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The Future of Puerto Rico?

(Photo © Peter Amador / Top Rank)
(Photo © Peter Amador / Top Rank)


Right now, there is a bit of a vacuum in Puerto Rican boxing. This proud island, which treats the sport as it’s national pastime, has had a glorious succession of prizefighters that has seen the likes of Wilfredo Gomez, Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto become cultural icons. But with Cotto clearly on the back nine of his career and Juan Manuel Lopez failing to living up to expectations, a void currently exists. Currently, there is just one major beltholder from Puerto Rico, Roman Martinez.
 
This is like having a shortage of rum or beautiful women in this region.
 
How could this be?
 
Say it ain’t so.
 
Where have you gone, “Tito”? A lonely island turns its eyes to you.

It says here it could be one Felix Verdejo, the 19-year old sensation, who, since turning pro after the 2012 Olympics, has already begun to build a rabid following. Tonight, he headlines at the Ruben Zayas Montañez Coliseum in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico versus Corben Page (UniMas, 11 p.m., ET/PT).

No, he’s not technically the main event on this card but it’s clear that the large majority of Puerto Rican partisans will be there specifically for him.

Peter Rivera, whose company, PR Best Boxing Promotions is the local promoter for Verdejo’s appearanes in Puerto Rico says, “We are really impressed here in Puerto Rico how fast Verdejo is moving up, regarding how famous he’s getting on the island.” Early on, Rivera promoted the likes of Daniel Santos and later worked with Top Rank with Cotto during the early part of his run. “I don’t really like to compare boxers but if you compare Cotto for example, a great, great fighter, famous fighter, you saw the level Cotto was at certain fights and then Verdejo, it’s something incredible. Verdejo, right now, with just a few fights before the one in New York, we did something in Puerto Rico and he sold out this place with 3,000 people - with just four fights.”

The bout Rivera is referring to was a second round stoppage of Martin Quezada on March 23rd and even on television (that card was televised by UniMas), the crowd’s emotion toward this young man was palpable. Rivera notes that Cotto didn’t box on the island till his fourth professional outing and his homeland debut “maybe brought 800 people to the arena.”
 
“The personality of the guy is one of the reasons why people are really following him,” said Rivera, who had co-promoted the likes of Lopez and Ivan Calderon with Top Rank in the past. He says, by far, at the same stage, Verdejo is the biggest ticket seller he’s had out there. “You have, like, a mix of all the good things of other fighters. Like for example, he’s from the same area as Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad. He has the same name, ‘Felix.’ OK? He’s a good looking guy; he dresses well. He’s so humble, such a great person. He likes to be with the people.

“And the boxing fans of Puerto Rico are expecting to have a hero like that one.”

Not too surprisingly, Verdejo, just a child during Trinidad’s heyday, looked up to him.

“Growing up, we all followed him. Everybody would stop doing whatever they were doing to watch him on TV. Everything with him was an event every time he came on. I loved the way people followed him. Someday, hopefully, they’ll follow me like that,” he said to Maxboxing, earlier this week through Top Rank publicist Ricardo Jimenez.

Bob Arum, whose company promoted Cotto into stardom, believes Verdejo is much more like Trinidad from a standpoint of personality and charisma. “There’s no question about it,” he stated. “Miguel was not as outgoing as Felix Trinidad but people in Puerto Rico are great fight fans and they appreciated Miguel because of his talent. But when you have great talent and outgoing personality, then you have something really special. That’s why Felix Trinidad was always more popular than Miguel.”

Talk to those fans in Puerto Rico and they’ll tell you that Felix was beloved while Miguel was respected.

Who knows if Verdejo can really fight? Right now he’s been fed a steady diet of handpicked opposition designed to make him look good while he continues to grow into his lanky body. But this much is clear; he has a smile that should be endorsed by Colgate. It comes naturally to him.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’d always be smiling because I’d see my dad was always smiling at everything,” Verdejo explained. “We’re just grateful for everything we can get. God has given us a lot from boxing and everything and in life. So we’re just grateful. We’re just happy to do the things we love to do.”

So far, he’s enjoying life as a professional prizefighter. “I’m very happy; everything’s worked out really nice,” he says. “Thanks to God, everything’s worked out like we thought it would and I’m very happy with the way Top Rank is moving me along.” Since his pro debut back in December, he’s been kept busy. The fight this weekend will mark his fifth outing in 2013.

He’s notched one KO after another this year since his maiden voyage in the paid ranks, getting past Leonardo Chavez in Las Vegas. It was a performance that was rather tepid and certainly not spectacular by any means. “I was very anxious, very anxious about the fight,” Verdejo admitted. “It went the distance. I know it’s a process. It’s going to be a long process and you’re learning all the time. That first fight was tough and I know I’m in for a long career.”

Since then, fighting in Puerto Rico and in New York, he’s racked up four consecutive stoppages while fighting the usual suspects. But he does look more comfortable in each fight as he acclimates himself to the smaller gloves and boxing without headgear. He’s starting to look like a pro fighter early on.

Verdejo says, “Ever since I was a kid, that was my dream - to become a professional boxer and everything that goes along with it, the smaller gloves without any protection. So it’s very, very exciting for me.”

This kid is needed in the worst way in Puerto Rico. Yes, boxing is a passion over there but they need a boxer to be passionate about.

