The fistic pedigree of Puerto Rico is almost unthinkably robust for an island smaller than Connecticut in both size and population. The US territory has produced heaps of world champions since boxing was legalized there in 1927, among them Carlos Ortíz, Edwin Rosario, Esteban DeJesús, Wilfred Benítez, Wilfredo Gómez, Félix Trinidad and dozens more.
The most recent exponent of that proud tradition was Miguel Cotto, who two years ago became the only Puerto Rican fighter to capture world titles in four weight classes when he retired Sergio Martínez at Madison Square Garden to win the lineal middleweight championship. That marked Cotto’s ninth appearance at the hallowed Manhattan arena where he routinely headlined during the weekend of the Puerto Rican Day parade, selling more than 150,000 combined tickets.
But with the 35-year-old Cotto in the final act of a decorated career after ceding the belt to Canelo Álvarez last fall, it appears his successor as Puerto Rico’s biggest star may be on the horizon in the lithe form of Félix Verdejo.
The blue-chip prospect from San Juan stayed on course for the stardom he’s been preordained for Saturday with a fifth-round TKO of Mexico’s Juan José Martinez at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The 23-year-old lightweight closed the show by connecting on 24 of 40 power shots in the final round, including a heat-seeking right that sent his opponent careening into the ropes, prompting the referee, Michael Ortega, to intervene at the 2:47 mark.
Verdejo (22-0, 15 KOs) has looked the part since Top Rank signed him to a lucrative bonus out of the London Olympics: a handsome boxer-puncher with a megawatt smile, magnetic personality and talent to burn. Yet he’d entered Saturday’s fight – his third on HBO – coming off a pair of uneven performances that saw him pushed the distance, prompting questions over his sense of urgency and finishing kick. He’d even confessed to a lapse of hunger and concentration around those outings, which only raised the stakes of Saturday’s bout.
“I came here knowing my career depended on this fight,” Verdejo said afterward through a translator. “We had a lot of pressure. We trained with lot of dedication in the gym, and I came to give it all in the ring as I did tonight.
“I lost focus, distractions that every young man has, but now we’re focusing on my career.”
While Verdejo’s struggles had come in trying to crack the code against defensive-minded fighters, Martinez was a volume puncher whose style offered endless opportunities for the Puerto Rican to counter. Simply put, he was made to order.
Now, as Verdejo closes in on a world title shot with the grooming process nearly complete, much will ride on whether Verdejo can handle the pressure of being earmarked as the next Puerto Rican star.
“I want to fight the best,” he said. “That’s all I want.”
This article was written by Bryan Armen Graham, for theguardian.com on Sunday 12th June 2016 14.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010