There’s that old 1960s query: what if they had a war and nobody came? Considering the 1982 clash between featherweights Salvador Sanchez and Azumah Nelson, the better question is: what if they had an epic, action-packed, back-and-forth scorcher of a fight between two Hall of Fame champions and no one knew about it?

In boxing, it’s easy to get vexed about all the terrific matches that never were or will be, but long-time fight fans know it’s always better to be grateful for what you get, than to fret over what the cruel boxing gods deny you. And so, almost four decades later, we can look back with renewed appreciation at the dream fight that was between two great champions, Nelson and Sanchez.

Sanchez vs Nelson

Nelson and Sanchez weigh-in.

Of course fans and pundits must be forgiven for not recognizing back in 1982 what a truly top-shelf match Sanchez vs Nelson really was. After all, no one outside of Ghana knew anything about Azumah, who had a paltry record of thirteen bouts and was brought in as a last second replacement for top contender Mario Miranda. Aside from holding the Commonwealth featherweight title, he possessed no qualifications for a shot at a world championship whatsoever, much less a bout with the man regarded as one of the finest performers in the sport. As a result, fewer than six thousand showed up at Madison Square Garden that night.

In contrast to Nelson, Sanchez, at only 23 years of age, entered the ring with the mantle of greatness already upon his shoulders. Since turning pro in 1975, his career had moved fast, almost as fast as the sports cars he loved to drive. He fought frequently, at least six bouts per year, and since battering Danny Lopez to win the featherweight crown, he had notched nine title defenses in just two years, his exciting knockout win over Wilfredo Gomez cementing his status as, pound-for-pound, one of the very best.

Sanchez dominating Danny Lopez.

Sanchez dominating Danny Lopez.

Promoter Don King had recently begun negotiations for a big money super-fight between Sanchez and lightweight king Alexis Arguello, and at this point there really was no telling how far young Salvador’s talents could take him. Having been featured on network television in almost all of his title wins, the American public had come to admire his precision counter-punching, granite chin and excellent stamina. To everyone’s surprise, he would need all of these attributes to overcome the courageous challenge of Azumah Nelson in one of the most exciting contests in division history.

azumah nelson

Nelson would go on to capture three world titles.

From the opening bell, Nelson, with nothing to lose and a noisy contingent of fellow Ghanaians in the stands chanting and cheering, was a whirlwind of kinetic energy, attacking with abandon and firing big shots from all angles. The champion was a notoriously slow starter, but even so, the ferocity of Azumah’s early forays surprised all. Setting a relentless pace, he scored with left hooks in the opening seconds and then followed up with hard right hands behind an aggressive jab. A right lead shook Sanchez near the end of round one and Nelson leaped in to connect with both fists, even treating fans to an improvised Ali shuffle between flurries of punches.

Salvador Sanchez: Ink drawing by Damien Burton.

It was more of the same in the second with the challenger showing Sanchez no respect, making the champion miss and then countering with heavy shots from either hand. The straight right proved to be Nelson’s most effective weapon and thus the always patient and wily Sanchez looked to counter with the left hook, and early in the third a stiff one buckled the challenger’s legs, a portent of things to come. Still, every time the champion landed, Nelson fired back and the gutsy African won the fourth, ambushing Sanchez at the end of the round with hard rights and vicious hooks to the belly. A flush uppercut followed by a left to the gut appeared to deflate the champion and after the round he complained to his corner that he felt “weak.”

Nelson continued to make the fight in the fifth, rocking Salvador with a thudding hook midway through, the last minute of the round a toe-to-toe slugfest. The sixth was close, with Sanchez coming on at its end, but then in the seventh, the champion, searching for a way to decisively turn the tide, finally found what he was looking for. Anticipating Azumah’s right, he beat him to the mark with a perfect left hook that almost put the challenger down. A hurt Nelson stumbled and then went toe-to-toe, winging wild shots, but like the surgeon he reportedly wanted to be after his boxing career ended, Sanchez calmly fielded the maelstrom of blows to get in another short, precise hook. This time the blow sent Azumah to the canvas.

Sanchez vs Nelson

Sanchez put the challenger down in round seven.

Nelson rose at the count of six and, demonstrating the heart and resilience of a future triple crown champion, went back on the attack. Ever poised and patient, Sanchez took his time, allowing the fearless challenger to get his punches off before stunning him again near round’s end with a sharp right. The start of the eighth saw the champion in control, seemingly growing stronger with each exchange, and hurting Nelson again with a counter left. In the ninth, he tried to box Nelson, exploiting his better mobility and longer reach, but the challenger pressured him, forcing him into a series of brutal, inside exchanges in which Sanchez ruthlessly dug away at Azumah’s ribs.

