The history of boxing in Latin America is massively well documented, the rivalry between Puerto Rico and Mexico is arguably the greatest in the sport, the Cubans dominance of the Amateur ranks is second to none, and the fighters from any number of other countries in the region could well fill a book. One such name is that of the former Lightweight champion from Panama, no not Hands of Stone Roberto Duran, but the man better known as The Tiger of Colon, Ismael Laguna.
Laguna was born in Colon, Panama, in 1943 and faced a veritable who’s who during a fruitful career that came to a halt in just his 20’s. Growing up on the tough streets of his homeland he would regularly get into fights as a youngster, often sticking up for the younger children who were being bullied, it was obvious that Ismael could handle himself from a young age as well as having a solid understanding of right and wrong. So good was he as a fighter that soon after his 17th birthday he turned professional and stopped Antonio Morgan in his debut. The victory over Morgan was followed by a string of 26 more wins as he grew into a man over the following 3 years, building his childish frame into that of a strong, hard hitting but yet stylish and technical fighter. His first loss was in his first fight in Colombia, with some suspecting some dodgy scoring cost him against the native Antonio Herrera (who Laguna beat by stoppage just a few months later).
Almost a year after his first loss, Ismael Laguna would suffer his second, this time to the legendary Vincente Salvidar, the great Featherweight who would begin his championship reign just months later by defeating the great Sugar Ramos. Laguna’s record had fallen to 34-2 after that loss, though it wouldn’t be long until Laguna stood on top of the world. After the Salvidar fight 4 wins had seen him elevated to being one of the top lightweight contenders, and he had managed to get Carlos Ortiz, the WBC and WBA champion, to come to Panama to face him. In a bout that saw former world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott as the referee. Laguna would defeat Ortiz by a majority decision to become the champion in his 41st fight as a professional though his reign was short lived. Two non title fights followed, including a draw with the legendary Argentinean Nicolino Locche, a slippery customer who suffered only 4 losses in 136 fights before Laguna would lose his title in a rematch with Ortiz, Lagunas first defence.
Laguna would go on to lose in the second fight after losing the title, suffering quite a beating at the hands of the legendary Filipino Flash Elorde who dropped him twice en route to winning the decision. Though would bounce back with 6 wins, including a controversial decision over Frankie Narvaez which resulted in riots in Madison Square Garden. Those wins earned Laguna another chance with Carlos Ortiz, though the Puerto Rican took the trilogy 2-1, dominating the scorecards in the final fight between the two.
This was far from the end for the stylish and likable fighter from Colon, who went on a streak of fights that saw him losing only once in 15 fights (a loss that was later avenged) before earning a title shot at Mandos Ramos, the WBC and WBA Lightweight champion. Lagunas accurate, fast shots managed to open cuts on both eyes of the defending champion and after 9 rounds saw Ramos’ manager calling for a halt to the bout due to the cuts and saw Laguna becoming a 2-time champion. This reign was slightly better than his first reign, defending the title once against Guts Ishimatsu before losing it to the talented Scottish fighter Ken Buchanan in a close and controversial split decision. After this loss Laguna never really regained the form that had seen him as one of the best fighters of his generation and scored only 2 more wins before being beaten by Eddie Linder. This signalled a significant downfall for the man who had twice held the world title, though due to the controversy against Buchanan he was given a final chance to regain the WBA title (the WBC had stripped Buchanan). This time there was no controversy as Buchanan dominated much of the fight (winning 10 of the 15 rounds on one card that was filled in by Harold Letterman). This second loss to Buchanan spelled the end of Ismael’s career with a record of 65-9-1 (37) he left the sport aged just 28.
In later life Ismael would end up in poverty and admit to suffering from sickle-cell anemia before suffering a heart attack in 2009, eight years after he was inducted into the IBHOF in Canastota, the highest honour any fighter can get.