Felix Verdejo's renewed hunger is boosting the former prodigy's hopes on the comeback trail

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS — The things that were being said now about boxers such as Devin Haney (extraordinarily fast), Teofimo Lopez (extraordinarily powerful), Vasiliy Lomachenko (the whole package) and Gervonta Davis (an intimidator) were all being said nearly a decade ago about Felix Verdejo.

He came out of the 2012 Olympics and signed with Top Rank upon the highest of recommendations. Lomachenko, he of the two Olympic gold medals and the 396-1 amateur record, endorsed Verdejo strongly.

“Loma told us the best guy he faced in the amateurs was Verdejo,” Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. “That’s a hell of a recommendation, I’d say.”

And it was easy when watching Verdejo as a pro to see why: He was fast and fluid, powerful and elusive. On top of that, he had a megawatt smile and the kind of personality that attracted people to him. This, it appeared, was a kid destined for stardom.

Eight years into his pro career, Verdejo has a 26-1 record with 16 knockouts which, on paper at least, appear to have validated Lomachenko’s assessment. 

The gaudy record, though, is something of a mirage. Nobody, not even Verdejo himself, would say he’s lived up to his billing.

But Verdejo is only 27 and still has time to get his career on track. He’ll fight unbeaten Will Madera on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the lightweight co-main event of Top Rank’s card from the MGM Grand which will mark the second bout he’ll have highly regarded trainer Ismael Salas in his corner.

Verdejo and original trainer Ricky Marquez never were able to find the magic as pros, and while Verdejo was so naturally talented, he didn’t progress as hoped and the field eventually lapped him.

“Because of my past mistakes, I wasn’t able to move my career forward the way I had expected to,” Verdejo told Yahoo Sports. “But I don’t have time to look back, only to look forward. I have the hunger and the desire now and I have learned what it takes to win.

“I was immature and I saw myself as the face of boxing and one of the main faces of Puerto Rican boxing. I still have that opportunity. I make no excuses. My bad decisions held me back. I have the hunger and the desire now to do it the right way.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 19: Felix Verdejo of Puerto Rico poses during the weigh-in for his lightweights fight against Bryan Vasquez of Costa Rica at Madison Square Garden on April 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 19: Felix Verdejo of Puerto Rico poses during the weigh-in for his lightweights fight against Bryan Vasquez of Costa Rica at Madison Square Garden on April 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Ask around Top Rank what went wrong with Verdejo and you’ll get a lot of long pauses and sighs.

They were on him for a long time to make changes, but it wasn’t that they saw him as a bad guy. Quite the contrary, he was regarded as too nice and tried to please everyone.

“There’s been no hint of any trouble with him,” duBoef said. “He liked being a celebrity, but there was never anything like drugs or alcohol or anything like that. He’s always been a great kid, but he got famous very quickly and he had some money and it isn’t always easy for everyone to deal with that, particularly in the lifestyle it takes to be a boxer.”

Top Rank chairman Bob Arum has long raved about Verdejo, and added, “There’s never been a peep of trouble with him; just a great, wonderful young man.”

Salas’ choice was inspired because he was the type of trainer that Verdejo required: A wise old boxing hand who was a disciplinarian and would demand the best out of him every day.

Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti isn’t ready to anoint Verdejo as the next big star in the division, but he said he’s taking the steps required. He thought he’d have to help Verdejo find a Puerto Rican trainer, which he felt would have meant working in either New York, Florida or at home.

But Verdejo chose Salas, a Cuban based in Las Vegas.

“We were surprised when he said he wanted to go out there and work with Salas, but we weren’t complaining, either,” Moretti said. Asked whether Verdejo can ultimately fulfill his immense potential, Moretti pulled no punches.

“I hope so,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Verdejo is confident that he’s caught himself in time. He never abused his body and he hasn’t taken a lot of punishment. It’s unusual for a guy to be this deep in his career and still in the developmental stages, but Verdejo’s talents remain obvious.

His punches are hard and his hands are fast; Salas has worked on improving his fundamentals and increasing his boxing IQ.

Verdejo is eager to fight Madero and show that his problems are behind him, hopefully for good.

“I felt like I needed a new coach to bring me to the next level and with Salas, the change is exactly what I had thought it would be,” Verdejo said. “I’m focused a lot on getting better in the technical game. I’m comfortable with him. He’s helped me find the fire and hunger that I had lost for a while.

“I was winning fights, but I didn’t really know how to handle the fame. I thought I knew it all and I wasn’t paying attention to anyone. I wasn’t taking advice. I just got to a point where I realized I had to do something and so I took action. Everything that has happened has taught me a lot, and made me a better person. I believe that if I keep doing [what Salas asks], little by little it will all come back.”

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