The year of 2017 is gone, and it has been a bittersweet one for Latino fighters across the world. We’ve gone from having a Nicaraguan flyweight at the very top of the pound-for-pound ranks to seeing some of the biggest names in boxing in decades retire without affording us the pleasure of one last epic battle to watch. Sure, the future looks as bright as ever, but 2017 will be remembered as one of those “change of guard” years in which everything we took for granted is gone and the entire field is on rebuilding mode from day one – for better or worse. Here are some of the highlights of this year’s activity in the Spanish-speaking portion of the world of boxing:
Gonzalez Hits Rock Bottom: Estrada and Cuadras Lurk Behind the Throne
The lower weight divisions continue giving us the best possible Latino fighters out there, as usual, but this year was special. With the advent of HBO’s “Superfly” card back in September, not only did we get a star-studded lineup of great Latino fighters that used to be buried in undercards and late-night, weekday events, we got a lineup of bona fide superstars getting a spotlight of their own. Too bad it started with the beginning of the end of former pound-for-pound king’s Roman Gonzalez’s career at the hands of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, but the superb performances by Juan Francisco Estrada and Carlos Cuadras in their closely disputed co-main event suggests that Rungvisai’s crown will not rest on his head for too long. Along with Zolani Tete and the still relevant Brian Viloria and Omar Narvaez, among others, the super flyweight division will give us some of the best fights our money can buy in 2018, and both Cuadras and Estrada will be up there rumbling with the best – and hopefully coming out on top of the pack.
Canelo Got the Wins, Not the Credit
If you’re told that you only have to beat two fighters to solidify your claim as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, and you do that, you’re done, right? You’re instantly respected and acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with. Well, not for everyone. Mexican superstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez did just that, beating his countryman Julio Cesar Chavez decisively in May and then fighting to a disputed draw that many people (including some of his most vocal detractors) saw him win against Gennady Golovkin. And yet, no cigar at the end. Are Mexican fans the only ones badly biased against the Freckled Boy Wonder, or is it a worldwide disease that blurs the vision of boxing fans of all persuasions who refuse to give Canelo his due?
Marquez Retired Without Throwing a Punch
He may have been known as a volume puncher, but that doesn’t mean he had to continue punching beyond the call of duty. After searching for viable foes and venues for his farewell bout for the better part of the year, the legendary Juan Manuel Marquez simply announced his retirement with no fanfare at all. And who can blame him? Marquez learned a hard lesson during his long fighting years: regardless of how many punches you throw and land in a fight, if the judges feel “inclined” towards the other guy, you’re going home with no W. And as the wiser, most patient fighter in his generation, he waited for the perfect moment to retire with the same poise with which he patiently waited for Manny to charge forward before landing his picture-perfect Cross Heard ‘Round the World. With a job as a sportscaster already in full flight, the choice was already made.
Cotto Retired With a Loss
Here’s the living lesson of Marquez’s cautionary tale: if you are not ready for another fight, why risk your legacy in a meaningless final bout? As the pre-ordained Savior of Puerto Rican that he always was (whether he liked it or not), Cotto has carried the weight of being the biggest star in a boxing-crazy island with some reluctance through the years, and when he made the decision to call it quits he also decided to unburden himself from the crown he inherited from Tito Trinidad and so many others in an official ceremony, with no heir to the throne in sight. The result was not the one his fans expected, as they packed the Madison Square Garden to see their idol unceremoniously losing to a solid contender in Sadam Ali while also demonstrating that, win or lose, Cotto had simply overstayed his welcome at the sport that made him a star. His honesty and forthcoming attitude inside and outside the ring will be sorely missed, but they would have been missed just as much without this pointless final appearance.
