A funny thing happened to much-hyped 2012 Puerto Rican Olympian Felix Verdejo on the express lane he was zipping along on the way to his becoming “the next Felix Trinidad” and the boxing-crazed island’s latest object of obsessive affection. He hasn’t gotten there. Not yet, anyway. And who knows, maybe the WBO’s former No. 1-ranked lightweight contender never will fully establish himself as a rightful heir to the legacies established not only by “Tito,” but by such other Puerto Rican Hall of Famers as Pedro Montanez, Carlos Ortiz, Wilfredo Gomez, Jose Torres, Wilfredo Benitez, Hector Camacho and Edwin Rosario. Recently retired Miguel Cotto is a lock to join that august company in 2023, when he becomes eligible for official immortalization.
But Verdejo (23-0, 15 KOs) is still only 24 and the string of minor misfortunes that have blunted his career momentum will be at least somewhat forgotten should he win impressively against Antonio Lozada Jr. (38-2, 32 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round lightweight clash Saturday night at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Although Verdejo has been inactive for 13 months because of injuries and one very significant postponement, resulting in his being removed from the ratings of the four most widely recognized world sanctioning bodies, he believes that all it takes is a reminder or two of why so many people got excited about him in the first place to jump right back into title contention.
“It all depends on how I look (against Lozada),” said Verdejo when contacted for this story. “With a couple of good performances I can be right back to the position I was before. I don’t feel there is any particular pressure on me. I look forward, as always, to displaying my abilities in the ring.”
But it might take more than one or two fights for Verdejo – whose nickname is “El Diamante,” or “The Diamond” – to find his way off the side road to which he apparently has been shunted and back onto the express lane with which he had become accustomed. In New York City, which has a significant Puerto Rican population and where Trinidad, Cotto, Ortiz, Camacho and other Puerto Rican headliners almost always appeared in the main event, Verdejo not only isn’t topping the marquee, but didn’t even make the cut for the three fights which will be televised by ESPN. The spotlight bout pits 2012 U.S. Olympian Jose Carlos Ramirez (21-0, 18 KOs) against Amir Imam (21-1, 18 KOs), of Albany, N.Y., for the vacant WBC super lightweight championship while the co-feature pairs light heavyweights Oleksandr Gvozdyk (14-0, 12 KOs), of Ukraine, against France’s Mehdi Amar (34-5-2, 16 KOs).
Snagging the third slot on the ESPN portion of the card is 2016 Irish Olympian Michael Conlan (5-0, 4 KOs), who will swap punches with Hungary’s David Berna (15-2, 14 KOs) in a scheduled four-rounder. While Conlan’s higher-visibility placement on the card is understandable, given that Saturday is St. Patrick’s Day, Verdejo’s bout with Lozada can be seen only via the Top Rank app, which in this instance might be described as off-off Broadway.
Thirteen and a half months is not that long a time in boxing when viewed from a certain perspective, but much has happened – none of it good – since Verdejo last stepped inside the ropes in a fight that counted, scoring a 10-round unanimous decision over Oliver Flores on Feb. 3 of last year in Verdejo’s hometown of San Juan. In August he spent six days in a Puerto Rican hospital after crashing his motorcross bike, and although he describes his injuries as “scratches,” those assorted lacerations and bruises still needed time to heal. After Verdejo had been medically cleared to fight, and agreed to travel to London for a Sept. 16 challenge of WBO lightweight titlist Terry Flanagan, the fight was indefinitely postponed when Flanagan suffered a leg injury in training.
Wanting to stay busy in the interim, Verdejo was set to square off against Lozada on Sept. 22 in Tucson, Ariz., but that fight also was postponed when Verdejo was injured in training. It was like an ongoing demonstration of Murphy’s Law; for those 13-plus months that for all intents and purposes disappeared down a rabbit hole, “El Diamante” lost some of his luster for reasons not of his making. Then, in December, WBO president Francisco “Paco” Valcarel dropped Verdejo from No. 1 to No. 6 in the ratings because of inactivity, later removing him altogether when the fallow period extended further.
Somewhere along the way, the hopeful comparisons of Verdejo to Trinidad lessened while non-believers began likening him to a once-sparkling gem that turned out to be more cubit zirconia than diamond, 2000 Mexican Olympian Francisco “Panchito” Bojado, whose predicted rocket launch to superstardom flamed out before it ever got close to entering the stratosphere.
Longtime Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz, who with Top Rank co-promoted the Dec. 13, 2014, Puerto Rican Boxing Classic at the 2300 Arena in South Philly in which Verdejo appeared, is among those who have yet to be convinced.
“Fair,” Peltz said when asked to assess what he had seen of Verdejo, who stopped Karim El Ouazghari in four rounds that night. “Most of the guys he was beating weren’t that good, but that’s not unusual with somebody who gets the big early build-up. He was extremely popular with the Puerto Rican fans, but I thought he was more sizzle than steak.”
Verdejo and his support crew would dispute anyone who suggests he lacks the goods to eventually join the esteemed ranks of Puerto Rican’s finest fighters. The would-be “next Trinidad” has no hesitation in saying that as a kid he worshiped Tito like everyone else on the island. If he was going to choose a role model to emulate, he figured he might as well aim high.
“I have learned from my mistakes,” Verdejo insisted, noting that he is spending more time in the gym honing his skills and none at all on motorcross bikes because “fighters on motorcycles is not a good idea.”
“Definitely I see this (the Lozada fight) as a new beginning,” he continued. “Now I feel more mature physically and mentally. I believe I will get my opportunity to fight for a world title, and the first step comes on Saturday.”
Should Verdejo win, the next step might come against fellow Puerto Rican Jose Pedraza (22-1, 12 KOs), a 2008 Olympian who recently signed with Top Rank and will be appearing on Saturday’s card against Jose Luis Rodriguez (23-11-1, 13 KOs).
After that? Verdejo said the matchup he thinks about more than anything would be another go at Ukrainian great Vasiliy Lomachenko, who scored a 14-9 electronically scored decision in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics. Lomachenko went on to win his second Olympic gold medal in London and is now considered by many to be the best fighter on the planet.
“I would love to atone for that loss,” Verdejo said. “We are both professionals now and that is a totally different game from the amateurs, but I dream about facing him somewhere down the line.”
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel