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ROAD WARRIOR : Boxer Zaragoza Returns to Home (Always) Away From Home for Title Defense

August 29, 1989|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

Daniel Zaragoza's entire career has been on the road.

Here he is again in Los Angeles, preparing for another title defense in a foreign country. Zaragoza is as familiar with the jogging trails of Griffith Park, where he does roadwork, as he is with the streets of Tacuba, his neighborhood in Mexico City.

Zaragoza, the World Boxing Council's super-bantamweight champion, makes his fourth title defense at the Forum against Frankie Duarte Thursday.

Zaragoza (38-4-1) has fought only once in Mexico City. All seven of his world championship bouts have taken place outside of Mexico. Zaragoza was in an L.A. jail the other day--the old Lincoln Heights jail, the fifth floor of which is now a boxing gym. While he taped his hands before a workout, he talked about his start in boxing and his frequent-flyer career.

"I got a late start, I was 20 when I had my first amateur bout," Zaragoza said through his interpreter/manager, Rafael Mendoza of Guadalajara.

"My first love was soccer, even though my father and brother had boxed. I wanted to be an international soccer star, not a boxer."

Soon after taking up boxing, Zaragoza was in Moscow for the 1980 Olympic Games. In the bantamweight competition, he was 2-0 when he lost a quarterfinal bout because of a cut. At the Mexico City Games in 1968, Zaragoza's brother, Agustin Zaragoza Jr., a middleweight, won a bronze medal.

Soccer, not boxing, is Mexico's most popular sport, Mendoza noted.

"Most Mexican kids want to grow up and be a soccer star like Hugo Sanchez, who plays for Real Madrid in Spain and makes $2 million a year," Mendoza said.

His manager said Zaragoza held a championship coveted by Mexicans longer than any other countrymen.

"Bantamweight is the most popular weight class in Mexican boxing," he said. "Being the Mexican bantamweight champion is almost as prestigious as being a world bantamweight champion. "Daniel defended the title nine times, and that's the record. And he defended it in Mexico City only once. The other defenses were all over--La Paz, Juarez, Guadalajara . . . "

It was a title Zaragoza never lost. He relinquished it in 1985, after he won the WBC bantamweight championship. He lost that title to Colombian Miguel Lora in 1985, then lost a bout to Australian Jeff Fenech in Sydney in 1986.

He captured the super-bantam title at the Forum in February of 1988, when he stopped countryman Carlos Zarate.

The Zaragoza road show then went to Yochon, South Korea, where he had a draw with Seung Hoon Lee, but kept his title. In Forli, Italy, he defended the title with a knockout of Valerio Nati.

In his last defense, he won a decision over Paul Banke at the Forum in June.

"Banke was tough, and it was a difficult fight for me," he said. "But I made it easier for him than I should have--I wasn't following instructions from my corner to box him. He was mocking me, doing a lot of talking, calling me an old man, so I started mixing it with him.

"Banke was tough, but Fenech was a lot tougher . . . and a lot stronger, too."

In Duarte, Zaragoza faces a 34-year-old battler thought by many to be well past his peak.

But a champion, Zaragoza said, is always prepared.

"A champion should always be ready for a tough fight," he said. "I always expect a tough fight. Look at Roberto Duran. No one gave him a chance against Iran Barkley, but because he had the heart of a champion, he won."

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