Boxing's junior lightweight and lightweight divisions have always provided boxing fans with thrilling and memorable fights. These fights often offer the perfect blend of speed, power, boxing skills, and brutality that sometimes elude the other divisions. The wars that take place in these divisions gratify boxing fans' insatiable lust for action and leave us craving more. The mid-1980s and 1990s-lightweight division were stacked with arguably some of the greatest fighters, if not the toughest in the division's history. Fighters like Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Azumah Nelson, and Hector Camacho are just a few of the names that graced a talent stacked division during this era—-just take a look at the Ring’s 1988 and 1989 junior and lightweight rankings.
Amongst these fighters, Juan Molina was a fighter who was a highly-skilled, tough, “boxing ruffian” that came to wage battle every time he stepped inside the ring. Born and raised in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Juan Molina, better known to fight fans as John John Molina, was a brutal presence in the junior lightweight division during this era.
He amassed an impressive professional record of 52-7, 33 KOs, won three world titles, defended one of those titles seven times consecutively, fought in seventeen world title fights, and has a deep resume of exceptional and elite-level opponents. He was ranked as the number three junior lightweight in the world in 1989 and ranked number one in 1994. But yet, despite all his success, Molina is a fighter that hardly gets mentioned in boxing conversations amongst fans and experts alike.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing John John Molina. We discussed his illustrious career, his most notable fights and relived his most significant moments.
Please enjoy this Q&A with the former three-time world champion.
JR: Let me start by thanking you for the opportunity to interview you. Tell us about your beginnings in boxing. How did this great career of yours kick off?
JJM: As early as I can remember, I was always fighting. When I was a kid, I was bullied because of how I talked, so I was fighting every day. My older brother Jose was an excellent boxer, and I looked up to him. I always used to play fight with him. He used to get the better of me, it used to make me angry because he would hit me, but I couldn't hit him back. He was an outstanding boxer, and he won gold at the Pan-Am games representing Puerto Rico. I wanted to be like him, so that’s where my love for boxing started. My brother wanted me to be a baseball player, but I wanted to box.
JR: Tell me about your amateur experience. How did it prepare you for your career as a professional?
JJM: My success in the professional ranks was primarily due to the lessons I learned in amateur boxing. I traveled a lot and fought elite opposition. My amateur career meant a lot to me because I got to represent Puerto Rico. Wearing Puerto Rico across my chest filled me with great pride, especially when I fought in the Olympics.
JR: You started your professional career in 1986. Can you tell us about the transition from amateur boxing to professional boxing?
JJM: After the Olympics, I waited another year to turn pro and won gold in the Pan-American games. After that, I competed and won the World Cup in Korea. When I came back from Korea, I signed with Lou Duva, a great person, and he had a great stable of fighters like Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, and Evander Holyfield. I learned a lot from being around those guys.
JR: You turned pro in 1986, and within three years, you fought for the IBF Junior Lightweight world title against Tony Lopez. It was a good fight, a fight in which you looked comfortable and confident ….(Molina interrupts me before I can finish the question).
JJM: In my opinion, I won that fight. The fight was on his turf in Sacramento, California. It was a fight that was swayed by the crowd. I would hit him three times, and when he hit me once, the crowd would make so much noise that I thought the arena was going to cave in. But he didn't beat me. For me to beat him in his house, I had to knock him out.
JR: It's been more than 30 years since that fight took place, and you still hold to your belief that you won that fight.
JJM: Absolutely, everyone tells me so. Of the seven fights that I lost, three of those fights I feel I didn't lose. Oscar De La Hoya, I believe I won by a point or at least a draw. The Roberto Garcia fight and the first Tony Lopez fight.
JR: To clarify, you believe your loss in the first Tony Lopez fight was because you were in his hometown and not in a neutral venue?
JJM: Yes, if any of those three fights would’ve taken place in a neutral venue Tony Lopez doesn't beat me. I was more skilled than he was and, overall, the better boxer.
JR: Shortly after the first fight with Tony Lopez, you fight for the WBO Junior Light Weight World title against fellow Puerto Rican Juan Laporte. You won the fight and your first world title. What did this fight mean to you?
