An American Mexican in England
Jose Zepeda’s boxing backstory is unusual, a reversal of the traditional success model because he was born in America but moved to Mexico as an infant when his parents returned to Mexicali. His family returned to Southern California when Jose was 10 years old, inadvertently creating a smaller American version of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, since he has a large fan base in Mexico not unlike Canelo has in the United States. Despite being born in America, Zepeda is considered a Mexican contender by many and is now trying to grow his American fan base to match that of his Mexican brethren. Nationalistic stereotypes notwithstanding, Zepeda is a Mexican-style slugger peppered with American boxing ingenuity.
This Saturday, Zepeda fights for the WBO lightweight title (a mystery how Zepeda is ranked since he has never fought under 135 pounds) vacated by Terence Crawford, facing tricky Englishman Terry Flanagan in his hometown of Manchester. Not an enviable task, given Zepeda never fought outside North America, and travels all the way from his Big Bear mountain training facility on the West Coast in California. They arrived last Saturday and if jumping so many time zones affects Zepeda, his team hopes to rescue a victory through sheer power. A realistic option, since he has stopped 20 of 23 opponents and scored knockouts in 16 of his past 17 bouts. Only one of Zepeda’s previous nine opponents, over the last two years, has not fallen inside three rounds. Impressively, Zepeda has improved since upping his level of opposition, the extra focus aiding Zepeda’s stoppage of his last four foes inside three rounds.
Fighting overseas or falling behind is not at the forefront of Zepeda’s mind, telling Dan Rafael of ESPN, “When I go into a fight, I never think about a knockout. The knockout comes by itself and we will see on July 11 what happens. I don’t mind coming to England. My promoter [Top Rank Promotions and Zanfer Promotions share promotional duties] told me there was a chance of going to England for the fight and I was OK with that.” Zepeda said preparations were going well. “We’ve been sparring 13 and 14 rounds, really hard sparring that makes the fighting easy. Most of my fights haven’t gone the distance because I’m prepared. So I’m ready for Flanagan and as many rounds as we have to go.”
According to Zepeda, a lot of the credit for his improvement goes to trainer of five years, Robert Alcazar, best known for his work with a young Oscar De La Hoya and KO artist Edwin Valero. Zepeda believes Alcazar’s knowledge of a big-fight atmosphere will help on fight night. “Robert really knows his game. He’s been in the big league and we’re always ready for 12 rounds. Knockout or distance, we’re prepared to win the fight. We train hard and we spar hard. When we go more than 12 rounds in sparring (with the likes of Russian southpaw pressure fighter Denis Shafikov, who challenged for a world title), we know we’re ready.”
Playing the role of hometown hero can backfire but if the added pressure of performing in front of local boys is weighing on Terry Flanagan, he is hiding it well. “I’m channeling it in a positive way and using it to fire me up. [Zepeda]’s a good fighter and I can’t see too many flaws but the people he has taken out are not as good as me.” Flanagan believes it may well come down to the fans. “Home advantage is important. It’s going to be electric on the night. He’s only ever been eight rounds twice [Editor’s note: Zepeda has gone a full eight-round distance once] and it’s different when you are in the ring on the night under the lights when it’s hot and the crowd are going crazy. When he’s lost a few [rounds] and I’ve lost a few, it will come down to who wants it most.”
On paper, the fight plays out as a classic boxer-versus-puncher showdown and Flanagan’s promoter, Ricky Hatton likens it to another fight that took place in Manchester nearly a decade ago. Hatton flashed back to 2006 when Joe Calzaghe destroyed Jeff Lacy, making a valid point, telling the Manchester Evening News, “Joe was facing a wrecking machine in Lacy, who, at the time, was the next big thing in boxing and was knocking everyone out. But look what a master boxer like Joe did to him; he took him to pieces.” Hatton does make assumptions about Zepeda however, “When I look at Zepeda’s record, I can see the list of big knockouts. There’s no doubt he can punch but I don’t see a defining name on there and, to me, Terry is a class boxer.”
Comparing a current contender to a Hall of Fame-caliber practitioner like Calzaghe is a stretch by Hatton but Zepeda respects Flanagan while remaining confident. “Flanagan’s a great fighter with a good record and he’s doing something right. Both of us are undefeated and I am ready to give the fans a tremendous fight. I’m not intimidated at all; my great preparation will be the key to getting this victory. I am ready to take full advantage of this great opportunity this Saturday night.” There is also value in sparring Floyd Mayweather Jr. a couple months ago (which Zepeda called the best experience of his boxing life) or Tim Bradley in the past, which makes other “boxers” Zepeda faces pale in comparison.
Growing up, Zepeda emulated Manny Pacquiao, observing at the Wild Card Boxing Club after moving back to California at age 10, maturing and matriculating in the elite but rough Southern California training circuit. That is where Fernando Beltran, the president of Zanfer Promotions, found Zepeda, signing him to a professional contract. Beltran believes the investment is about pay off, “I am confident that he will return from England with the belt. This is the perfect timing for Zepeda to have this fight. We have been working with him these last few years and he has shown all of us that he has all the tools to become a world champions.”
One semi-neutral observer is Jamie Moore (a former Commonwealth champion, now commentator), who gave Sky Sports television an astute breakdown of the match-up, “I’ve got to say Jose Zepeda is very impressive. I’ve watched three or four of his fights online and he is good. He is a big, big puncher and the one thing that worries me is that Terry is a high-pressure, hard-working fighter, so he will be in front of Zepeda, letting his hands go and there lies the danger of walking into one.” In the final analysis, Moore opted for his countryman but sees the fight as a 50/50 proposition. “All the ingredients are there for [Zepeda] to become a world champion but the same goes for Terry. I believe he’ll win and I will be keeping all my fingers and toes crossed.”
Should Zepeda return from England with the title, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum plans to build Zepeda’s name recognition by featuring his first title defense on a Sept. 26 pay-per-view card emanating from Mexico City. A perfect plan, allowing Zepeda to draw on his popularity in Mexico while providing the exposure necessary in America to move on to larger platforms like Showtime and HBO. Once there, his team can build on Zepeda’s humble attitude and perfect control of two languages (in a bit of a high-pitched voice that will remind many of Mike Tyson), which, combined with his frightening power, should make for a passionate following. For those plans to materialize, Zepeda needs to win a world title on the road, something not many American or Mexican boxers have been able to achieve in the recent past.