Top Rank’s V.P. of Boxing Operations, Carl Moretti, having been present at all of Verdejo’s performances in Puerto Rico states, “He’s clearly somebody they’re identifying with. So as long as we don’t fall prey to rushing him and continue on the path that we have along with his management and trainer, the potential is clearly there to do that.”

There is no need to rush. After all, he’s still just 19 but you can just feel the buzz on this guy. Anytime you bring him up to Puerto Ricans or on social networks, they will tell you: he’s the next one.

“We’d like to believe that," says Moretti. “Based on fan reaction on both the East Coast and in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Ricans seemed to have grasped this young kid coming out and it’s somebody that they want to follow and they clearly like. He’s up for an award with Univision as a leading potential athlete in all sports. So we’ll continue with what we’re doing and go from there.”

The plan is for Verdejo - who will participate in the Puerto Rican Day Parade in early June in New York - to return to the ring in August or September and then fight twice more to close out the year.

“I’m very grateful for everything I’m getting, all the support,” says Verdejo. “Not only from Puerto Rico but from Mexico. I get a lot of messages from there on the social networks. People are always telling me to keep it going.”

It’s too early to crown him. There’s a long way to go here but this guy has a chance.

“This is the real deal,” says Rivera. “This is the future star.”

PR PERSPECTIVE

This is what Jose Sanchez, lead boxing scribe for the El Nuevo Dia in Puerto Rico, had to say about the early development of Verdejo:

“It is impressive how with only a handful of professional bouts, Felix Verdejo has developed into a popular figure on the Island.

“I think this is because of several factors.

“First, there is a lack of big Puerto Rican boxing stars right now. Cotto is at the tail end of an impressive career (and he never cared too much about the celebrity or ‘idol’ aspect of his chosen profession); “JuanMa’s” fame took a big hit due to his twin knockouts at the hands of Orlando Salido (and his controversial post-fight comments) and Rocky Martinez never developed into a big name, even though he is a two-time champion.
“Secondly, Verdejo looked good at the Olympic qualifiers and -even though he lost one round shy of the medals- impressed with his showing at London 2012. Amateur boxing is not as huge as the pro game in PR but it is nevertheless big with sports fans.

“Thirdly, he projects himself as a humble, honest kid with a quick smile and no superstar pretentions (something not all local prospects do in PR).

“Also, the partnership with Top Rank is seen as somewhat of a guarantee that Verdejo is the real deal. After decades where Puerto Rico was Don King (Martinez) territory, Bob Arum’s outfit is now top dog on the Island. They showed what they can do with a talented prospect working with Cotto and Lopez.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the kid has talent. He is a quick-handed counterpuncher with good technique who can apparently bang with both hands. And his punching power, even though still unproven against quality opposition, is a big draw and what separates him from other up-and-comers like Jose Pedraza and the Arroyo brothers.”

RIGO

So what are Top Rank’s plans with 122-pound champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, who outboxed Nonito Donaire on April 13th in New York?

“We’re looking at possibly having him fight in the fall in Miami and we’re looking at opponents now,” said Bob Arum.

So will Rigondeaux be able to draw in South Florida with his Cuban heritage?

SEPT 14TH

Arum is steadfast. If Floyd Mayweather is not fighting on September 14th, they are going ahead with the bout between Juan Manuel Marquez and Tim Bradley at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.

“Of course, we made it plain and the industry understands that we are going on the 14th if Mayweather is not. But we don’t know; Mayweather may still go on the 14th.”

But what if Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is paired with Miguel Cotto on that date instead by Golden Boy?

“Nah, that has the past-sell date and that fight, I don’t think they can make that fight because of the demands of both fighters,” opined Arum.

RATINGS GAME

According to Nielsen Media Research, “The main event replay featuring Mayweather vs. Guerrero averaged 733,000 viewers on Showtime last Saturday night.”

To put this into perspective, this is 45 percent lower than last year’s replay on HBO featuring Mayweather against Miguel Cotto.

But this has to be mentioned; Miguel Cotto brought a much bigger fan-base than Robert Guerrero did. Cotto was perhaps the third biggest franchise in boxing at the time (behind Mayweather and Pacquiao) in the United States/North America. He brought a whole island and the East Coast with him. Guerrero brought Gilroy.

Also, HBO still has a bigger subscription base than Showtime, between six-to-eight million more depending on which report you read. The bottom line is that HBO is still a bigger platform on which to play on.

And finally, let’s be honest; Mayweather-Cotto was a much better fight and actually contained some drama (Floyd’s bleeding!) while the bout with Guerrero was an exercise in monotony.

WEEKEND FLURRIES

Look for a “Boxing After Dark” card on HBO in mid-August featuring IBF middleweight titlist Daniel Geale taking on Darren Barker with IBF 122-pound beltholder Jhonathan Romero defending his title. This telecast will be a tripleheader; I’m told...Very good scrap between Guillermo Jones and Denis Lebedev, where Jones regained the WBA cruiserweight crown. But you have to wonder how Kostya Tszyu kept letting Lebedev out there with a grotesquely swollen right eye...So are the NBA Kings staying in Sacramento after all?...The series finale of “The Office” was excellent. Long live Dunder Mifflin...I can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com and I tweet at www.twitter.com/stevemaxboxing. We also have a Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/MaxBoxing, where you can discuss our content with Maxboxing readers as well as chime in via our fully interactive article comments sections.


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