JJM: I don't particularly like fighting against other Puerto Rican fighters. But in this case, it was for a world title, for the WBO belt, which was an organization founded in Puerto Rico and against a great fighter like Juan Laporte. It was a fight that I was very interested in. I’ve always said that the fight against Juan Laporte taught me a lot. Juan Laporte was a strong fighter. Fighting against him, I couldn’t have the mentality that I was going to knock him out. I had to change my mentality to fight an intelligent fight against him. I was in great shape for this fight. I also believe that my preparation for this fight carried over into the rematch with Tony Lopez.
JR: After you win the WBO title, you immediately fight for the IBF title in a rematch with Tony Lopez. You avenge your loss and take the IBF title away from Lopez. You didn't get a chance to enjoy the victory, nor did you get an opportunity to do a post-fight interview because of the events that took place when the referee stopped the fight. Tell us about that.
JJM: The crowd didn’t agree with the referee stopping the fight. They started throwing cups and ice in the ring. They had to escort me away from the ring and the arena with guards because the crowd became angry. The most beautiful thing after winning a world title is when you’ve been presented the belt, and you get to enjoy your victory. I wasn't able to that, but I won the fight, which was the most important thing.
I was angry after that because I believe the Duvas didn't protect me as a fighter. They were good people, but I always had to fight in the opponents' hometown regarding my career. I had to travel to England and Africa to fight. The Duvas had great confidence in me, but they didn't understand the pressure of having to fight in the opponents' hometown constantly. Mentally I was always afraid that a decision wouldn't go my way because I was fighting on their turf. I wasn't scared to fight. But every once in a while, I wanted to fight in a place where I was comfortable and not with the added pressure of always fighting away.
JR: You didn’t have a say in where you fought?
JMM: No, they picked the opponent, and I just fought. My job was to stay in shape and be ready to fight. My mentality was always to be prepared to fight. I didn't understand that if I was the number one ranked fighter, why was I the one always traveling. Why couldn't fights be made in Atlantic City? Maybe the Duvas were making a little more money in doing so.
JR: You fought a third fight against Lopez and lost the very same title you took from him. What happened?
JJM: I was furious leading up to that fight. Pernell Whitaker was preparing for a fight against Azumah Nelson. They used me as a sparring partner to help Whitaker prepare for Nelson. Whitaker is a southpaw, Lopez isn’t a southpaw. I traveled to Las Vegas to help Whitaker, and then I traveled to a training camp in California in a place where the altitude was high, and we all had a hard time adapting to the high altitude. I suffered a severe headache because of the high altitude. I was in good condition, but we got there on a Monday, and the fight was on a Saturday, and that wasn't enough time to get adjusted for the fight, so it affected me. I was angry with the Duvas for that. But I stayed with them, and I never turned my back on them.
JR: You win your third word title fight against Jackie Gunguluza, and you defend that title successfully seven times. How did you feel during this successful reign as a world champion?
JMM: I felt good, I felt comfortable, and many people told me I was their favorite fighter. I remember Azumah Nelson telling me that I was the best. I told Azumah Nelson, no, you're the best. If one day I have the opportunity to fight you and I beat you, then I'm the best. But you are currently the best. I respect him tremendously, Azumah Nelson is a gentleman.
I remember one night I'm hanging out in my hotel room and hear a knock on the door. I open the door, and to my surprise, it was Jeff Fenech. He wanted to meet me, and I was said to myself, “Wow, you want to meet me?” These were beautiful experiences that I cherish because these were fighters that I admired. And they wanted to meet me? For me, these were beautiful moments that have a special place in my heart.
JR: Lou Duva had a tremendous stable of fighters, Breland, Whitaker Taylor, etc. How was Duva able to manage so many different personalities and egos?
JJM: They were dates for every fighter. We all had our dates. The Duvas were very organized in that aspect. We all sparred with each other, and I learned a lot from those sessions.
JR: How did the fight with Oscar De La Hoya come to be?