Sanchez vs Nelson

But the punishment appeared to have no effect and Nelson came back to take the next two rounds on sheer aggression. The final minute of the eleventh saw the two warriors slug it out and the inexperienced African, to everyone’s surprise, got the better of it, landing thudding rights to the head before briefly staggering Sanchez with a left hook to the jaw. At this point everyone expected Nelson, who had never fought past the tenth, to fade, but the twelfth saw no let up in the intensity of the two-way action. And as the challenger took the thirteenth on the strength of his brawling attack, his right hands forcing Sanchez to retreat, it began to dawn on incredulous reporters and ringsiders that Sanchez vs Nelson might prove to be not only an unexpected war for the ages, but also a momentous upset.

Sanchez vs Nelson

But it was not to be. The fourteenth was another great action round but finally – finally! – there appeared some give on the part of the challenger, his strength waning, his legs faltering, his punches wider and slower. He had shocked everyone with his gallant stand, had given Sanchez the toughest battle of his career, and in the end it was not so much skill or technique or even experience deciding the outcome as much as grit, stamina and the impervious chin of “The Invincible Eagle,” which had previously withstood bombs from Lopez, Gomez and Juan La Porte, and now had taken the best from Nelson and remained unshakable.

As the final round began, the brave challenger once more pressed, forcing Sanchez to the ropes and letting his hands go, but at the same time leaving himself open for Salvador’s deadly counters. A right backed Nelson up and a hook staggered him and now it was obvious his legs were gone. Their positions reversed and it was Azumah on the ropes as Sanchez dug both hands to the body before backing off, making Nelson come forward and throw punches, the better to find openings for the cunning Mexican sharp-shooter to exploit.

Sanchez vs Nelson

Azumah never stopped taking the fight to “Chava.”

Seconds later a series of flush shots had the challenger in deep trouble and still, he would not stop slinging leather, until yet another crushing left hook buckled his legs and left him momentarily out on his feet, his hands down, his whole body contorted and off balance, like some decrepit, weather-beaten scarecrow. Two more lefts finally forced the stubborn challenger to collapse but, incredibly, Azumah immediately scrambled to his feet and waved at Sanchez to come back, to keep fighting, as if the knockdown had never happened.

But despite his astonishing bravado, Nelson was finished. All heart and courage, he held his hands up like a devout supplicant for referee Tony Perez, begging for the battle to continue, but when it did it was the champion landing at will and the challenger staggering about the ring, before Perez finally stepped in and ended it, waving his arms and awarding the victory, and the tenth successful defense of his featherweight crown, to Salvador Sanchez.

Sanchez vs Nelson

Referee Perez stops the battle in round fifteen.

There are a number of reasons why this dramatic clash had been largely overlooked by so many in the years since. First, Sanchez vs Nelson took place during a banner year for monumentally exciting clashes. A thrilling contest, which would have easily been Fight of the Year at other points in time, found itself in fourth place behind Aaron Pryor vs Alexis Arguello, Bobby Chacon vs Rafael Limon IV and Wilfredo Gomez vs Lupe Pintor, all magnificent wars. Secondly, unlike those excellent matches, there had been no expectation of a great fight. No one knew who Nelson was, most had anticipated a routine win for Sanchez, and thus relatively few fans saw one of the decade’s great fights.

But in addition to these facts, the event which overshadows Sanchez vs Nelson is what took place just three weeks later. A lover of sports cars, a man and a fighter who moved fast, with intensity and purpose, Sanchez was driving his Porsche at high speed on a highway in central Mexico when he attempted to pass a truck. He somehow miscalculated, slamming into a second truck, and Salvador “Chava” Sanchez, the 23-year-old champion with seemingly limitless potential, the conqueror of Lopez and Gomez and Nelson, was killed instantly.

An entire nation, and scores of boxing fans, mourned the death of this great warrior, a boxer who had, in less than three years, left an indelible mark on the sport and established himself as a true great. And part of what makes him great, an essential element in his legacy, is this epic fight, a contest made more meaningful and resonant as Azumah Nelson’s career unfolded and we learned that his brave effort on that summer night was not the result of some miraculous circumstance, but instead testament to the great Ghanaian’s talent and tenacity, to the abilities of a man who would come to be recognized as the greatest African boxer of all-time.

The great Salvador Sanchez. Painting by Damien Burton.

The truth remains that a young Azumah Nelson gave an electrifying performance that night, an astonishing exhibition of heart and determination that could only have been withstood and overcome by a boxer of equal courage and even greater talent. Salvador Sanchez had already proved himself a truly great boxer, but on that summer night in New York City he put the finishing, final touch on a Hall of Fame legacy just before it all came to an end. Before the young Salvador, who remained cool and calm when under the most intense pressure, who could negotiate the fastest twists and turns inside the ring, fatally underestimated a risky maneuver on a dusty, narrow Mexican road, and left boxing fans to forever speculate as to what might have been.         — Michael Carbert

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