By the age of 26, Wilfredo Gómez had seen more successful title defenses of one belt than most fighters could experience in multiple careers. A record 17 defenses of the WBC junior featherweight belt, all by stoppage, and a shiny WBC featherweight prize are what Gómez brought into the ring against “The Professor of Boxing” himself, Azumah Nelson.
Much of the week’s fight news centered around the comeback of former heavyweight title challenger Gerry Cooney, who was to takeon George Chaplin in Phoenix. Greg Simms of the Plain Dealer, however, labeled the media’s misguided focus “blatant ignorance of the fight game,” as a defense of the WBC featherweight belt by Gómez, a Puerto Rican, against a rugged and dangerous fighter like Nelson in San Juan deserved more attention. Apart from the fight’s worth as one top fighter facing another, it would also highlight the last two men Salvador Sánchez earned stoppage wins over prior to his premature death in a 1982 auto accident.
Gómez, then 41-1-1 with 40, said in a pre-fight news wire out of Puerto Rico, “Nelson comes from Ghana with hopes to win, but lamentably, this title will stay here because it belongs to Puerto Ricans. My goal is to win three world titles, and Nelson is not going to block my career.”
Unfortunately for Gómez, Nelson intended to block both Gómez’s career and his plans to face a young and newly-crowned champion Julio César Chávez. Doing so in Puerto Rico, at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, seemed like it couldn’t be easy, though. The Ghana native, 19-1 with 14 knockouts, said via an Associated Press wire, “I won’t have a problem. I’ll knock out Gomez in the fifth round.”
Eddie Futch, the late legendary trainer, made his own prediction. “I think Nelson does hit hard enough to knock out Gómez,” he said. “But I hardly think that’s likely. I would have to pick Gómez to win because of his overall ability and punching power.”
It didn’t happen too often, but Futch was definitely mistaken.
Gómez fought with caution early in the fight, seemingly wary of Nelson’s strength and countering ability. At face value Gómez did well when moving his feet and whipping out jabs. Slightly under the surface, Azumah Nelson was answering back and sealing off Gómez’s offensive momentum more often than not.
Just as Gómez found a groove in round 4 Nelson landed a series of right hands, negating what the Puerto Rican’s work and filling Nelson with confidence that carried through into the 5th. But as Nelson pressed with bad intentions and Gómez was forced to stand and fight more in the 6th, fortune inched Gómez’s way.
Something of a tactical slugfest, if such a thing exists, spilled forth in round 7, with Nelson landing the more eye-popping blows upstairs but taking countless shots to the pelvis and sides in turn. Gómez’s wick burned away, however, and the fight went back to how it looked early: Nelson hunting, Gómez boxing cautiously. The 9th round saw Gómez seize back a chunk of the momentum before finding himself on the wrong end of more Nelson right hands in the 10th and he looked ragged between rounds as a result.
Moments before the bell to summon forth the 11th round, Nelson’s cornerman Bill Prezant reportedly told his man that he was losing and needed to “step it up.” Surprisingly, judges indeed had the bout scored 97-93 and 96-95 for Gómez, and 95-95. No matter. Nelson unleashed on Gómez, stinging him repeatedly with both hands and every available punch for two and a half minutes straight until Gómez finally went down. Gómez got up but looked worn, and then a pair of right hands ransacked his neurons and awkwardly folded him backward, ending the fight.
“When I knocked [Gómez] down in round eleven, he was dazed,” Nelson said in “The Professor,” his 2014 biography by Ashley Morrison. “The referee had to stop the fight, but the referee tried to help him and let him carry on. I came in and I feigned him and then threw a straight right, and he fell to the ground. He was not supposed to take that punch, and he wouldn’t have had to if the referee stopped it when he should have.”
In Ghana the streets flooded with people celebrating. The broadcast was delayed due to issues with the international video feed rights, but the Ghanaian government purchased rights to air the bout and make the fight accessible to everyone in the country.
Nelson’s victory was a much-needed boon to a country experiencing widespread economic issues. Ghanaian boxing figured Peter Zwennes said of the aftermath of Nelson’s win, “The whole of Ghana cut loose. It was about two a.m., and people just ran out into the streets. If you had a car, you were in it, hooting your horn.”
Back in Puerto Rico there was plenty of in-ring pandemonium, and the Boston Herald reported the following day that Carl King, son of Nelson’s promoter Don King, was stabbed in the leg on the way from the ring to the dressing room.
It wouldn’t be the first time, but Nelson’s win made his country quake with pride. As with every win, there must be a loser. This time it was Gómez, who never truly reclaimed the success he had prior to running into Sánchez and Nelson. His career was ultimately the price of their greatness.