make his run. It was five months after Jones-Barrera II that Morales became a player, sending Zaragoza into retirement with an 11th round stoppage. Morales’ reign ended in 2000 and on top, though by the skin of his teeth after escaping with a controversial split decision over Barrera in the year’s best fight.

With his departure once again came a vacancy at the top spot. The Ring magazine pretended that Paulie Ayala and Clarence “Bones” Adams were qualified to contend for the vacant title, but very few bit. Even less after Ayala, who won the first bout by controversial split decision and second bout in more convincing fashion, never bothered to defend the imaginary title, in fact never again competing at super bantamweight.

Some turned to Lehlo Ledwaba and eventually his successor, Manny Pacquiao. HBO was in love with Pacquiao the moment they laid eyes on him, determined to make the Filipino a superstar. He eventually made their wishes come true, but it wasn’t until he left 122, knocking out Barrera in their 2003 bout, which took place at featherweight.

Pacquiao’s departure left the likes of Vazquez, Larios and Joan Guzman to challenge for the top spot. Vazquez and Larios had already met twice, Vazquez winning their first bout early in their respective careers, Larios winning the rematch in a bout that was high among the best of 2002. Guzman was the odd man out. Billed “El Pequeno Tyson” (translated to Little Tyson), Guzman managed to secure the controversy part, with his former handlers managing to create unnecessary friction with the WBO. What he lacked was the explosives within the ropes, with inactivity and eventually inability to make weight marring an unfulfilled reign.

Ironically, it was Guzman’s descent to featherweight that led Vazquez and Larios to settle an old score. Their December 2005 rubber match led the revival of the super bantamweights. The division hasn’t looked back ever since. Three months after a super bantamweight champ was crowned, 2006 would turn to the weight class in selecting the best fight of the year. You know a fight is THAT good when contention for top honors ends in March, nine months before the polls traditionally close. The ten-round war between Somsak Sithtchatchawal and Mahyar Monshipour was that good, so good that it forced the regionally-biased stateside members of the Boxing Writers Association of America to think outside the box, and not disregard a fight just because its major viewing audience was limited to youtube logins and DVD trading. Once noticed by media members (beginning with BoxingScene’s own Cliff Rold, a longtime advocate of the lower weight classes), the bout was a runaway favorite for 2006’s Fight of the Year.

To call any other fight in 2006 a Fight of the Year contender would be a disservice to the year’s winner, but the next best fight also came out of 122 and featured its best fighter. Israel Vazquez, three months removed from a four-round thrashing of former junior bantamweight beltholder Ivan Hernandez, was forced to twice climb off of the canvas, rallying from way down to twice drop and eventually stop bantamweight brawler Jhonny Gonzalez in a bout regarded as the best to take place in the states in 2006.

2006 also saw the emergence of perhaps the greatest threat to the crown, as 5’11” silky smooth beanpole boxer Celestino Caballero exploded onto the scene. The Panamanian put his name on the map a year prior in serving up a boxing lesson to crude but devastating puncher Daniel Ponce de Leon (more on him in a minute). But it was a 3rd round stoppage of Sithchatchawal, eight months removed from his aforementioned Fight of the Year,  that put Caballero in position to force the division’s top players to stand and take notice.

If there is any criticism of the showcasing of the division in 2007, it’s that all of its top talent seems to be bunched together. For the second time this year, four of its top players all fought in the same month. It began in March, as Rafael Marquez finally made his move 4 lb. north after years of struggling to clock in at the bantamweight limit. The two-fisted puncher wasn’t interested in treading water; he instead went straight for the top, challenging Vazquez in the main event for March’s installment of SHOWTIME Championship Boxing. Many predicted the bout would be a Fight of the Year candidate, and got just that for seven rounds. Then came the anti-climactic ending, with Vazquez forced to submit after no longer being able to breath through his nose, which was broken earlier in the fight. Marquez was awarded the super bantamweight crown, while Vazquez wanted enough time to heal in order to secure an immediate rematch.

Two weeks later, on back-to-back nights, Caballero and Ponce de Leon would look to remind the world that the division didn’t begin and end with Marquez and Vazquez. Caballero did his part; Ponce de Leon, not so much. In fairness, Caballero enjoyed the more favorable assignment. The most significant aspect of his opponent, Ricardo Castillo, was his being the younger brother of the more famous Jose Luis Castillo. “El Temible” played a major role in the fight, it turned out, as it was he who decided for his corner that baby bro was taking too much punishment, forcing the bout to be stopped in the ninth round.

Ponce de Leon, far more familiar with early endings, had no such luck in forcing referee intervention in his bout with Gerry Penalosa one night later. Penalosa, ten years and two weight classes removed from his best days as former linear 115 lb. king, made the crude slugger look downright foolish throughout their 12-round bout. Only it was the Filipino who wore egg on his face at the end of the night, when three blind mice otherwise known as licensed Nevada judges, had Ponce de Leon not only winning, but pitching a virtual shutout.