JJM: I always wanted to fight the best. Oscar was the best at that time, so I was willing to go up in weight and fight him. After the Goyo Vargas fight, the Duvas bring me a contract for a fight against Oscar. Oscar's purse was for a million dollars; they were offering me $300,000. My brother said no way that I was worth at least $500,00. I wanted to fight Oscar so badly and have him on my resume, so I signed the contract. I remember clearly what my brother said to me after I signed the contract. He said, “You sucker, the Duvas are taking money underneath the table for this fight.” That's exactly how it was, and my purse was way more than $300,000, they took the extra money. I took the punches, they took the money.
JR: The fight with Oscar was a tough, violent fight. (Click HERE to watch the bout on YouTube.) What are your feelings about that fight?
JMM: It was a tough fight. The problem with was Oscar's opponents was that they were all afraid of him. I wasn't scared of him. I put a lot of pressure on him during the fight. I attacked his body relentlessly, and I wouldn't let him breathe. Even veteran referee Mills Lane was trying to protect Oscar. I said to myself, “Geez, protect both of us, not just him.” I believe that I won that fight by at least one point. I'm ok with a draw. But he won the fight by five points? That means even without the knockdown, they still had him winning. Oscar was going to win regardless, I had to knock him out to win.
JR: After the De La Hoya fight, you fight for six more years against some tough opposition, including Shane Mosley. Up to that point, you had a very successful career. Why did you keep fighting? Why didn't you retire after the De La Hoya fight?
JJM: I had the desire to fight. I felt good, and I wanted to keep fighting. Promoters were setting me up with fights they thought I would lose, and I kept winning. I beat guys like Ben Tackie and Emmanuel Agustus. I kept fighting until I lost. When I lost against Juan Lazcano, I retired.
JR: What did you do after your retirement?
JJM: I dedicated myself entirely to my job at the telephone company in Puerto Rico. I worked there until 2005. In 2005 I fell off a ladder, and I sustained injuries to make shoulder, back, and neck that required surgery. I still have pain but feel much better. I take care of myself, keep a healthy diet, and I feel good.
JR: Do you stay involved with boxing?
JJM: I do some. When I have to do an interview or something like that, but my favorite sport is basketball. I'm not happy with the state of boxing. I believe boxing is being ruined, especially when it comes to judges making bad decisions. Many times, a fighter that should've won the fight didn't get the right decision. Also, referees need to do a better job of being fair and taking care of both fighters. One fight that upset me was the Prichard Colon fight against Terrel Williams. Prichard Colon was being hit to the back of the head for most of the fight. The referee didn't issue or warning or take a point away from the other fighter. Had he done that, then maybe the other fighter would have stopped hitting Prichard in the back of the head. The referee was at fault that night. For these reasons are why I’m disgruntled with the sport of boxing.
JR: What advice do you give fighters that are coming up and pursuing boxing as a career?
JJM: I would tell them to be very disciplined. Boxing is not a game, and it's a challenging sport. They got to get up early, do their roadwork, train hard, watch their diet, go to bed early, and take care of their bodies. It is vital that you these things as a fighter.
JR: What was your most brutal fight?
JJM: Oscar De La Hoya. I felt a lot of pressure because I knew that I wouldn't win the fight if I didn't win by knockout.
JR: Which fight did you expect to be a tough fight, and when you get in the ring, it turned out to be an easy fight?
JJM: The Juan Laporte fight. It was a fight that even I was surprised at my performance. Some others come to mind, the rematch with Lupe Suarez, Tony Lopez, Goyo Vargas, Manuel Medina. These were tough fighters and brutal fights, but my excellent conditioning allowed me to perform well against these guys.
JR: Who was the hardest-hitting puncher you've ever faced?
JJM: There was a fighter that wasn’t very well known. He didn't realize it, but when he hit me, I felt it. I can’t remember his name, but he hit hard. Oscar was a hard hitter also. But because I was applying pressure against Oscar, I was able to take away some of his power.
JR: Who was the fastest fighter you’ve ever faced?
