Forgotten Legends: Wilfredo Rivera

By: Steve Gallegos

The great boxing island of Puerto Rico has produced 4 world champions with the first name “Wilfredo”. There was the legendary Wilfredo Benitez, Wilfredo Gomez and a father/son tandum in Wilfredo Vazquez Sr and Jr.; however there was another talented “Wilfredo” from Puerto Rico that wasn’t able to reach the same level of success. His name was Wilfredo Rivera. A fairly tall fighter with decent hand speed and power to go along with very good technique, Rivera was a top contender in the welterweight division in the mid to late 90’s in which he mixed it up with some of the greatest fighters of his era while showing class and intergrity.

Rivera grew up in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico and began boxing at the age of 9. He had an amatuer record of 51-6 and earned a spot on the 1988 Puerto Rican Olympic team; however due to politics from the Puerto Rican Boxing Federation, he was replaced. Rivera turned pro in April of 1988 and scored a 4th round TKO in his pro debut. He would go 24-0-1 from 1988-1995. He would earn his 1st world title shot against the legendary Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker.

They met on 04/12/96 on the island of San Martin for the WBC welterweight championship. Whitaker didn’t appear to take Rivera seriously and was looking ahead to possible bigger paydays against the likes of Oscar De La Hoya, Ike Quartey and Felix Trinidad. During the bout, Rivera proved to be a worthy challenger and outboxed “Sweet Pea” during many rounds. The two men collided heads early in the bout which caused a bad cut high on Rivera’s head. He fought valiantly despite the cut and would later turn southpaw so that the lead eye would be the eye that wasn’t cut. The southpaw stance would in turn confuse Whitaker. At the end of 12 rounds, Rivera was confident he won the bout and was ready to join the list of the many Puerto Rican world champions; however the judges decided otherwise. The end result would be a split decision win for Whitaker.

Although he lost on the cards, the Puerto Rican public celebrated Rivera as if he won. Many fans greeted him with cheers at the airport when he arrived home in Puerto Rico telling him “You are the champion, Wilfredo“. He was even dubbed by the press as “El Campeon sin Corona”, a champion without a crown. The WBC ordered an immediate rematch and five months later, he got another crack at Whitaker.

They met on 09/20/96 in Miami, FL. A strong Puerto Rican crowd was in attendance in support of Rivera including welterweight champion Felix Trinidad. Although Trinidad was there looking to land a fight with Pernell Whitaker, he was in full support of his fellow countryman while leading the cheers at ringside. Rivera had earned Whitaker’s respect and didn’t overlook Rivera this time out. Whitaker, who was known as a slick, defensive genius opted to stand flat footed throughout most of the bout, throwing hard shots; however Rivera took them well while still landing shots of his own.

Rivera scored a knockdown in the fifth round and Whitaker would score one in the sixth. The two men fought hard up until the final bell. This time the end result would be a unanimous decision victory for Pernell Whitaker. The scoring was very close in this fight. One judge had the fight scored 112-113 and another judged scored the fight 113-115. Had Whitaker not put Rivera down in the sixth round, the fight would have been ruled a draw. Rivera continued on and won his next four bouts, all by KO before landing another shot at a world title. This time, it was against the “Golden Boy”, Oscar De La Hoya. The “Golden Boy” was in the prime of his career and was the biggest star in boxing.

They met on 12/06/97 at the Atlantic City Convention Center in Atlantic City, NJ and there was a great deal of mutual respect between the two fighters prior to them stepping into the ring. In the second round, a left hook by De La Hoya opened up a huge cut over Rivera’s right eye. Rivera fought through the blood like the warrior he was and continued pressing forward. In the fourth round, De La Hoya put Rivera down with a barrage of punches; however Rivera was up almost immediately. He continued pressing forward; however the cut was getting worse as the fight was going on and the fight was finally stopped in the eighth round. Rivera held his head high and handled his defeat with class. Rivera won his next three bouts and before facing “Sugar” Shane Mosley.

They met on 09/25/99 in Temecula, CA. Mosley had cleaned up the lightweight division and moved up two weight classes to welterweight and would find out that Rivera was one tough cookie. They fought hard for 10 rounds and Mosley had to dig very deep to finally put Rivera down and out in the final round. Mosley would later score the biggest win of his career against Oscar De La Hoya and would have an easier time with De La Hoya than he did with Rivera.

As always, Rivera shrugged of the loss and won his next two fights before landing another high profile fight, this time against “El Feroz” Fernando Vargas. Vargas was coming off his first loss in a war with Felix Trinidad and appeared to look at Rivera as a safe opponent. They met on 05/05/01 in Corpus Christi, TX. In the second round, Rivera landed a flush right hand count that put Vargas down. Vargas was wobbly as he got back up and was clearly hurt. Vargas was in jeopardy of having his young, promising career possibly coming to an end; however he was able to regain his composure. They traded shots for six rounds and Vargas landed a hard body shot in the sixth round which put Rivera down. Rivera got up but was having trouble seeing as his eyes were starting to badly swell; therefore the corner threw in the towel.

Rivera would go 3-2 over the next four years before retiring in 2005 with a record of 35-7-1 with 21 KO’s. A class act the entire time and there wasn’t a more nicer, honest fighter in the game. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able to win a world title as he ran into the best fighters of his era, but he gave it a whole-hearted effort the entire time and that is why he will always be considered “El Campeon Sin Corona”, A champion without a crown.

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