by Mark Mederson and Stacy Nakell
Currently, most boxing observers consider the lightweight division as the best in the sport. With several fighters in the division vying for the unofficial title of “pound for pound greatest”, a seemingly endless list of additional fighters compete for the actual lightweight championship belts.
Among those who have fought at the 135-pound weight are Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez and Floyd Mayweather Jr., all arguably members or associates of that exclusive “pound-for-pound” club.
Those who may not necessarily be in the PFP club also help to make the 135-pound weight class boxing’s most exciting. The list reads like a "who’s who" of the sport including Juan Diaz, Ricky Hatton, Marco Antonio Barrera, Joel Casamayor, Nate Campbell, and many others.
On Apr. 4 , Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions compiled a four-fight card of lightweight boxers. They were expected to create additional buzz by throwing even more names into the mix of the 135-pound title free-for-all.
At 7:55 PM on Saturday night in Austin, TX, there was an air of excitement in the Erwin Center. The Lightweight Lightning card was about to begin, and fighters of note were beginning to file in toward ringside.
James Kirkland, Victor Ortiz, Juan Diaz, Jesse James Leija, Ann Wolfe, and Bernard Hopkins representing Golden Boy Promotions were all there.
The crowds came out in support of their heroes: The only question was, would these fights satisfy the itch for great ones drummed up by the buzz?
The answer was yes. All four fights of the night lived up to expectations.
After a stellar run up to the title fight of the evening, the crowd was poised for the return of Edwin Valero to the American boxing scene.
Valero made an impression in his first 12 fights after his professional debut in 2002 by scoring 12 first round knockouts in a row.
Fans of the southpaw's knockout power were disappointed when, in early 2004, he was denied a boxing licence in NY after a pre-fight MRI revealed a hole in his skull, stemming from injuries from a motorcycle accident earlier in his life.
Having been denied a license in most U.S. states, he continued his first-round knockout streak for six more fights.
He came into this fight undefeated in 24 fights with 24 KOs.
Some have questioned Valero's record. Many of his previous fights took place overseas amid rumors that his technical skills were waning without the guidance of a skilled trainer.
This year, after extensive testing, Texas officials granted him a license. The fight against Pitalua served as a challenge to Valero, while representing for Pitalua the title shot he had hoped for throughout his 16 year career.
For this fight, the trainer in Valero's corner was Robert Alcazar, a man who trained Oscar de la Hoya through much of his career. With the right trainer in place, he had to prove himself in this fight in the U.S. against a seasoned veteran with a good record (Pitalua came to the fight at 46-3 with 37 knockouts), and do it impressively.
Talks between Top Rank and Golden Boy suggested that if he could accomplish this feat, doors might be ready to open for him in the Lightweight division.
Valero did not disappoint.
He came out strong in the first round, displaying some great boxing skills, with hands so fast Pitalua looked like he was moving in slow-motion.
He feinted, he mixed up his punches to the head and to the body, jabbed his opponent continuously with a beautiful jab, and pulled off lead left/right hook combinations at will.
Valero's jabs began in the ball of his back foot, with his right hand extending out in a straight line from the foot. He kept his hands low, almost down to his waist, but his reflexes were quick and he jumped back or to the side in time to miss most of Pitalua's punches.
Throughout the round, Pitalua seemed like the small kid on the playground being jumped by the school bully, and the crowd waited anxiously for the next round to begin to watch Valero's inevitable triumph.
Soon after, Valero made it happen.
With a perfectly placed jab/straight left hand/right hook combination, Pitalua was sent on his first trip to the canvas early in the second round. With his man in trouble, Valero flew after him like a tornado, throwing hooks and straight left hands until Pitalua collapsed in spectacular fashion 49 seconds into the round.
Valero explained after the fight that although he had planned on a longer bout with the veteran Pitalua, he knew in the first round that it would be a short night.
