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A few years ago an impromptu sparring session at South El Monte brought together about a dozen young featherweights. It was a dizzying eye-opening affair. Among those strapping on gloves were Oscar Valdez and Jojo Diaz who were just coming off the London Olympics. Other notables were Saul Rodriguez and Abraham Lopez. Even Gennady “GGG” Golovkin was in the gym.

The sparring was intense. It was fast and furious and in those two hours of blazing fists and grunts it was easy to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Those who held their own that day are now on the brink of stardom.

One of those was Valdez.

The Mexican featherweight from Nogales blitzed through the weak and matched wits with the strong. That day four young prizefighters stood out from the others. And the two-time Mexican Olympian was ahead of the group.

Now it’s Valdez (19-0, 17 KOs) who challenges Argentina’s Matias Rueda (26-0, 23 KOs) for the vacant WBO world featherweight title at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It takes place Saturday July 23 and will be on HBO pay-per-view.

Four years ago Valdez was competing in the Olympics. He had already made a name for himself as the first boxer to represent Mexico in two Olympiads. All eyes were on him.

“I’ve been following Oscar even before the 2008 Olympics. I saw him at the San Diego Sports Arena. He was 17 years old. I knew he had everything to make it in the pros. He had the pro style. I could see him being a champion,” said Frank Espinoza who now manages Valdez. “Once the Olympics were done there were many people approaching him but the father trusted in me. It’s been a great relationship. I’ve always said when the team works the dream works. We’re looking good. God willing he gets crowned the world champion.”

It takes a while to make the adjustment to the pro style. Not everyone makes the transition. Even Valdez had moments where the bumps caused minor blowouts to his tires on the road to professional stardom. But the talent was visible.

“I feel his last couple of performances proved to me he was ready for the big challenge,” said Manny Robles who trains Valdez at the Rock gym in Carson.

Valdez ripped through Chris Avalos, a hard-hitting slugger from Lancaster, a year ago in Las Vegas. He simply beat him to the punch. Then he belted out Ernie Sanchez in three rounds in Tucson, Arizona last December. Finally, he met former champion Evgeny Gradovich in Las Vegas and beat him to the punch too.

All of those previous opponents mean nothing on Saturday. Those past victories got him to this point, but now, he faces an undefeated battle-tested Argentine who didn’t travel across the globe to sign autographs.

“We have to adapt to different styles,” said Robles who also trains Jason Quigley, Alexander Brand, and Dominic Breazeale. “The weight class is packed with talent and each has their own particular style.”

Valdez has done some studying too.

“I’m a big fan of boxing. I see all the fighters. I’ve seen video of Matias Rueda,” said Valdez, 25, during a recent televised press conference. “He’s your typical Argentinean. They are hard-hitting punchers like Lucas Matthysse and Marcos Maidana. They depend a lot on their punch.”

For Argentina’s Rueda 23 times out of 26 his punches were the correct solution to a win. So how do you beat a slugger like this?

“I’m going to try and beat him to the punch,” Valdez says calmly.

It worked for him plenty of times that day back in 2013 in that gym in South El Monte. Can it work again on Saturday?

“I dreamed of being on big cards like this. To be successful you got to like what you do and I love what I do,” said Valdez. “My dream is to become a world champion. I want to take that belt back to Mexico.”

Three years ago about two dozen people watched that pivotal sparring session. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands will be witnessing to see if Valdez can repeat that performance on the big stage.

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