JJM: Shane Mosley, hands down. He’s extremely fast and a great fighter. I wanted to fight guys like Oscar and Shane. I wanted to fight the best and have their names on my resume. I tried to fight Brian Mitchell, but he retired. I also wanted to fight Azumah Nelson. I admired and respected these great champions.
JR: During your reign as champion, when you were at your best, which fighter did you want to fight, but for one reason or another, it just didn't happen?
JJM: Azumah Nelson. Don King offered me a fight with Azumah Nelson. Don King met me at a restaurant and offered me a lucrative purse to fight Azumah Nelson. But I didn’t want to be disloyal to the Duvas, and I didn't take the fight. My brother chastised me for not taking that fight. King offered me a million dollars to take the fight, but I wanted to stay faithful to the Duvas and not let them down, so I didn’t take the fight.
JR: If life handed you another opportunity to redo one of your fights, from training camp all the way to the fight, what fight would that be, and what would you do differently?
JJM: Oscar De La Hoya. I asked Oscar for the rematch when he was in Puerto Rico, but he said, “No way.” I would've loved a rematch with Oscar, but his team said no.
JR: I know you’re a humble person and do not like to brag about yourself nor take any unnecessary credit for your work. I’m going to read your accomplishments throughout your career. You have an amateur record of 103-11. You competed in the 1984 Olympic games. You've won gold medals in numerous world tournaments. You have a professional record of 52-7, 33 KOs, won three world titles, and defended one of those titles seven times consecutively, and fought in seventeen world title fights. Champ, do you believe you should be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame?
JJM: People tell me all the time that I should be inducted. People say to me, John-John Molina should be in the hall of fame. When Tito Trinidad was inducted, I received an invitation from the IBHOF to attend. I went with my son. When I was at the ceremony, I told my son to ask (them), why if (they) believe that I am one of the great Puerto Rican champions, then why haven’t they postulated me into the hall of fame. They told me that it wasn’t (them) at the Hall that made those decisions, it was up to the writers. We had a great time at the event, and it was a tremendous experience, but people tell me all the time that my name should be in the IBHOF. I don't know what's happening. I, too, believe that I've earned a place in the IBHOF. My career wasn't easy, it wasn't arranged like others. For me to become a champion, I had to work extremely hard and make my own way. I agree with those that have told me I should be in the Hall of Fame. But I leave it alone, and I believe that one day I will be inducted, God willing. Thank you for asking me that question. I was able to vent about my feelings on the matter, thank you.
JR: Do you've any regrets about your career? Are you satisfied with it?
JJM: Yes, I am very satisfied, and I do not have any regrets. I thank God, my family, and my team. They always supported and cheered me on during my fights. I could hear them clearly when I was fighting, chanting “John-John, John-John.”
JR: When it's all said and done, and you leave the world to your final resting place, how do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?
JJM: I want to be remembered as a good person. That I was a respectful person, I believe that one must give respect to earn respect. I want to be remembered as a good person that was always there to help others.
JR: Champ, I want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to sit down and talk with me. It has been an honor and privilege to have been able to interview you. You are a great person and a great champion. I wish you the very best.
JJM: Thank you, Jacob, for conducting this interview.
My Take: While most champions use humility as a social tool in an attempt to follow social protocols, John-John Molina's character embodies the essence of the word. Throughout the interview, John-John Molina maintained a humbled attitude and always gave respect and honor to all the opponents he's faced. Humility defines this champion. To an extent, he was oblivious of his greatness and monetary value for much of his career. Humility aside, once Molina stepped into the ring, his opponents knew they were in for a tough fight. His relentlessness and pressure style of fighting battered opponents and made a “man” of Oscar De La Hoya, as George Foreman stated during the 12th round of their grueling fight. He fought who his team put in front of him and sought out the best fighters in the division. His accolades and his resume make a strong argument for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Hopefully, one day his dream will come true, and he'll get the call to attend the ceremony as an inductee and not as a visitor. Molina embodied what it truly meant to be a fighter. He was nothing more or nothing less. As he stated in the interview, “My job was to be ready to fight,” and fight he did.