Golden Boy Promotions boasts a new Dynamic Duo on ESPN2
Facing a former world champion is a considerable milestone in a young boxer’s maturation process, and to do so in one’s 10th professional bout is rare. Yes, there are phenoms like three-division champions Vasiliy Lomachenko and Naoya Inoue, who break from the norm, but a look at THE RING Magazine pound-for-pound rankings reveal only three have done this. Undefeated three-division champion Terence Crawford did not take on a former champion before winning a world title in his 22nd fight against Ricky Burns. WBA/WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin also waited until fight No. 20 to face his first former beltholder, in Kassim Ouma. There is no magic formula which tells promoters when it is time; they have to rely on experience and the good ol’ eye test. In his 10th professional fight, blue-chip prospect Vergil Ortiz, 9-0 (9), takes on former two-time junior lightweight champion Juan Carlos Salgado, 27-8-1 (16), on ESPN2 (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT), while similarly skilled Hector Tanajara Jr., 13-0 (5), faces the toughest test of his career in the co-main event.
A prodigious talent, winning multiple national titles, as well as the Junior Olympics, establishing a 140-20 amateur resume, Vergil Ortiz is being fast-tracked by Golden Boy promotions. The Dallas product, who trains in California for better sparring, has torn through admittedly average competition. Ortiz has stopped every foe with precision hooks and impeccable punch selection. Ortiz seems to wield naturally heavy hands (but nimble enough to master a guitar and piano, which he takes to every training camp), like an Ike Quartey or Kostya Tszyu. This may actually be a minor problem facing Salgado, since Ortiz has not passed the four-round mark yet. A veteran like Salgado surely plans on forcing the youngster to go the scheduled 10 rounds, and the Mexican has the grit, displaying a sturdy chin against elite foes.
During preparations Vergil Ortiz reportedly dropped regular sparring partner and former champion Lucas Matthysse (with a body shot), according to new trainer Robert Garcia, who also believes Ortiz is peaking at the right time. The junior welterweight is keen to make a great first impression, as a headliner, and was visibly excited at the press conference announcing the fight, “I’m training with Robert Garcia now, and I’ve been working on using my head more and keeping my composure. This is an amazing opportunity. I’ll be headlining a Golden Boy event for the first time, and against a former world champion. I’ve stopped all my opponents in my career, and I hope to do the same in my toughest fight yet. Make sure to not miss my fight!”
Not only has the 20-year-old Ortiz been getting work in with iron-fisted Matthysse but sharing the ring with Mikey Garcia, as well, which, in all honesty, should do him more good than facing Salgado. Ortiz has only been working with Robert Garcia for two months, which could be a factor if the fight does go into the late rounds. Garcia thinks they have formed a good chemistry though, and views Salgado as a credible elevation in opposition, “I really don’t see Juan Salgado as an ‘opponent.’ He’s a former world champion. He’s a hell of a fighter, an experienced fighter, but Vergil is something special. With the power and dedication that this kid has, he should come through this fight. I don’t expect it to be an easy fight but one punch could end it.”
Former trainer Joel Diaz (with whom Ortiz and his father had a surprising but amenable split) told UCNLive’s own Steve Kim, last year, that anything less than a world title would be a failure for Ortiz. “Yes sir, I think it would be a disappointment because this kid has a mentality of a champion already. He has the confidence; he steps in the ring knowing that he’s going to go in there and dominate, regardless of whatever you got, whatever you bring to the table. He’s very athletic, very smart. You try and play any kind of tricks on him and he’ll switch them on you. He impresses me everyday.”
There is no sugar-coating the fact that Juan Carlos Salgado is on the downside of his career, losing seven of his last eight outings, against imposing opposition, but the rugged former champ has experience on his side. Best known for a first round TKO over Jorge Linares, Salgado also emerged victorious in an all-Mexican shootout with Martin Honorio, in defense of his second world title. Notably Salgado’s 232 rounds of professional experience may allow him to absorb or evade Ortiz’s initial rushes. Ortiz definitely thinks defense second, so openings should present themselves in every round for Salgado. The underdog will need to force the action in the later rounds, in which Salgado should find more comfort.
The 33-year-old brawler is slowing but still has a dangerous left hook and throws enough counterpunches to earn respect. Salgado believes he has earned some deference from Ortiz, given his resume, and that the upstart should not get ahead of himself, “I know that people think that I’ll be yet another steppingstone for Vergil Ortiz but I want to tell everyone that they’re wrong. Mexicans do not back down, and it’s very tough for us to give up a loss. I’ve done away with predictions before, and this fight will not be the exception. You will see a great fight.”
Eric Gomez, president of Golden Boy Promotions, wants to see how Ortiz copes with a veteran in the later stages of a fight, telling Mark Whicker of The Orange County Express, “It will be good for him to get some more rounds in. Once you get past the fifth round, and it’s a tough fight, you have to make adjustments. You have to figure out how to breathe, how to manage yourself. He wants to do that because he knows it’s part of the process but, in the meantime, he’s doing great.” Still, when Gomez thinks of Ortiz, late rounds are an afterthought, “He just has natural power. It’s something you have or you don’t. When we see it, we get excited.”
In the opening bout, Hector “Finito” Tanajara Jr., another Texan, from San Antonio, takes on his most formidable foe in Venezuelan Roger Gutierrez, 19-1-1 (16). While Vergil Ortiz has matured at a faster clip, in the professional ranks, Tanajara had a better amateur career (winning international competitions but surprising many by turning pro instead of competing for a 2016 Olympic spot) and superior tactical skills. At 5-foot-10, Tanajara is a huge junior lightweight, and he knows how to deploy that size, rarely getting sucked into clinches or toiling along the ropes. This he learned sparring with pound-for-pound elite and undefeated four-division titlist Mikey Garcia, and avoiding the cruder rushes of Jesus Cuellar and hard-charging Brandon Rios in West Coast sparring sessions.
An enthused Tanajara said he has dreamed of finally getting to show his skill-set to a national television audience, “This is my first televised fight on ESPN, so I’m very excited about that. I know my opponent Roger Gutierrez is coming to win, so he’s going to bring the best of me. I saw his fight against Rene Alvarado, and I know what I have to do. I know I pose more of a threat to him than Alvarado did. I think I have more experience than him because his record was built in Venezuela. He wasn’t used to the competition here. I’m looking to capitalize on that.”
Tanajara’s goal is to fuse the attributes of his favorite boxers, Ricardo “Finito” Lopez and Rafael Marquez, combining the precise anticipatory skills of Lopez with the pinpoint power of Marquez, “I’m a boxer-puncher. I just like to stay smart and use my reach. It wasn’t that much of an adjustment from the amateurs to the pros for me. I always had that style. It’s just been more sitting down on my punches, just getting the little tricks of the professional game.”
Despite fighting once in America, Tanajara’s opponent is still somewhat of an unknown commodity. Roger Gutierrez has a reputed amateur record of nearly 100 victories but demonstrated little of that in his only loss, which also served as Gutierrez’s American debut. In that outing, Gutierrez showed himself a brave brawler but was also pretty open to shots, succumbing in the seventh round to competent Nicaraguan brawler Alvarado. Gutierrez still wants to take the fight to Tanajara, openly asking for a toe-to-toe fight in the final press conference.
It should be an enjoyable evening of action, and perhaps an unveiling of two new stars ascending on the boxing horizon.