Salido Came and Went and Came Back Again
Since we’re talking about retirement, let’s discuss Orlando Salido’s unique exiting strategy, also known as “the backstroke.” A forward-charging fighter if there ever was one, Salido has always been, for better or worse, a runaway train inside the ring, and since he holds an upset win over top pound-for-pound entrant and boxing connoisseur darling Vasyl Lomachenko, he figured that all he needed in order to keep his chances of another crack at facing the Ukranian boy wonder was to stay busy and wait for the right offer to come along. Well, he got busy with the wrong businessman, evidently, as Miguel Roman dismantled him in a ten-rounder in December to send him into retirement – however temporarily. Sensing that the chance of his dream rematch with Loma was now even closer after a defeat against a credible opponent, Salido announced his unretirement (or unannounced his retirement?) and put his name back up on the board for the 2018 Lomachenko Sweepstakes. Not sure whether he’ll get it or not, but that has not stopped Salido from this final display of un-classiness.
Berchelt is on an Unstoppable Surge
Yes, the lower weights are Latino-Southeast Asian territory. But anything above 130 is fair play for anyone, anywhere. The junior lightweight division may belong to Vasyl Lomachenko, but the threats are palpable, and his self-imposed, half-jokingly title of “No Mas Chenko” will be put to the test by a few fighters who are anything but quitters. And if he can stay at 130 for much longer, I’d say that Miguel Berchelt is the leader of the pack. The 26-year-old Mexican WBC titlist is as close to his peak as he will ever be, fresh from two FOTY performances in 2017 and getting ready to take on veteran Cristian Mijares in February. If it ever happens, it will be a mega-fight for November-ish or beyond, but it will definitely be worth the wait.
Linares is Poised for Big Things – but Mikey is Taking the Crown
One step above, things get really interesting for the new boy wonder of boxing. Lomachenko is definitely moving up to 135 someday soon, and the prospect of a bout against Jorge Linares is enough to make me hold my breath in anticipation (yes, I still think Linares can rise to the occasion and become one of the best Latino fighters of his generation, and maybe more). But it is at 140 where all eyes are centered as Mikey Garcia makes his bid not only to hold his ground as the best junior welterweight in the world, but also as a man poised to climb the pound-for-pound lists in unstoppable fashion. Only a handful of matchups in his natural division could help him accomplish this, and a jump to 147 will be in order for him to capture greater respect. But the talent is there, and the world is watching.
Cuellar Disappeared, as did Verdejo
Amidst the explosion of young talent around the Latin American portion of the world, two notorious disappearances have baffled experts and casual fans alike. Squandering what looked like a still promising opportunity to become his country’s “other” current champion (at the end of 2017, Brian Castaño’s 154-pound title was the only one), Argentina’s Jesus Cuellar simply took an entire year off for absolutely no apparent reason. Injuries, delays and cancellations may have played a part in his disappearance, but being a fighter with almost no following of his own, relocated and fully committed to training in Southern California, and being part of a booming division should have been enough to make Cuellar come out of his shell to start taking on anybody with a pulse. And what can be said about former-future superstar Felix Verdejo, who overextended the “build-up” part of his career so much that we’re starting to think he was just a bunch of unfinished bricks that, paradoxically, would probably break in two upon impact when being punched with enough power. 2018 will tell us whether these two still valuable players are capable of soaring back to the heights they promised us to reach.
Is this the Year of Ortiz?
With rare exceptions (most of them hailing from Cuba), the world of Latino boxing rarely produces someone worth noticing above 168 pounds. But this time there is a legitimate threat in the most prestigious division in boxing, and it is hard not to feel excited about it. Sure, Luis Ortiz is not young and his career has been marred by suspensions and other setbacks, but those are the things that also conspire to give the towering Cuban heavyweight a sense of urgency in his quest for the biggest prize in sports. Will he be able to achieve what other Cuban greats such as Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon were unable to even try due to their country’s restrictive policies on professional sports? His strengths are many, and his potential foes’ weaknesses are tailor-made for him. All he appears to need is a chance to fight for a legitimate, linear, undisputed version of the heavyweight belt, and this could end up being the Year of Ortiz, indeed. If he manages to stay out of trouble and focuses on the prize, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen.
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