Forgotten Boxing History: The Night Mexico’s Little Thumb Almost Became the Big Toe of God

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It was Joe Frazier’s first title defense and though undefeated in twenty fights, there was an uncertainty over what sort of champion he was. A large part of this had to do with questions over his legitimacy as champion since boxing commissioners forced Muhammad Ali into boxing exile and stripped him of the title that now belonged to Frazier. But this is not about Frazier, this is about his opponent during his first defense: Manuel “Pulgarcito” Ramos, the rare Mexican heavyweight to try the improbable—become heavyweight world champion. Ramos understood the opportunity in front of him, saying before the fight, “I am fighting for all Latin America, not for Mexico alone.”[1] Ramos added, “I am going to try to knock Frazier out in the early rounds. I know I can knock him out if I get a chance.”[2] If Ramos, could in fact, knock out Frazier, he would become to only Latin American crowned as heavyweight champ, as the previous two attempts—Luis Firpo against Jack Dempsey and Arturo Godoy against Joe Louis—ended with losses.

Frazier and Ramos in 1968, before their June 24th fight in Madison Square Garden.
Frazier and Ramos in 1968, before their June 24th fight in Madison Square Garden.

Before the fight, Mexican newspaper, Esto, either confidently or naively, maybe both, stated, “A new champion will be born and he will be Mexican!”[3] Mexican boxing fans also shared in the hope and excitement with 500 fellow countrymen making the trip to New York City to support Ramos. Some of his fans wore “straw sombreros with “Ramos” and their idol’s nickname, ‘Pulgarcito’ stitched on the brims.”[4]

“Pulgarcito” translates to small thumb, an ironic nickname for the 6’4”, 208 pound Ramos. The fight took place on June 24, 1968 in Madison Square Garden, more than 2,500 miles away from Ramos’s hometown of Hermosillo, Sonora. With this fight, Ramos became the first Mexican boxer to fight in the latest version of the historic venue. The fight began with a hectic pace and defense appeared optional. About forty-five seconds into the fight, after Frazier backed his opponent into the ropes, Ramos threw a perfectly placed right that almost floored Frazier. “Frazier was rocked!” screamed the announcer, “Frazier was wobbled by a right hand.” Frazier said of that punch, “It’s the first time I’ve ever been shook. I’ve been done before, but I’ve never been hit that good—on the button.”[5]

After that punch, Frazier instinctively back-peddled into the ropes, his aggression gone. The crowd’s excitement grew with Ramos, at least for a few seconds, stalking Frazier whose fall appeared imminent. But just as it seemed like Mexico was about to have a heavyweight world champ, Ramos threw a left-leaning shovel hook that with his right not even at shoulder level, left himself open to Frazier’s vicious left counter that erased all momentum. Just like that, even though the fight continued for another round, Ramos lost any realistic chance of beating Frazier.

After two action-packed rounds, Frazier proved too much for Ramos.
After two action-packed rounds, Frazier proved too much for Ramos.

With about a minute left in the first round the faint chants of “Mexico! Mexico!” tried to motivate Ramos. But not even twenty seconds later, Frazier’s unrelenting attacks staggered Ramos who only survived because of the bell. Early into the second round, Frazier dropped Ramos who managed enough courage to get up only to continue the beating he was taking. With less than ten seconds left in the round, Frazier dropped Ramos one last time. As the referee counted, Ramos interrupted him, waving his arms across his body, showing his surrender. After the fight, Ramos said he felt ashamed.[6] Year later Ramos stated that after landing the right that almost knocked down Frazier and won him the title, he felt scared and therefore, unable to finish Frazier.[7] And though his corner yelled for him to not stop fighting, the bout was effectively over right when Frazier was at his most vulnerable.

Frazier fought five more times before facing and defeating Muhammad Ali in their first of three fights. Before that 1971 fight, Norman Mailer wrote, “The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility he is. It is like being the big toe of God. You have nothing to measure yourself by.”

After their fight, Ramos fought twenty-seven more times, losing twenty-two of them including the last fifteen—a disappointing end for the only Mexican heavyweight to fight for a title. However, on June 24, 1968, Manuel “Pulgarcito” Ramos came as close as any Mexican boxer has ever come to becoming “the big toe of God.” But for whatever reason, when Ramos was close to being world champion, he pulled back and quit. Maybe, as he mentioned, closing in on accomplishing the improbable scared him. Or maybe he was the only sane person in the arena.

 

[1] Dave Anderson, “Frazier Heavy Favorite to beat Ramos Tomorrow Night: Mexican.” New York Times, June 23, 1968.

[2] “Ramos Overcomes Bad L.A. Start, Seeks Title.” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1968.

[3] Marco Antonio Maldonado and Rubén Amador Zamara, Historia del Box Mexicano: Cosecha de Campeones: 1961-1999 (Mexico City, Mexico, 2000), 36.

[4] Dave Anderson, “Champion Drops Mexican Twice.” New York Times, June 25, 1968.

[5] Neil Amdur, “Ramos’s Profile Too Good a Target” New York Times, June 25, 1968.

[6] Anderson, “Champion Drops Mexican Twice.”

[7] Tomás Kemp, “’Pulgarcito’ Ramos venció a dos ex campeones mundiales.” La Prensa, Diciembre 3, 2009.