Meet boxing's next big thing: Felix Verdejo

Kevin Iole
Yahoo SportsJune 3, 2014
felix verdejo
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Felix Verdejo fights on the off-TV portion of Saturday's Sergio Martinez-Miguel Cotto card. (Chris Farina/Top Rank)

Boxing is a sport that depends heavily upon stars. It needs a Floyd Mayweather, a Mike Tyson, a Sugar Ray Leonard or a Muhammad Ali to generate the widespread fan enthusiasm to allow it to peel back the covers and display all the great things happening away from the spotlight.

For years, when one of the sport's established stars was on the backside of his career, there was much consternation and gloom and doom about the sport's future.

Boxing is bigger than one man, no matter how big or how popular he may be. That has been proven repeatedly over the years, but Ali's retirement in 1981 is a great example.

The sport transitioned from the Ali Era in the 1960s and 1970s seamlessly into the 1980s without the great man because of the presence of boxers such as Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

The stars' departures do hurt, though, and boxing is facing that crossroads once again. Mayweather is 37. Manny Pacquiao is 35. Heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko is 38. Juan Manuel Marquez, who may fight Pacquiao in the fall, is soon to be 41.

Sergio Martinez, who defends the WBC middleweight title on Saturday at New York's Madison Square Garden against Miguel Cotto, is 39. He's young in comparison to Bernard Hopkins, a unified light heavyweight champion, who will turn 50 in January.

The majority of the sport's biggest stars are well into their 30s or have hit 40 and will exit the big stage.

Those who have seen Felix Verdejo believe they're all keeping the seat at the top warm for the 21-year-old, a lithe lightweight with heavyweight punching power and unusual poise and charisma for one so young.

Former welterweight champion Felix 'Tito' Trinidad is a big believer in Felix Verdejo, above. (Chris Farina/Top Rank)
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Former welterweight champion Felix 'Tito' Trinidad is a big believer in Felix Verdejo, above. (Chris Farina/Top Rank)

A massive throng of Puerto Rican fans will descend upon the Garden on Saturday to support Cotto in his bid to unseat Martinez as middleweight champion and become the first Puerto Rican boxer ever to win titles in four weight divisions.

But be sure they'll be there early to see Verdejo, who has what it takes to become a transcendent star.

Verdejo (12-0, 9 KOs) fights Engelberto Valenzuela on the off-TV portion of Saturday's card, though it won't be long before he's the star attraction.

No less an authority than former welterweight champion Felix "Tito" Trinidad raves about Verdejo and sees a bright future for him. Trinidad, who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on Sunday along with Oscar De La Hoya and Joe Calzaghe, heaped praise upon Verdejo in an interview with El Vocero.

"Felix Verdejo has all the potential to become the next Tito Trinidad," Trinidad told El Vocero. "He has everything. He is tall and he has a great record. He has a record a lot like mine when I started boxing, an impressive record. I hope he stays undefeated [because] he has all the tools to become a solid world champion."

It's almost a given that Verdejo will be a world champion, and more than a solid one at that. This is the guy with the rare ability to be the biggest name in the sport, the future Mayweather, Pacquiao or Trinidad, the guy who sells the pay-per-view and who carries the sport on his shoulders for a decade.

It's a long way to go, and Verdejo hasn't come close yet to facing quality opposition.

But he's as smart as he is gifted and he understands that nothing is guaranteed. It's on him to get better and to fulfill the promise that so many see in him.

"I think I have better footwork and better head movement than I did when I started" as a professional in 2012 following the Olympics in London, Verdejo told Yahoo Sports. "But I think, most importantly, I've learned how to be calm and stay relaxed in the ring. I take my time better and I do my job and don't get too rushed or crazy."

He knows the extraordinary expectations that have been placed upon him, but he handles it well. He's got the demeanor, as well as the physical attributes, of a star.

He knows people are going to come to see him. He knows he's going to be the focus of a passionate fan base. He knows he'll have to deal with relentless requests. Media will be a constant presence in his life.

But Verdejo is hardly overwhelmed. An entire city block in the Bronx was jammed with people crowded from shoulder to shoulder just to get the opportunity to catch a glimpse of him and hear him speak a few words.

It's his future and he's down with it.

"You know, people have shown incredible support for me, and it means a lot to me," he said. "That gives me the passion to fight for the people. Why would I let it bother me? It's a good thing, not bad. It motivates me to work hard and to get better to make all of the fans proud of what I do."

He hasn't done much – yet.

That, though, figures to change, and soon. Felix Verdejo, superstar. Get used to it. You'll be hearing it a lot in the next 10 or 15 years.

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