Bob Arum pulled in quite a haul from the 2012 Olympics. Top Rank signed nine boxers from the London Games, including six medalists, with decidedly mixed results.
Vasyl Lomachenko is already one of the greatest fighters in the world. Felix Verdejo, who showed so much potential early, now looks to be more of a disappointment than a surefire star.
Featherweight Oscar Valdez is one of those who turned pro with much promise. But just two years into his pro career, he seemed to be little more than just another guy.
He was winning, and winning mostly by knockout, but he wasn’t wowing anyone in the process. He was beating up on overmatched opponents, as he should, but seemed to be stuck at the same level.
And then, an injury changed the course of boxing history. This, though, was not an injury suffered by Valdez. It was an injury suffered by his trainer, of all people.
And at least indirectly, that injury is what resulted in Valdez becoming one of the hot young fighters in the world.
Now 25, Valdez will make the first defense of his WBO featherweight title on Saturday in Las Vegas when he meets Hiroshige Osawa on the Manny Pacquiao-Jessie Vargas undercard at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Valdez was 11-0 with 11 knockouts in the spring of 2014 when his trainer, Clemente Medina, suffered a foot injury. Because of the injury, Medina, who is highly regarded in boxing circles, wasn’t going to be able to train Valdez for his fight in Phoenix against veteran journeyman Juan Ruiz.
So manager Frank Espinoza contacted Manny Robles and asked him if he’d handle Valdez for this one fight only.
‘I’d followed him for a long time and had seen a lot of his amateur fights,” Robles said. “And when he turned pro, I had kept an eye on how he was doing. Frank kept telling me, ‘Remember, Manny, this is just a one-fight deal. That’s all this is.’ And I knew that.”
But it’s turned out to be far more than that, as nine fights later, Robles is still Valdez’s trainer and has helped turn the 2012 Mexican Olympian into the fighter that Arum had envisioned he’d be when he signed him.
Valdez grew up as a fighter. His grandmother had 14 children, and all of his uncles had at least five children, it seemed.
And so at just about every family gathering when Valdez was young, the young boys would box. The cousins and brothers would get in and go at it, sometimes in the house, often in the back yard, as their extended family roared their approval.
“I didn’t even get to the gym until I was 8, but I was probably 4 or 5 when that started and it’s how I fell in love with boxing,” Valdez said.
He put together a distinguished amateur career and was so highly regarded, and had such a professional style, that Arum quickly scooped him up.
He was winning regularly early on, but it’s what highly touted prospects are supposed to do. Arum was excited, but Top Rank matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman told him to slow down.
“I have been in this business a long time, and I’m sitting there watching these fights but I don’t see it with the same critical eye that the matchmakers do,” Arum said. “I see a kid knock the [expletive] out of someone and get a great knockout and I get all excited. And the matchmakers have to calm me down.
“I’ll say, ‘Did you see that knockout? He destroyed that guy.’ And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, but do you know how limited his opponent was?’ They know these things. We moved him slowly at the beginning out of an abundance of caution because Bruce and Brad and his manager wanted to take their time and get him the experience he needed. All those experiences he went through early on, they helped him to become the fighter he has become. And I think he’s really only scratching the surface of what he can become.”
Valdez was always aggressive, but he was way more hittable than he should have been and disregarded boxing technique. He would overwhelm opponents with sheer physical superiority.
It made him look good and helped him build a glittering record, but it would be hard to sustain that success when the quality of the opposition increased.
That’s where Robles came in.
“He bought into my system, and that’s fortunate for me,” Robles said. “When he came to me, he needed to work on his boxing. His defense had to be improved and he didn’t have the kind of side-to-side movement I would have liked.
“So I showed him and he picked it up. We worked together well from the beginning. I knew it was a one-fight deal, but we made a lot of progress in that first camp.”
Valdez said he clicked with Robles the first day and wanted to continue the partnership. He’s jumped up in class significantly and won impressively, and looks like a different fighter than he was early.
He’s landing more and being hit less, and he gives the aura of a budding star.
A big win in a high-profile slot on Saturday could do wonders for him, but Valdez isn’t willing to look ahead.
“The one thing about this sport, you have to be ready every time because if you’re not, it will be exposed,” he said. “I’ve been working hard and I’m not thinking of anyone but [Osawa]. My theory has always been that I’d get better as the competition got better, and that’s coming true.”
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