Between 1986 and 1990, the 126-pound division was at various points populated with notable talents. Ghana’s own Azumah Nelson, a versatile boxer-puncher who would eventually move up four pounds and become one of the best super-featherweights ever, made his home there in the early part of his career, battling the likes of Mexican and Puerto Rican legends Salvador Sanchez and Wilfredo Gomez. His Australian rival Jeff Fenech, aka “Marrickville Mauler”, had a two-year stint at featherweight around the same time. Mexico’s colorful Jorge Paez; Britain’s little firecracker in Paul Hodkinson; and Barry McGuigan’s conqueror, Steve Cruz, were also players at some point during this time. On top of these popular small men, fighters like the sharpshooting Louie Espinoza and hard-punching Marcos Villasana stayed firm in their top-10 positions almost throughout. Often ignored, however, is the man who sat atop Ring magazine’s featherweight rankings for almost the entire duration of this period, Antonio Esparragoza.
Antonio Esparragoza Betancourt, born September 2, 1959, in the busy maritime port city of Cumana, Venezuela, first donned a pair of boxing gloves at the age of nine after being inspired by the successes of “Morochito” Rodriguez—his home nation’s first gold medal winner—and Antonio Gomez, a featherweight champion in the early 1970’s. Once becoming a dedicated amateur, his fistic endeavors were met with continued success, winning three national championships. This superiority over his fellow countrymen allowed him to take his ever-progressing skill-set to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, where he was the bearer of the Venezuelan delegation. Esparragoza’s stay was short-lived, as Antonio was outpointed 4-1 in his first round of pugilistic exhibition by an aggressive British boxer named Pete Hanlon. This early exit from the Summer Olympics helped pave the way for a professional return.
Once a pro, the Venezuelan’s early career followed along the lines of his amateur successes, stringing together a succession of early knockouts before hitting a temporary speed bump in a man named Angel Torres. The stoppage loss to Torres is not well documented, so one can only speculate as to what happened, but what is more to the point is that Esparragoza exacted revenge in a rematch four fights later. The result of the contest: a ninth-round knockout.
One fight later, Antonio climbed through taut ropes and into the squared circle versus a man who held a victory over him in the amateurs, and one that would go onto become a world champion himself, Bernardo Pinango. Unfortunately, neither practitioner of the “sweet science” would help bring clarity to who was the brightest young star in Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela, as the bout ended in a ten-round stalemate. Esparragoza’s progression continued with little hiccup. He produced a nine-bout-win-streak before suffering his second draw against Panamanian Bernardo Checa. A rematch was negotiated later, and much like the Torres rematch, it ended with Checa unable to continue.
Two fights before the return bout with Checa, the rising pugilist faced what looked to be his stiffest test to date, a tall Dominican with a box-first mentality, Johnny De La Rosa. De La Rosa was a few fights removed from his split decision loss to Juan Laporte in San Juan, Puerto Rico for Laporte’s WBC World featherweight title, and he occupied the number six spot at 126. On May 4th, on the undercard of a Don King production in Aruba, which featured Daniel Zaragoza versus Fred Jackson, the Venezuelan puncher made short work of his foe, disposing of him in three rounds. His quick work put him on The Ring’s radar and the aforementioned knockout victory over Checa put him into contention for a title.
The title shot came in the form of a WBA World featherweight strap which was being held by a “Super Kid.” This “Super Kid” was a Texas amateur standout who had won the 1979 National Junior Olympic Gold Medal and the 1981 National Golden Gloves title before entering the professional ranks. His crowning achievement, however, was not either of those awards. Instead, it was his upset over popular Irish featherweight champion Barry McGuigan in The Ring magazine’s 1986 “Fight of the Year”.
Going into the bout with Barry “The Clones Cyclone” McGuigan—a man who sported a record of 32-0 (28 KO’s) and had recently defeated the likes of Juan Laporte, Eusebio Pedroza, Bernard Taylor, and Danilo Cabrera—Steve Cruz was a 5-1 underdog and inexperienced versus world class opposition. It mattered little. Cruz displayed his fistic skills to the world, outboxing the Irishman, sealing the deal with two knockdowns in the final round.
Nearly five months after the shocker at Caesars Palace, the Texan engaged in a non-title match in his hometown against Roger Arevalo (23-1-3 with 14 KO’s), winning on points in a scheduled ten-rounder. Next up was his first title defense against little known Venezuelan Antonio Esparragoza, a puncher according to his record. It turned out that on March 6th, 1987 at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas, in front of a pro-Cruz crowd that the contender had far more to offer than power.
