Most fighters have three fighting careers: street, amateur and professional. De Leon is one of the rare fighters that only have an amateur and pro career.
“No. never got into a street fights,” said the easy going young man. “I just wanted to box. My dad is a big boxing fan and my uncle used to box in Mexico all the time. He would box anyone. He would carry a pair of boxing gloves and box anybody in the street. So, I guess it’s in my blood because of my family.”
De Leon was born in the town of Sabinas Hidalgo in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. The city, first established as a town in 1693, population 30,000, is named for Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the leader of the Mexican War of Independence. De Leon and his family moved first to Texas briefly before finally settling in Lincoln Park, a suburb ten miles outside of Detroit, Michigan. Observing De Leon’s “Kronk Boxing” gym bag and the way he lit up when talking about the Detroit Tigers opening day, it’s clear the kid may be from Mexico but his heart is in Detroit.
An accomplished amateur who won just about every amateur accolade you can think of from Golden Gloves to the Junior Olympics, De Leon is of a precious generation of amateur fighters. He is of the last generation of fighters to know one of amateur boxing’s greatest advocates, the late Emanuel Steward. Mr. Kronk himself, the great lover of knockouts, took an interest in De Leon after seeing him win by stoppage at the Palace of Auburn Hills in the Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills.
“They let me fight at the Palace. It was a pro-am fight. That was when [Steward] really saw me fight. I got a second round stoppage. After that, he talked to me and he told me if I ever needed anything . . . I started going to the Kronk Gym with one of my trainers that I had and I learned a lot from that gym. A lot of great fighters, great champions. It was a great atmosphere with great guys. He was a great guy overall with me and my family. He helped me out a lot with my family,” De Leon said with the same look in his eyes anyone who knew Emanuel has when telling stories about him. It is clear Steward made quite an impact on the young man. Watching him work with Donaire and studying tape of him later in the evening, the impact that growing up as a Detroit fighter has made on De Leon is just as clear.
“I like throwing hooks. I like using my left hand, too, but usually my right hook is the one that I like throwing a lot,” explained De Leon. He didn’t categorize himself as a boxer but rather is allowing himself to develop an identity as he gains experience. At first glance, De Leon appears to be an aggressive boxer-puncher but upon further review, an aggressive counter puncher emerged. “Being a southpaw, my dad started training me when I was twelve years old left-handed. He said I hit harder with my left hand. I’m a natural southpaw but I was taught how to box right-handed first.”
What cannot be taught is the willingness to trade and De Leon appears to like doing that naturally yet intelligently. Against Donaire, De Leon ould shoot the right jab either starting to the head or body. As the six-round session progressed, he added feints with the upper body or a quick leap in and out with his feet, baiting Donaire to let his hands go so De Leon could strike. This was his second camp with Donaire and the comfort level, as well as the respect factor, was evident in both men.
“[Donaire’s] a really strong fighter and he believes in his power and he has great speed overall,” assessed De Leon. “He is just a great fighter overall. It’s a pleasure for me to spar with such a pro champion. He’s top pound for pound one of the best fighters so you always have to be really aware and just cautious. You just have to be on your A-game. After you spar with him, he is just like a brother. He talks to you, he’s a good friend. He’ll say ’You know what? I seen this . . .’ so he helps out a lot.”
The two men wasted no time getting down to business. Early on, they got tangled as only right-handers and southpaws can; always battling for position with their lead foot moving towards the outside of the other man’s. But as the session moved along, both men traded leather with the knowledge that this was the last chance to find any weaknesses of the other and exploit it. It was safe to say that those six rounds were worth the trip from Los Angeles.
“I can mix it up. I like to box, bang. I can do a little bit of everything. I adjust to my opponent,” said De Leon. “We’re working really hard. When you’re pro you have to settle down a little bit more and pick your shots. But Nonito is so sharp and quick that you have to do everything. You have to do different things, show him different things because, you know, he is a really fast and sharp guy. Sometimes you have to move.”
For the most part, Donaire was the one moving. Drawing in De Leon and countering. De Leon mixed up the attack, switching between boxing and getting inside to let his hands go.
As for his opponent Saturday night, De Leon said “I found out he’s a southpaw. He’s got like six fights. We’ve been working with some southpaws but we can adapt to any style. We had a great camp at Undisputed and we are ready to go. We sparred six rounds with Nonito today so we feel in great shape.” He did not appear to be taking his opponent lightly by any stretch.
For a fighter two classes above Donaire, whose nickname isn’t “the Filipino Flash” because he’s slow, De Leon showed excellent hand speed but more: intelligence. His bag of tricks appeared deep and his use of them did not seem forced or panicked. He attributed this to Donaire’s experience pushing him to grow and change with each round they share.
“You learn something new every time you spar with [Donaire],” said De Leon. “He’s got everything. Speed, he counter punches great. It’s like a chess game in there. I try to counter, he tries to counter me. I try to trick him. He tries to trick me. I learn just from watching him. I sit down and watch what he does and try to take things for my own. He’s doing really good. This is my second camp and it’s a pleasure being here with him.”
This is all just the beginning for the young fighter. Promoted by Top Rank, signed to top level manager Cameron Dunkin, working with trainer of the year Robert Garcia along with the team at Undisputed, Brian Swartz and Mike Bazzel, the future is bright for Erick De Leon.