"The opportunity came in the first round. I hit him with some jabs, and I broke his soul down. I felt that after I hit him with a left hand, it was going to go quickly."
The card also included notable former champions Jesus “El Matador” Chavez, Julio “The Kidd” Diaz and Carlos “El Famosa” Hernandez. These former belt holders wanted to prove they deserved to be back in the upper tier of boxing’s rankings.
Unfortunately, each left the ring defeated.
For Chavez and Hernandez, 36 and 38-years-old respectively, these losses should signal an end to their boxing careers. At times during their fights, each gave us a glimpse into their championship-past, showing why they were still mentioned as contenders.
Prior to the fights, each had claimed that a loss would mean retirement. But to fight for a living means a “never say die” attitude must be swimming somewhere deep in their DNA. In speaking with both fighters at the end of the night, neither was willing to announce that they are ready to hang up the gloves.
Carlos Hernandez, who displayed a lion’s heart in going the distance with his much younger opponent, Vincente Escobedo, also displayed a great deal of emotion in the post-fight press conference. He hinted at retirement with the qualified statement, “maybe I passed the torch tonight.”
Jesus Chavez, a former two-division champion, who had been hampered by a series of shoulder and knee injuries of late, looked like his old self in the early rounds of his match with Australian, Michael Katsidis.
This was a great pairing since both fighters’ style is to move forward and throw caution to the wind, the result being two warriors battling toe-to-toe.
As often happens when two bulls collide, the result is a clash of heads.
That’s exactly what happened in round four.
Unfortunately for Chavez, the unintentional head butt opened up a deep gash at his hairline and blood immediately poured down over his left eye.
Chavez admitted after the fight that the head clash, cut, and resulting blood were a turning point in the fight, as well as a factor in his decision, after round seven, to call it a night.
But, like Hernandez, he still is not quite ready to call it a career, stating that this was, “more than likely my last fight.”
At 29, Julio Diaz had the best chance of getting back on the title track. The first fight of the evening, between Diaz and Orlando Reyes, initially had the crowd worried.
Though Diaz was ahead on the scorecards through the fourth round, in the second round, Reyes caught Diaz with some good jabs. Reyes’ power brought a hesitance to Diaz’ approach, prompting booing from the crowd.
The boos continued through the third round.
In round five, Rolando Reyes revealed his fight strategy (wait for the perfect counter) with an overhand right hand. While Diaz immediately fell to the canvas, he managed to beat the count, only to experience a barrage of Reyes punches which forced referee, Greg Alvarez, to end the bout.
The crowd, surprised by the turn of events, went wild.
Diaz, who was highly ranked on several lists, may have suffered the biggest loss of the night.
In the end, a fight card that had the potential to thrust as many as four boxers into the mix of boxing’s best division, probably only boosted two.
Michael Katsidis took one more small step toward improving his standing as a 140-pounder. And while many compare him to Arturo Gatti, he may need to find the division’s version of Mickey Ward to truly set him apart.
Edwin Valero, on the other hand, eliminated any doubt that remained in skeptics boxing minds. The Venezualan dynamo has earned an invitation to join the lightweight division’s list of top fighters.
Valero was appropriately proud of his victory, letting his new fans in Austin know that due to his limited license, he plans to return to Austin in June or July of this year to fight again.
Valero and his promoter, Bob Arum, were excited to talk about what is next for new WBC Lightweight Champion. Both suggested that Valero's performance in this fight puts him in position to be next in line for Juan Manuel Marquez, or Manny Pacquaio if he were ever to decide to return to 135, an unlikely scenario.
JMM would be a very difficult challenge for Valero, as he would not be so easily put away as Pitalua, and fans would get the chance to see how Valero could handle a superb boxer.
Valero made it clear that he is ready for the challenges ahead, stating, "This is the new start to my career—I will continue my dedication to giving 1000 percent in training, and I want you to know if you haven't heard of me before this fight that I am here to stay."