Wepa! Where have you gone, Felix Trinidad?
Next week, from the StubHub Center in Carson, California, Miguel Cotto will face Yoshihiro Kamegai in what the Puerto Rican star says will be one of the final fights of his career before walking off into the sunset at the close of 2017.
Five years later, he should be in Canastota, New York, for his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Puerto Rico has a deep-rooted and illustrious boxing tradition, having produced Wilfredo Gomez, Wilfred Benitez, Carlos Ortiz, Hector Camacho Sr., Jose Ortiz, Edwin Rosario and Wilfedo Vazquez Sr., among others.
And then there was Felix “Tito” Trinidad, perhaps the island’s most beloved prizefighter. Not only was he a vaunted puncher but his friendly manner and easygoing ways made him Puerto Rico’s favored son. By the late 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, he was one of the sport’s biggest draws, both in his homeland and the Madison Square Garden in New York.
You can debate if Trinidad is truly the best Puerto Rican boxer ever but there’s really no denying he is the most universally beloved. And as his career wound down, the torch was passed to Cotto, who, coming out of the 2000 Olympics, was signed by Top Rank and developed into one of boxing’s biggest attractions. His outings in June at the Garden on the weekend of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, in New York City, became an annual tradition.
So who’s next after Cotto?
Well, that’s the problem. There isn’t anyone on the immediate horizon to step in. In fact, there is a bit of a drought. Yeah, it’s akin to Puerto Rico not being able to produce rum or beautiful women.
Say it ain’t so!
Jose A. Sanchez Fournier, a leading sports journalist for El Nuevo Dia, admits, “I would say that there is. I get asked by readers on the street or by email, ‘Who’s going to be the next titleholder? Who do we have?’ And there’s an impossible feeling in the fan-base on the island that we are in dire straits, when it comes to boxing.”
The question is: How and why did this happened? It’s not as if Puerto Rico has suddenly lost interest in the fight game. If there are two sports that are important here, they’re boxing and baseball. And this is where Sanchez Fournier points out that, several years ago, there was a dearth of impact players from Puerto Rico in the MLB but recently they have seen the emergence of Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians and Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros.
“Now,”says Sanchez Fournier, “all of a sudden, we have these two kids and Jorge Baez of the Chicago Cubs, Christian Vazquez of the Red Sox; they exploded. Now we are having statistically and, quality-wise, one of the best years in the last couple of decades for Puerto Rican baseball. Something happened with boxing. We had a couple of good runs. Some of them ran short, like (Juan Manuel) ‘JuanMa’ Lopez. Some of them outdid their wildest expectations like Miguel Cotto, 16, 17 years, turned pro in 2001. That’s baseball numbers, not boxing numbers. And, right now, we’re going into one of those dry spots again. I would say that with uncertainty because we are there already.”
Not only did JuanMa have a truncated prime, Jose Pedraza (who was one of the last remaining Puerto Rican beltholders) was mis-promoted into Bolivian by “Team Puerto Rico” as his title defenses came in locales like Cincinnati, Ohio, Mashantucket, Connecticut, and Brooklyn, New York. As of this moment, Puerto Rico has no male world champions to its credit. (Next week Cotto will be facing Kamegai for the vacant WBO 154-pound title.)
It’s not as if promoters aren’t still mining this area for pugilistic gold. Tonight on ESPN, from Puerto Rico, Golden Boy Promotions is staging a card that features Alberto Machado against Carlos Morales. “From what I’ve seen of Machado, he has a tremendous record. I know, this camp, he took it very serious and trained alongside Miguel Cotto and Freddie Roach and you hear things in the gym and they’re very good,” said Robert Diaz, Golden Boy’s matchmaker. “His nickname is ‘El Explosivo,’ ‘The Explosive One,’ and I think it’s just based on his record.”
The 26-year-old super featherweight has an unblemished mark of 17-0 (15) and is facing his toughest pro test to date.
“You can’t count Carlos Morales out. He’s always been the underdog, always been on the B-side,” pointed out Diaz, who’s in Puerto Rico. “He came in and fought a couple of Golden Boy fighters and earned his way to a contract. I’m excited about the fight. It’s a very important fight for the companies and, most importantly, for the fighters because the winner will probably go up to number two or three in the world. So a world title fight will be right around the corner.”
As Golden Boy got into business with Cotto a few months ago, part of this deal called for GBP to do a few shows in Puerto Rico that featured boxers under the Cotto Promotions banner. The problem is most of these boxers have been closer to Abner than Miguel Cotto. However, Angel Acosta, who recently gave WBO light flyweight titlist Kosei Tanaka a tough time, has shown promise. Golden Boy will be coming back here in November. “It’s the beginning of a brand-new relationship,” stated Diaz.
Meanwhile Top Rank has 10 boxers of Puerto Rican heritage, including Christopher “Pitufo” Diaz and prospects Jeyvier Cintron, Victor Padilla, Antonio Vargas, Henry Lebron and, last week, they announced the signing of Jose “Chino” Lopez.
But Sanchez Fournier – who likes Machado and Cintron as prospects, along with bantamweight Emmanuel Rodriguez, 17-0 (12) – says bluntly, “You can’t see a clearly defined heir apparent for the island.”
Just a couple of years ago, it was believed (and, yeah, I was the Asian driver on this bandwagon) that Felix Verdejo would be that guy. Not only did he look like Trinidad’s younger cousin, he was seemingly out of central casting, replete with a lethal left hook and a Colgate smile. Top Rank made him a priority and showcased him on HBO dates where he failed to impress in multiple performances. Once a prized prospect, he is now considered a prime suspect.
It’s gotten to a point of which even Puerto Rican partisans are now apathetic toward him. There is talk of him training away from the cozy comforts of home, in Big Bear, California, to break him out of this malaise. But should he turn things around, well, the Boricua bandwagon will fill up quickly, once again.
“Oh yes, definitely without a doubt,” stated Sanchez Fournier, one of the most influential members of the media in Puerto Rico. “We are very passionate. We are also ambivalent to who we are passionate with. We might fall in love with a fighter and fall out of love.”
And should Verdejo KO Terry Flanagan for the WBO lightweight title down the line?
“He’ll be received like a prodigal son,” says Sanchez Fournier.
Shawn Porter has pulled out his bout against Thomas Dulorme next week, due to a death in the family. Yordenis Ugas will take his spot…The bout between David Benavidez and Ronald Gavril will be part of a “ShoBox” telecast on September 8, from the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas for the vacant WBC super middleweight title…Jameis Winston was made for HBO’s “Hard Knocks”…Gave “Marlon” on NBC a shot and I liked it…I can be reached at email@example.com and I tweet (a lot) at twitter.com/steveucnlive. I also share photos of stuff at instagram.com/steveucnlive and can also be found at tsu.co/steveucnlive.