Dave Hannigan: Final bell sounds for Pedroza following an eventful career
Panamanian who juggled politics and boxing lost his world title to McGuigan in 1985
Barry McGuigan in action against Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road Stadium, London in 1985. “I thank God every day that I didn’t beat McGuigan,” said Pedroza. “If I had, I would not have left that place alive. They would have torn me to shreds.” Photograph: Steve Powell/Getty Images
Six years after the event, in the midst of a comeback that ended ignominiously in the gym of a Detroit high school, Eusebio Pedroza gave an interview about the summer’s night in 1985 that he lost his WBA featherweight title to Barry McGuigan.
He claimed that on the approach road to Loftus Road that June evening, Irish fans had surrounded his car and started rocking it back and forth until it nearly keeled over. Later, en route to the ring in the middle of the pitch where he was putting his belt on the line for the 20th and final time, he was punched in the back repeatedly by spectators.
“I’ve never wanted to lose a fight but I thank God every day that I didn’t beat McGuigan,” said Pedroza. “If I had, I would not have left that place alive. They would have torn me to shreds.”
His death from pancreatic cancer in his native Panama last week brought Pedroza back into the spotlight. If, for us, he was always merely the other man on one of the most memorable fistic nights in Irish history, his was a full career that included a lot more than a unanimous decision that Angelo Dundee later described as “questionable”.
The million dollars he received for agreeing to take that bout in west London, a sum many multiples of his usual purse, was later frozen by the Panamanian government following the US invasion and the fall of General Manuel Noriega. His was that kind of life.
The boxer known as “El Alacran” (the scorpion) and the dictator who presided over what was often called a narco-kleptocracy were apparently good pals. There are even accounts of Pedroza once leading a gang of paramilitaries wielding baseball bats that attacked a motorcade of the boss’s political rivals.
Decades before Manny Pacquiao invented the concept of juggling boxing with legislating, Pedroza was simultaneously world champion and a member of Panama’s Congress, representing the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the same outfit Noriega manipulated when seizing power.
“Politics is much dirtier than boxing,” said Pedroza in 1991, when he was trying to recoup his money and to distance himself from the deposed leader.
“At least in boxing, you know where the punch is coming from. In politics, you get hit from out of the shadows. Because I knew Noriega, the new Panamanian government thought I had come by my money illegally. That’s ridiculous. Sure, I knew Noriega, but don’t Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns know the president of this country?”
Mixing politics and pugilism was not always conducive to training. During the build-up to the McGuigan fight, his trainers complained that he often seemed distracted by his parliamentary obligations, missing consecutive days of training and still carrying 18lbs excess baggage with just three weeks to go before the flight to London.
At 5ft 9in, he was tall for a featherweight and had enough issues making weight without complicating them further by slacking off his physical work. There had been similar problems leading into his successful defence against Angel Mayor 12 months earlier when he apparently spent only 14 days in the gym beforehand.
There were other factors hampering him ahead of the clash with McGuigan. The small matter of an altercation with a thief who tried to break into one of his cars as Pedroza slept at his home in Panama City’s middle-class enclave of Los Pinos.
Roused from his bed, he pulled a muscle in his leg while chasing down the miscreant but succeeded in getting close enough to wound the would-be robber with a shot from his 9mm Uzi machine pistol. The sort of anecdote that made his subsequent protestations about the unruly crowd at Loftus Road ring a little hollow.
It wasn’t like he wasn’t used to fighting in hostile environments either. Only seven of his 19 successful defences took place in Panama. For the others, he went where the money was, even traipsing as far as Papua New Guinea where he took on Johnny Aba, the local hero, in a Port Moresby ring necklaced by 500 cops with German shepherds. They were holding back an audience some of whom wore grass skirts and carried lances as if preparing to do battle. Pedroza was ahead in the 11th when he unceremoniously shoved Aba through the ropes and was declared the victor.
There was the whiff of impropriety about more than one of his victories during the seven years he bossed the division and earned renown for his ability to go down the stretch of so many 15-round epics. The implication was the WBA wanted to keep the streak going and a couple of dodgy decisions went his way.
Certainly, he prevailed more than once despite judges docking him points for nefarious tactics. Aside from being regarded as one of the best ever at the weight he was an acknowledged master of the dark arts. The late, great Hugh McIlvanney once wrote, “many regard him as the most ingenious and persistent violator of the rules now at work in world boxing”.
By the time Pedroza fought his last bout, a split decision defeat against Marco Gutierrez, at the Holy Redeemer High School in 1992, he was disputing record books that had him pegged at 39. He claimed to be three years younger.
That so many of the obituaries that marked his passing listed him at 62, instead of 65, meant he at least won that final battle.