Boxing History: Sixto Escobar

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Boxers of Yesteryear: Sixto Escobar

In Puerto Rico, boxing is considered a major sport, having produced more amateur and professional world champions than any other sport in its history; one of the country’s greatest sporting heroes is Sixto Escobar (March 23, 1913 – November 17, 1979), who was the first world champion boxer from this country.

In his lifetime he won the hearts and minds of his fellow countrymen by proving himself a tough fearless warrior. The name Sixto Escobar is an enduring legend and till this very day Puerto Ricans, pay tribute to their boxing idol by keeping his name alive through street names, monuments and stadiums. He is still considered by many to be the greatest of all Puerto Rican fighters.

Escobar was born in Barrio Palmas Altas, a sector of Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, to Jacinto Escobar and Adela Vargas. Early in his life, he moved to Tras Talleres in Santurce, a subsection of San Juan, Puerto Rico. There he received his elementary and secondary education, up until the eighth grade, when he decided to dedicate himself full-time to his sports career. In Tras Talleres, he began developing an interest in boxing and received instruction in said discipline. Although at this time, boxing was illegal in Puerto Rico; remote places such as a house’s backyard or rooftops were used to organize clandestine fights without attracting attention from the local police.

In 1928, a Puerto Rican boxer named Ángel “Sotito” Soto moved from New York to a house near the Escobar family’s residence and established a gym in his backyard. There he gave boxing classes to Escobar and several other young athletes. After several months of instruction, Soto prepared a boxing card with included three-round fights, in which each round lasted two minutes. In this event, Escobar earned his first victory, defeating a pugilist identified as “Gombar” by knockout in the first round. After this match, Escobar continued fighting in clandestine gyms. He met and was received by Ignacio Peñagaricano, the owner of Victoria Gym. Escobar received his boxing license through Peñagaricano.

On February 16, 1927, Governor Horace Mann Towner legalized boxing and allowed the establishment of organized boxing matches. Professionals would fight Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays which, were considered the best days of the week, while amateurs could compete the remaining days of the week without limitations.

As an amateur, Escobar fought in 23 bouts, accumulating a record of 21 wins, one loss and a draw. His draw was against Ramón Rodríguez of San Lorenzo and his only loss was in the hands of Pedro Montañez from Cayey, in a fight that took place in March 1930.

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As a professional boxer Escobar (Bantamweight), campaigned both in Puerto Rico and Venezuela and turned professional on September 1, 1930, in a fight card organized at the Victory Garden gym in San Juan. In this event, he defeated Luis “Kid Dominican” Pérez, who entered the fight as the Dominican Republic’s champion, by knockout in the third round. In Puerto Rico, Escobar fought in 15 contests, before moving to Venezuela

On November 11, 1931, Escobar fought against Enrique Chaffardet for the Venezuelan Bantamweight Title, but lost by decision. He then returned to Pureto Rico for a time.

Boxing in Puerto Rico at this point in time was suffering from a lack of popularity, and Escobar had to find work outside of boxing on the weekends.

Mean while Tony Rojas, a friend of his managers Gustavo Jiménez and Arturo Gigante, secured the release of Escobar from his contract. After succeeding in this task, Rojas presented Escobar with a steam boat ticket to New York, which covered his food, clothes and hotel expenses.Escobar reached New York in early 1934, there he was received by Rojas and professional trainer Whitey Bimstein.

His first fight in the United States took place in Holyoke, Massachusetts on May 7, 1934. In this contest he was paired against Canadian bantamweight titleholder Bobby Leitham, defeating him by technical knockout in the seventh round. He then defeated Joey Archibald on points over 10 rounds.

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Then on the sixth of June 1934 – Escobar had a rematch against Bobby Leitham, this was considered a bantamweight elimination bout by the Montreal Athletic Commission, with the winner to face Mexican Champion Baby Casanova. “A crowd of about 4,500 saw Escobar unleash the lightning in his right hand early in the fourth round, and knock Leitham to the canvas three times. At the beginning of the fifth, another right hand punch to the jaw sent Leitham flat on his back and his second [Manager Sammy Gibbs] climbed into the ring to stop the fight. This was to be Bobby Leitham’s final professional bout.

Then in 1936, in Montreal he made history by knocking out Mexican Baby Casanova to become Puerto Rico’s first world champion ever.

There would be no other Puerto Rican world champion until almost 30 years later when Carlos Ortiz won the Jr Welterweight title, and Escobar immediately became a national hero in Puerto Rico. The next year he unified the title beating the other world champion, Tony Marino , who would sadly die as a consequence of injuries sustained in the ring in 1939.

