Remember When: Ruben Olivares vs. Lionel Rose
Forty years ago today Ruben Olivares scored an electrifying fifth round
knockout over Lionel Rose to fulfill a destiny so many
predicted for him as he bludgeoned foe after foe – bantamweight champion of
the world. This performance set the stage for what
would become one of the most dynamic careers boxing will ever see and – at
least until Julio Cesar Chavez arrived – he was the
standard by which all Mexican fighters were measured.
To this day, even 21 years after his final fight, "Rockabye Ruben" remains
immensely popular. The secret of his success is that
he was a fight fan’s fighter inside the ring and out. His gap-toothed smile
served as a charming introduction to his
light-hearted personality and he wasn’t above partying with the patrons
after his night’s work had ended. He signed autographs
tirelessly and made sure every admirer felt an intrinsic connection to him.
Then, once he climbed up the ring steps and
answered the opening bell, he validated his fans’ faith by giving them an
honest night’s work for an honest night’s pay.
Up until the time Olivares met Rose, those work nights were brilliantly
brief. His 51-0-1 record boasted an eye popping 50
knockouts – including 23 in the first three rounds and 16 in a row. His
fights averaged just 4.5 rounds and only Felipe
Gutierrez (L 10) and German Batistas (D 10) managed to hear the final bell.
His awesome displays of fistic fireworks prompted
the odds makers to make him a 4-to-5 favorite over the defending world
While Olivares dominated the headlines, Rose was no shrinking violet. Rose
learned to box at age 10 from his father Roy, who
fought on the tent-show circuit. He won the Australian national flyweight
title at 15 but after missing out on the 1964
Olympics in Tokyo he decided to turn pro. He became an Australian star when
he stopped crowd favorite Rocky Gattalari in 13
rounds to retain his national bantamweight title, then became an Aboriginal
icon when, as a 19-year-old late sub, he upset
Fighting Harada in Tokyo to win the world bantamweight title. For this feat
he became the first Aborigine to capture a world
boxing title and the first of his race to be named Australian of the Year.
This easy-going pipe-smoker put together a credible reign as he defeated
Takao Sakurai, Chucho Castillo and Alan Rudkin in
title defenses as well as Tammaso Galli, perennial contender Jose Medel and
Ernie Cruz in non-title bouts. The fact that all of
these bouts went the scheduled distance – and that all but one was either a
split or majority decision – meant he knew all
about living life on the cliff’s edge. It also proved his lack of punching
power, for only eight fights in his 35-2 record
ended inside the distance. Thus, Rose vs. Olivares pitted two styles that
couldn’t have been more different but lifestyles and
personalities that were strikingly similar.
Rose’s last visit to the Forum in Los Angeles ended explosively as
infuriated Mexican fans protesting Rose’s split decision
over Castillo turned the arena into a war zone. To prevent a repeat
performance, promoter George Parnassus stocked the venue
with helmeted police armed with billy clubs working in groups of two or
four. Patrol cars scoured the parking lots and the
Forum’s gatekeepers even wore combat helmets.*
A throng consisting mostly of flag-toting, sombrero-waving Mexicans jammed
into the Forum to see their hero do his thing. Their
nationalistic chants offered yet another source of discouragement for Rose,
who was still feeling the ravages of squeezing down
to the 118-pound limit. The 21-year-old champion was a featherweight in a
bantamweight’s body while the seven-months-older
Olivares was more comfortable with his 118-pound frame.
Surprisingly, the bout began with Olivares circling Rose, allowing the
champion to take whatever lead there was. Olivares
busily poked out lefts while Rose scored with a well-timed lead right to the
cheek. Perhaps stung, Olivares fired hooks to the
head and body and followed with another hook to the chin for good measure.
The message delivered, Ruben resumed his long-range
boxing at ring center. That was just fine with Rose, who wanted to take
Olivares into the deep water of the late rounds and
drown him with his experience. In the round’s final minute Rose moved inside
and clubbed Olivares with a succession of
hit-and-hold rights to the side of the head while the challenger tore in
with his trademark hooks.
Olivares opened the second with even more side to side movement to draw Rose
into an exchange he had to know he would win. Rose
fired a lead right but Olivares pulled away and darted in behind a hard
left-right to the ribs before deftly nipping back to
long range. Not only was Olivares the harder hitter – that much was obvious
– he was also the quicker and nimbler man.
Realizing this, Rose tried his luck on the inside. His right to the ribs got
through but the hook missed over the top,
providing Olivares the opening to rip more body shots. Rose attempted to
bully Olivares to the ropes but the challenger
continued to pound away even as he was being pushed. Back at ring center
Rose got in two excellent hooks, a right to the body
and a follow-up hook to the chin but Olivares was unmoved as he fired back
in kind. The anticipated boxer vs. slugger match had
morphed into a stirring toe-to-toe brawl that saw both battlers cut loose
with their heaviest artillery.
