Name: Ismael Laguna
Alias: El Tigre Colonense
Birth Name: Ismael Laguna Meneses
Birthplace: Colon City
Height: 5′ 9″
Panmanian featherweight champion (1962-63) World Lightweight Champion (1965)
World Lightweight Champion (1970, he was stripped of his WBC title prior to losing the WBA title to Ken Buchanan)
Laguna also lost 15 round decisions in two other bids to regain his lightweight title, in 1967 against Carlos Ortiz, and in 1971 to Ken Buchanan.
Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (2001).
Inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame (1999).
Ismael Laguna was born, one of a family of nine, in a fishing village called Santa Isabel, near Colon, Panama, on 28 June 1943. Colon was a busy port at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal and like many others from poor backgrounds Laguna scraped a living as a boy by shining shoes and selling newspapers. He soon learned to fight for his pitch, and then turned to boxing when , aged 12 or 13, he found national champion Carlos Watson offering to spar with anyone on the beach. Laguna volunteered and opened a cut which was still healing from Watson’s last fight. Afterwards, Watson’s trainer, Chino Amon, asked the youngster if he would like to learn the art properly.
Amon talked to Laguna’s parents and persuaded them that it was better for their son to spend his time in a boxing gym than on the streets.
Laguna fought just half a dozen times as an amateur, befor turning professional under manager Isaac Kretch at the age of 17. He fought as a flyweight in his debut, a second round knockout of Al Morgan, in Colon in January 1961. For his second outing, later that month, he outpointed Eduardo Frutos , a full blown bantamweight.
By the time of his third fight, n March 1961, Laguna was a bantamweight himself, scaling 120 lb for a points win over Javier Valle, on his Panama debut. He then had a tight squeeze in fight number four, his first six rounder, when he edged home on a split decision against a flyweight called Carlos Real.
At the time Carlos Guevala was promoting weekly shows at the National Gymnasium in Panama City and Laguna enjoyed a spell as a regular there, developing into a useful prospect. In April 1961 Laguna stopped Jose Pacheco in three rounds and outpointed Ernest Campbell over six rounds. While history will never regard these wins as watersheds of his career, they were vital moments in the youngsters education. They also allowed him to develop both his reputation and a good following among the demanding Panamanian fans who had spent years watching talented prospects come and go.
After a seven round knockout of a dangerous Jamaican, Killer Solomon, Laguna made his breakthrough into the big time when he outpointed the Cuban bantamweight champion Enrique Hitchman, which drew rave reviews. One called him the best Panamanian fighter since Al Brown.
After making his overseas debut with a 10 round points win over Castor Castillo, in Venezuela, Laguna came through a scare when Nelson Estrada dropped him with a right hand, in Panama City, in April 1962. He took an eight count, got up and had Estrada helpless when the referee stopped it in round seven.
By mid 1962 Laguna had risen to 5th in the Ring ratings and the Panamanian Boxing Commission set a precedent by declaring that he would be recognised as the national bantamweight champion without having to prove it in an actual championship fight. Laguna had already beaten the previous holder, Hector Hicks, in five rounds, and Hicks had since retired leaving the title vacant. The decision was said to be well received and in September 1962 Laguna became a double National champion when he stopped the reigning Panamanian featherweight title holder Pedro “Kid Manhattan” Ortiz in seven rounds. In all there were 27 consecutive wins in Laguna’s teenage years culminating in a third round knockout of Fili Nava, in Panama City, in May 1963. His first defeat came in the last fight before his 20th birthday, when his management team risked a trip to the Colombian capital, Bogata, against Antonio Mochila Herrera. The young Panamanian lost on points over 10 rounds.
Herrera was persuaded to accept a rematch in Panama City, in September 1963, and this time Laguna knocked him out in the seventh round. He then ended the year in Paris, winning his European debut with a 10 round decision over the Nigerian Joe Rafiu King. In his previous bout King had lost a 15 round verdict to world champion Sugar Ramos, so on the strength of this result the British paper Boxing News installed Laguna as the number one challenger to Ramos.
However, a shot at the 126lb belt never materialised. After a decision in Paris over the French based Cuban, Angel Robinson Garcia – who he was to rate as the best opponent of his career – Laguna took on the aggressive southpaw Vicente Saldivar in the Mexican border town of Tijuana in June 1964. With hindsight it was a foolish move on the part of Laguna’s management. Their policy had been to stay busy and take on the best. Saldivar and Laguna were two of the best featherweight prospects for years and their meeting was effectively a final eliminator for the world title. Not surprisingly the verdict at the end of the ten rounds went to Saldivar, who went on to dethrone Ramos in his next fight.
Laguna’s response was to move up to the lightweight class and at 5ft 9in he was certainly tall enough for the 135lb division. He coped well and the progression was natural. After an eight round win over Kid Anahuac, on his American debut, in July 1964, Laguna returned to Panama to wait for a shot at the world lightweight title. By this time his popularity at home was secure and three wins persuaded the local promoters to make an attempt to bring the world champion Carlos Ortiz to Panama City.
The fight was originally set for March, but was delayed due to Ortiz being ill. It eventually took place in April 1965 and Panama was to welcome its first world champion since the great Panama Al Brown in the 1920’s. Ortiz was outclassed by Laguna in a close fight full of fiery exchanges. At the final bell Laguna was crowned the world lightweight champion at the age of 21.
To be continued