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28th June 2020
By: Craig Rees
Today on his 77th birthday, we take a look at the career of legendary Panamanian lightweight, Ismael ‘El Tigre Colonense’ Laguna who was idolized by one of the greatest to ever step into the ring.
Born June 28th, 1943 in Colon, Panama – Ismael’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Growing up in the hard streets of his homeland, he would often be involved in street fights. His upbringing in this environment, as well as his natural ability and toughness, destined him for a career in the ring, and shortly after his 17th birthday, he turned professional.
Laguna plied his trade in the popular venues of Panamanian boxing, such as the Gimnasio Nacional and Estadio Nacional, amassing a 27 fight winning straight while physically maturing from a boy into a man. He would come up short in his 28th bout against Colombian Antonio Herrera, in which many reports suggest was a clear hometown decision for Herrera. Laguna would later avenge this defeat on home soil via a 6th round TKO just a few months later.
It would be no less than a year when Laguna suffered his second defeat, to Mexican featherweight great Vincente Salvidar on points. Salvidar would go on to defeat Sugar Ramos for the WBA & WBC Featherweight crown in his very next fight.
It was not long until Laguna got his own shot at world honors, amassing four wins to place himself as the top lightweight contender in the world and luring Puerto Rican WBA & WBC Lightweight Champion Carlos Ortiz over to Panama for a shot at his world titles. In a fight that would boast former world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott as a referee, Laguna defeated Ortiz via majority decision; although this was short-lived.
After two non-title bouts, including a draw against Argentinian Nicolino Locche, Laguna would lose his title to Ortiz via unanimous decision in the rematch in the former champions homeland of Puerto Rico, with the referee this time being the undefeated former heavyweight champion, Rocky Marciano!
Laguna would not reclaim his titles until 4 years later, during which time he would defeat some of the finest lightweights of the era, although losing again to Ortiz via unanimous decision for world honors.
On March 3rd, 1970, Laguna defeated American Mando Ramos in Los Angeles via 9th round TKO. He would defend his title once, defeating Guts Ishimatsu before relinquishing his title for the last time.
In the scorching 125 degrees weather of Panama City, Laguna faced the talented young Scot Ken Buchanan. The heat was such that night that Laguna opted not to customarily enter the ring second as champion but chose to enter the ring first so that he claimed the corner of the ring that was in shade, although it was to no avail. Ken Buchanan defeated Laguna in a controversial split decision in front of thousands of his adoring fans.
Although only just turned 27 years old, this moment was the twilight of Ismael’s career. The Buchanan fight was Laguna’s 71st fight in just 10 years as a professional and a very active career had put a lot of miles on the clock. He would never regain the form that saw him become one of the best fighters of his generation. He would win twice more before being defeated via split decision by Eddie Lindler, followed on by a decisive unanimous points loss to Ken Buchanan at Madison Square Garden in a rematch, which was to be his final fight. His final record stood at an impressive 65 (37 KO)- 9-1 with him never failing to hear the final bell.
Although falling into poverty and ill health after retirement, Ismael Laguna remained a national hero in his native Panama. Roberto Duran described Laguna as ‘my idol, my inspiration’. So much so, that after he had avenged Laguna’s loss to Buchanan by himself defeating the Scotsman for the World Lightweight crown, he visited Laguna with his championship belt, telling him ‘Here, this is yours’. Laguna did not accept and told Duran he was just happy enough that he had won. In this instance the torch was passed over, Panama had a new pugilistic hero, although the legendary status of Ismael Laguna remained and he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001.