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Quote – A hurricane blew up out of the Carribean last night and left in its wake Baby Casanova, the pride of Mexico City, a battered, bleeding hulk, lying flat on his face, pitifully inert, as Sixto Escobar, of Puerto Rico, scored a clean, spectacular knockout victory in the ninth round of a scheduled 15-round bout, at the Forum. A crowd of 8,000 looked on at first with awe and admiration and then broke out into violent cheering as Escobar–the finest little fighting man ever to come up from the tropics–proved his class by smashing Casanova to the canvas for the count for the first time in the vaunted Mexican’s career and winning the Montreal Athletic Commission’s recognition as bantamweight champion of the world - Un quote (By L. S. B. Shapiro, The Gazette, June 27)

This had a signifficant impact in Puerto Rico, where it was constantly discussed by the general public. Songs and poetry were written about this accomplishment. However, the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) and International Boxing Union (IBU) of France didn’t recognize the outcome of this fight, conserving Tony Marino and Brown as their recognized champions.

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On August 8, 1934, he defeated Eugene Hart by points in a non-title match organized in Canada. This was the first time in his career that Escobar had to go the distance in a 15 round bout. After this event, he stayed in Montreal expecting to fight against the winner of a matchup between Louis Salica and Bobby Quintana, which was scheduled to take place on December of that year. However, Escobar was forced to cancel his plans after suffering a heel injury when he was hit by a car.

Escobar then returned to Puerto Rico, were he received a true hero’s welcome, government building opened an hour late, so that government employees could join other Puerto Ricans in the welcome ceremony and parade.

On August 7, 1935, Escobar defeated Peter Santol, who held the Canadian Boxing Federation & Montreal Athletic Commission (MAC) world titles, by unanimous decision in 12 rounds. However, Escobar still wasn’t considered the division’s Undisputed Champion because Baltazar Sangchili had defeated Panama’s Al Brown and was recognized by the IBU.

 

In 1935 a stadium in San Juan was named in his honor; the Sixto Escobar Stadium still exists to this day.

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Escobar then pursued a title unification fight against Tony Marino, who had defeated Sangchili by knockout in his previous fight. He won the fight by knockout in the tenth round, receiving the “undisputed world champion” distinction.  On November 13, 1935, Escobar became the first Puerto Rican to win a title fight in the first round, defeating “Indian” Quintana by knockout.

This outcome made it possible to organize a fight against Louis Salica, it was the first time that Escobar fought a title fight in Puerto Rico. Escobar won the fight by unanimous decision (referee Jack Dempsey). Then on September 23, 1937 he lost the title to Harry Jeffra by unanimous decision.  Shortly after, he defeated Johnny Defoe in a warm-up fight.

On February 20, 1938, Escobar faced Jeffra in a rematch organized at the El Escambrón baseball park in Puerta de Tierra. He won the contest by unanimous decision, scoring three knockdowns.

On April 2, 1939, Escobar defeated Kayo Morgan before a sold-out crowd of 15,000 at the Estadio Sixto Escobar. After this fight, he received The Ring Bantamweight Championship, which was presented by the magazine’s editor, Nat Fleischer.

Then in 1939, Escobar received a draft notice from the United States Army, ordering him to take a physical exam for possible military service. He and his manager presented the issue to the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission, managing to receive a postponement of two months before surrendering his title.

On April 6, 1940, Escobar fought Simón Chávez for ten rounds in what ended as a draw. Escobar then fought some short non-title fights, of which he lost four, all by points.

On December 2, 1940, Escobar participated in his last professional fight, losing to a ten round decision to Harry Jeffra.

In April 1941, he was drafted by the Army and participated in World War II.

After his military service, Escobar confronted problems to meet the bantamweight’s limit and retired.

Escobar, who participated in an era where boxers gained small purses in comparison to today’s era. Deciding to move his family to New York City, Escobar became a spokesperson for liquor and beer companies.

Then he returned to Puerto Rico where he worked selling liquor in bars. In May 1947, Escobar and Jiménez Sicardó co-promoted a fight card with the intention of bringing fans back to boxing.

Unfortunately Escobar’s over drinking combined with his diabetes, contribute to his early death in November 17, 1979 when he was just 66 years old.

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Escobar was inducted into the Madison Square Garden’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1950. – Herb Goldman ranked Escobar as the #13 All-Time Bantamweight – He was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1975 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002.

After his death, Escobar became the first world boxing champion in history to have a statue erected, his town of Barceloneta giving him that honor. In 2003, controversy surrounding this statue surfaced because the government of the city of Barceloneta decided to bring the statue down and build a park in the area instead. – In March 2005, a second statue of Estobar was unveiled at the Estadio Sixto Escobar in San Juan.

Several buildings and streets were named after Escobar posthumously, including the Auditorio Sixto Escobar. The house where he lived was later turned into a library and museum bearing his name.

It should be noted that Escobar was never, throughout his career, knocked down or out in a professional boxing fight.

 

 

Boxing History Article – 2011

 

 

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