The Cumanes native displayed an effective jab early, stabbing it through the air with superb mechanical motion and landing enough of them to establish distance for the occasional power shot, which were hard enough to earn a modest respect from the durable champion. He also changed posture regularly, from aggressive to passive, alluding to a versatility in his game and disengaging Cruz’s mind from pursuing one avenue of success. Starting in the third round, Esparragoza started to crank up the thermostat and began to let loose with an array of stiff punches, many of which came in the form of combinations. And he refused to discriminate, head or body, it didn’t matter, so long as damage was being done, and undoubtedly it was. The rounds passed with repeated success for the challenger. The toll of gloved wallops became apparent as chinks in Cruz’s fleshly armor became ever-present. The discouraging effects of the numerous smashes to the belt-holder’s torso and face demoralized him. Motivation made a slow, backwards exit from his soul, and it increased as the hurt was not reciprocated. Cruz’s fistic retorts, to his dismay, were taken in kind.
Finally, in the twelfth round, Esparragoza made a backwards step in conjunction with two jabs set up a narrowly avoided uppercut, followed by a textbook left hook which landed squarely on the point of Cruz’s jawline. The punch rocked Cruz’s head sideways and left a momentary buckle in his knees, felling him. The referee began to count and by the time he reached eight, Steve was up on his feet. Though dazed, the Texan was deemed to be in well enough condition to continue. The third man in the ring waved his hands inwards and Esparragoza sprang across the ring to pour on the finishing touches of a resounding victory with vicious intent: a left hook, right hand, left uppercut, jab, straight, jab, straight, jab, straight, left hook, straight, jab, and a right hand straight—the last of which put the hometown hero down almost simultaneously to the referee signaling the end. This stirring victory allowed the Venezuelan to realize his dream and in doing so, inherited the lineal 126-pound championship, which etched his name alongside the other featherweight greats.
A mere four months later Esparragoza was back in action. The opponent: a Houston, Texas-based journeyman riding a six-fight win-streak, Pascual Aranda. The match was staged in Aranda’s hometown. The fight itself was perceived as a relatively easy defense and the newly crowned champion made sure it looked that way, not only on paper, but also inside the squared circle when he proceeded to overwhelm Aranda in the eleventh round with a flurry of head and body punches.
Next up was Marcos Villasana, a rugged Mexican challenger who sported a great chin, a high work rate, and a big punch (evidenced by his 43 knockouts in 49 wins going in). Villasana had been a top featherweight player for years prior to the fight and had proven his worth in a title bout in 1986 with Ghanaian legend Azumah Nelson (Villasana would eventually go on to win a championship by stopping British slugger Paul Hodkinson). The Mexican would prove just as tough for Esparragoza. The fight saw the challenger pressing from the get-go, coming forward behind heavy jabs, right hands, and left hooks to the body. The champion weathered this initial storm well, boxing smartly and out-fighting his opponent on many occasions. However, Villasana’s toughness saw him through the best Esparragoza could offer and he finished strongly. This effort from both men was rendered a draw when the official scorecards were announced.
Antonio Esparragoza went on to defend his WBA strap five more times in five different countries. He blitzed challenger Jose Marmolejo in eight, Mitsuru Sugiya in ten, Jean-Marc Renard in six, Eduardo Montoya in five, and settled for draw versus Chan-Mok Park, an inexperienced South Korean fighter. These showings saw him climb to the number four spot on The Ring magazines coveted pound-for-pound list. Seemingly at the height of his power, his boxing road met an end in the form of a hardened volume-puncher named Young-Kyun Park. The South Korean aggressor terminated the Venezuelan’s four-year reign with combination after combination. Esparragoza couldn’t keep pace and ended up losing a clear-cut unanimous decision.
At the age of thirty-one, the former featherweight king decided to hang up the leather, saying later that he had lost “the fury of the tiger.” He then returned to his motherland and obtained a law degree, and eventually became a lawyer. Antonio now works in politics and teaches the youth of his nation the benefits of the “sweet science”.
From what Esparragoza displayed in his time as a purveyor of that science, it would seem he knew all about the sweet and scientific aspects of the sport. He displayed both. His cognitive sensory apparatus permitted him to dissect men and his smooth delivery of power enabled him to put them away. Antonio Esparragoza was like a silkier but less accomplished version of Alexis Arguello. A joy to watch for many of us who observed him in action.