As the round wore on, however, the effects of Olivares’ superior firepower
came to the fore. The challenger’s unending stream
of howitzer-like blows forced Rose into a defensive shell and the sight of
his increasing duress sent Olivares – and his legion
of fans – into a frenzy. A short chopping right to the side of the head sent
Rose crashing to his knees and when he arose at
Larry Rozadilla’s count of four blood cascaded from his lower lip. The proud
Aborigine unloaded a big right, but it sailed past
Olivares’ head and brought back another power-packed fusillade. Olivares
masterfully slipped Rose’s desperate swings and scored
heavily with full-shouldered body blows. A six-punch salvo knocked out
Rose’s mouthpiece in the closing seconds but the respite
was far too brief because Rozadilla stuffed it back into the champion’s
mouth without first having it rinsed. The round ended
with a seven-punch volley from the overpowering Olivares, who was riding a
wave of inner confidence and external sound from his
thousands of supporters.
Unlike the first two rounds, Olivares was the one coming forward to start
the third while Rose rode his bicycle and tried to
get his straight punches inside Olivares’ rounder swings. The Mexican
challenger’s crosses and hooks landed with devastating,
soul-sapping precision. A right uppercut sent Rose’s mouthpiece flying
across the ring and Rozadilla again replaced the
gumshield unwashed. Rose showed no shortage in terms of bravery as he lashed
out with rights that found Olivares’ chin with
more frequency. Olivares, though, was almost machine-like in his
imperviousness. He continually marched in with fists flying to
the head and body and Rose no longer had the energy to keep up.
Rose tried to re-establish his rhythm in the fourth by returning to his
long-range game and he was more successful as his upper
body movement made Olivares miss. A counter hook found the Mexican’s face
and another landed moments later. A crashing
hook-cross moved Rose toward the corner pad but he skillfully rolled under
and pulled back from Olivares’ follow-up assault.
Olivares never got discouraged because he knew he was one punch away from
turning the momentum back his way. Still, the fourth
was Rose’s best round in that he absorbed less punishment while also getting
in some excellent counters.
A sneaky left uppercut early in the fifth dislodged Rose’s mouthpiece yet
again and the champion rebounded well with a stiff
right uppercut that caught Olivares coming in. Nevertheless, Olivares was a
storm that wouldn’t be quelled. He piled on the
pressure and power at every turn and Rose soon showed signs of wilting. His
torso was half hunched as he absorbed a dreadful
body battering and the crowd urged their hero to finish the job once and for
As is the wont of all crowd favorites, their wish was his command.
A 10-punch assault capped by a crunching hook sent Rose to his knees for the
second time in the bout. The battered and weary
Rose regained his feet at six and did his best to keep the Mexican tidal
wave from pulling him under. But "Rockabye Ruben"
wouldn’t be denied and another torrent of blows that ended with a right to
the chin put Rose face down. Rozadilla instantly
waved off the bout and trainer Jack Rennie rushed into the ring to rescue
his valiant but vanquished warrior.
Olivares’ overjoyed supporters tried to storm the ring but the security
force largely beat them to the punch. Olivares donned a
sombrero and was carried around the ring, basking in the glory that can only
be experienced by a newly crowned monarch. It
would be nearly 30 minutes before Olivares could leave the ring for his
"I knew the bloke could punch hard, but I didn’t think he would punch THAT
hard," Rose told Sports Illustrated’s Jack Tobin in
his dressing room. "He’s got machine guns hanging off those arms and he
never quits firing. He kept hitting me under the rib
cage and I couldn’t get my breath."
"That’s the worst Lionel has ever been beaten," Rennie told Tobin. "That
punch in the second round that knocked out his
mouthpiece threw him off balance and he never regained his tempo. From the
second round on he was fighting on stamina and guts
Olivares agreed with Rennie in terms of when the fight irreparably turned.
"I knew I had it from the second round," he said. "Rose is a great fighter,
a great boxer, strong, quick. But I took care of
"They (are) the difference," said manager Arturo "Cuyo" Hernandez pointing
to Olivares’ hands. "Mexicans work with their hands.
(They) build houses, build buildings, dig, pound, work. Great strength.
With his brick-like hands, Olivares built the foundation of what would
become a melodramatic – and Hall of Fame worthy –
career. When Olivares was a bantamweight that radiated the virtues of youth,
he attacked foes with a frightening ferocity until
they bowed to his relentlessness. After reaching the summit of his sport,
the adversities he faced also escalated. More often
than not he was forced to suffer cuts, swellings and knockdowns, especially
after rising to featherweight, and while he didn’t
always win no one could argue that he had given his best.
He would experience three more coronations – one that avenged a loss to
Chucho Castillo and two more at featherweight against
Zensuke Utagawa (for a vacant belt) and Bobby Chacon. His career had
definitive peaks and valleys and his fans were there to
experience all the twists and turns. Like most other champions he fought on
far too long, going 0-4-1 in his last five fights
before retiring in 1988 at age 41. But like most other champions he is
remembered for the thrills he provided when he was at
his best and they all began the night he destroyed Lionel Rose 40 years ago
* "Olivares Wilts a Rose," by Jack Tobin – Sports Illustrated, September 1,
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