Penalosa would get his revenge, not against de Leon, but on his undercard this past weekend, coming from way behind to starch Jhonny Gonzalez with a single liver shot in the seventh round of their bantamweight fight. His actions were once again upstaged by a Ponce de Leon victory, but this time for the right reasons. The pony-tailed Mexican re-established his claim as one of the sport’s hardest punchers, pound-for-pound, destroying previously unbeaten Rey Bautisita inside of a round to remain in the mix atop the division.

The bout that got everyone talking once again, however, came seven days prior. Few believing that Marquez and Vazquez could surpass the level of intensity that took place just five months ago in their first bout, the two diminutive Mexican bombers defied the odds – and at time physics – in their six round bloodbath. Once again, Marquez started strong, landing bombs early. This time around, the good fortunes did not last, as his punches began losing steam. Vazquez was losing blood seemingly by the pint, but his power never left. A sixth-round knockdown permanently changed the course of their savage brawl, and a fusillade of punches later in the round left Marquez on the defensive and seemingly on his way out.

At worst, you can argue that the referee was a bit anxious in stopping the fight. On the brighter side, Marquez lives to fight another day, which means a rubber match to break the tie in what has easily become the most brutal rivalry in the sport today.

When they’re done with each other, Caballero will be waiting. So too will Ponce de Leon. Also on the horizon is undefeated Canadian Steve Molitor. Once a lock to go 12 whenever he appeared in the ring, Molitor has recently learned to sit on his punches more. The result has been four straight knockouts, and hardly against pedestrian opposition.

As has been evidenced throughout the year, and particularly the past two weekends, there’s nothing pedestrian about the super bantamweight division these days. In what will go down as one of the hottest summers in recent memory, so too will be remembered this most recent run at 122 lb.


The bout’s been rumored for a while, and it now appears to be a reality. A pair of living legends are on a collision course as Felix Trinidad and Roy Jones are nearly set to face each other next January, with Madison Square Garden rumored as the venue. Trinidad signed from promoter Don King’s office in Deerfield Beach, Florida earlier Tuesday. Jones has yet to sign, dollar amounts have yet to be discussed and no network is committed to the bout.

In boxing, it’s known as 99% done. Of course, the 1% almost always managing to hold the most weight in such equations.

Past trends suggest Jones never signs on and the bout dies at the negotiating table. If that happens, I, for one, could not be happier. Boxing has enjoyed a rebirth in 2007. Even if the sport has yet to return to mainstream status (and let’s face it, it hasn’t been that way for a long time), quality matchups are surfacing at every turn. The sport’s best are fighting each other, rising talent is being regularly showcased, and the fights of yesteryear are finally being weeded out and shown the nearest exit.

The LAST thing the sport needs is one more recycled fight between two fighters who wouldn’t recognize their prime years if they were watching on DVD.

Much like alphabet title fights between spurious contenders, a Trinidad-Jones offers nothing to the sport other than short-term satisfaction, if even that.


Speaking of short-term satisfaction, boxing returned to Nashville last week. As always seems to be the case, the usual suspects made sure that the good fortunes don’t last very long.

A show filled with mismatches normally produces wins for the house fighters and manages to otherwise fly under the radar. This one had the opposite effect, with a minor upset occurring in the main event, and all of the night’s drama saved for after the show.

When it came time for fighters to get paid, the evening’s participants were left with their hands held out and their pockets empty. The man holding everyone’s money? Ramon Arellano, a local entrepreneur and boxing trainer/manager, whose restaurant’s parking lot served as a makeshift arena for the evening’s festivities.

Complaints and lawsuits are being filed as this goes to cyberspace, so the details will have to wait until all parties involved give their full blessing. What can be said is that Arellano attempted to rip and run with everyone in sight, including the hired security firm whom Arellano initially demanded be escorted off of the premises by Metro police. When that didn’t work, they were paid but also given the ultimatum that they would never again work should they press charges over an incident sparked up by Arellano and Freddie Boges, a suspended referee who took up for his friend once things got heated.

Confusion set in the day of the fight, when Arellano told the promoter that four of the five fights were “donated fights,” in which both ends are paid by parties other than the promoter. The problem was Arellano did not share this information with the managers he contacted in attempts to secure their fighters, instead offering specific dollar amounts their parties would be paid for services rendered.

Translation: Arellano attempted to play both sides, ripped off everyone, but ran out of friends in the end.

Arellano was faxed a request by the show’s licensed promoter, ordering him to reimburse all parties with whose services he solicited in attempts to fill up his show. As this is published, he has yet to reimburse anyone mentioned in the complaint.

Jake Donovan is a former member of the BWAA. He is currently licensed as a manager, promoter and judge (ABC certified), and is a member of the Tennessee Boxing Advisory Board. He may be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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