How 'The Crocodile Hunter' inspired boxer Oscar Valdez to buy a pet alligator

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
WBO featherweight champion Oscar Valdez has a pretty unusual pet, Steve the alligator. (Oscar Valdez)
WBO featherweight champion Oscar Valdez has a pretty unusual pet, Steve the alligator. (Oscar Valdez)

Oscar Valdez is one of the world’s great young boxers, and is on a fast track to stardom. He’s an engaging and personable 26-year-old with speed, power, boxing skills and a flair for the dramatic.

The only thing holding him back has been exposure. Valdez, the unbeaten WBO featherweight champion who defends his title against Miguel Marriaga on Saturday on a Top Rank-pay-per-view show in Carson, California, has inexplicably not gotten the kind of prime-time push from television that his talent would suggest is logical.

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He’s fighting on a pay-per-view, along with stablemates Gilberto Ramirez and Jessie Magdaleno, because promoter Bob Arum couldn’t get them dates on HBO.

Valdez says he’s expecting an “explosive” fight from Marriaga, who is 25-1 with 21 knockouts.

“His style and my style work together and I think they equal to a very good fight,” said Valdez, a two-time Mexican Olympian who is 21-0 with 19 KOs.

He’s a showman in the ring, a guy who is as fearless as he is skilled but who is good enough to box on the inside without taking much damage.

He shows that fearlessness in many ways, including in his choice of pets. He loves his pet and has built a place for it on his ranch in Hermosillo, Mexico.

Valdez loves to invite his large extended family to his ranch and showcase his pet, whom he’s named Steve. The show, different though it may be, is always a hit, particularly with the kids.

Steve, you see, is not a dog or a cat or a rabbit or even a ferret or a horse.

No, Steve is a different type of pet.

He’s an alligator, who at birth was small enough for Valdez to hold in his hand but who has now grown to be more than 110 pounds and six feet long. Valdez became interested in reptiles, particularly crocodiles and alligators, after watching Steve Irwin’s popular television show, “The Crocodile Hunter.”

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been a Steve Irwin fan,” Valdez said. “He was my idol when I was growing up. Watching ‘The Crocodile Hunter,’ was a big thing for me. I was always amazed by what he did with animals and his passion for them. We all know him as ‘The Crocodile Hunter,’ but he had a passion for all animals, especially reptiles.”

Millions of people watched Irwin’s televised exploits, but few of them went out and got their own gator as a pet. And Valdez happened into alligator ownership in a different sort of a way.

He was in Monterrey, Mexico, once and walked into a bar, where he saw a fish tank.

This fish tank, though, had a small crocodile in it.

“It never crossed my mind before that that it was legal to have them or that you could have one yourself,” he said.

He initially acquired two small crocodiles, which did not survive. But he then purchased an alligator which he photographed in the palm of his hand.

The gator now lives in a pond on his ranch. Valdez comes from a large family and he loves to invite them to his ranch and watch him perform with Steve (named of course, after Mr. Irwin himself).

“I bring my nephews, my families, kids around and I do a little show for them,” said Valdez, who has had Steve for six years. “He got over to him and they think he’s going to attack because he’s opened his mouth, and they get all scared. But I throw him a piece of chicken and he devours it and they love it. He makes this sound like a little dinosaur and everyone laughs. They love seeing me with him.”

Valdez said he’s gone swimming with Steve, and that he doesn’t fear being bitten, though he knows it’s a risk. But Steve has learned to open his mouth when he sees humans, because they always feed him.

These days, though, Valdez is saving money and doesn’t have to buy as much food for Steve. That’s because Steve has developed a taste for pigeons.

The pigeons fly to the edge of the water and Steve snatches them.

“I don’t know if they don’t see him or what it is, but they just fly over and he grabs them,” Valdez said. “But that’s OK with me, because it’s free food.”

Valdez isn’t having a lot of food himself this week, as he cuts weight to prepare for his bout with Marriaga. Should he win — as expected — he said he’ll hope to unify the belt.

Moving up to super featherweight — where the great Vasyl Lomachenko looms — isn’t in the cards yet.

“There are a lot of good fights for me here and I’m good at this weight,” he said. “My body handles it with no problem and so there’s not a need to move up. Right now, my focus is on Marriaga, but if I win, I would love for one of the other champions to fight me to start to unify these belts.”

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