by Mark Mederson and Stacy Nakell
(photo: Edwin Valero and trainer Robert Alcazar grinning at the post-fight press conference.)
Most boxing observers consider the lightweight division as, currently, the best in the sport. With several in the division vying for the unofficial title of “pound-for-pound greatest,” a seemingly unending list of additional fighters compete for the actual lightweight championship belts.
Among those who have fought at or around 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.
Of those that may not be in the PFP club but who help to make the 135-pound weight class boxing’s most exciting (for now) reads like a who’s who of the sport. This list includes; Juan Diaz, Ricky Hatton, Marco Antonio Barrera, Joel Casamayor, and Nate Campbell (with apologies to, Barrios, Cherry, DeMarco, etc., etc., etc.).
On April 4, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions compiled a four-fight card of lightweight boxers that was expected to create additional “buzz” by throwing even more names into the mix of the 135-pound title free-for-all.
At five minutes to eight on Saturday night in Austin, TX, there was a palpable level of excitement in the Erwin Center as the Lightweight Lightning card was ready for the opening bell.
Among the fighters of note at ringside were, James Kirkland, Victor Ortiz, Juan Diaz, Jesse James Leija, Ann Wolfe, and pay-per-view color analyst, Bernard Hopkins.
The majority of the more than 6,000 who filled the seats were there to cheer on local favorite, Jesus Chavez, as well as to witness Venezuelan knockout artist Edwin Valero's first U.S. fight in over five years. The only question was, could this lineup live up to the hype?
The main event, for the vacant WBC lightweight championship, saw the young Venezualan knockout sensation, Edwin Valero, pitted against the veteran Columbian, Antonio Pitalua. With a 16-year career and an impressive 46-3 record (40 wins by KO), Pitalua seemed long overdue for this, his first shot at a title.
Many boxing observers were anxious to see if Valero, who boasts of a 24-0 record, with all 24 of victories coming by way of knockout, is the real deal, since for the last five years he has flown somewhat under the radar fighting overseas.
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.
Until this fight in Texas, he had been denied a license to fight again in the U.S.
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, the question still remained, could Edwin now prove himself to American fight fans and media?
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, i.e, fights with Pacuiao or Marquez.
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 going in slow-motion.
Valero feinted, he mixed up his punches to the head and to the body, jabbed his opponent continuously, 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 avoid the majority 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 watched with anticipation, hoping to witness Valero's storied knockout skill.
Early in the second round, Valero made it happen with a perfectly placed jab/straight left hand/right hook combination that sent Pitalua on his first trip to the canvas. 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 fight with the veteran Pitalua, he realized in the first round that it would be a short night.
"The opportunity came in the first round," said Valero, "I hit him with some jabs, and I broke his soul down. I felt that after I hit him with a left hand, he 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 in defeat.
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. But a glimpse just wasn't enough
Prior to the fights each had claimed that a loss would mean retirement. But, to fight for a living means that swimming somewhere deep in their DNA lies a “never say die" attitude.
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 late in his career, 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 bulls battling toe-to-toe.
As often happens when two bulls meet in the ring, the result is a clash of heads and 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 the three at getting back on the title track. Through the first four rounds, “The Kidd” was leading on all of the judge’s cards, pitching a unanimous 40 to 36 shutout.
But in round five, Rolando Reyes, revealed his fight strategy (wait for the right shot) with a right hand placed perfectly on Julio’s chin. While Diaz immediately fell to the canvas, he managed to beat the count only to experience a barrage of Reyes punches that forced referee, Greg Alvarez, to end the bout.
Diaz, who was highly ranked on several lists, may have suffered the biggest loss of the night especially considering the opponent, Reyes, who has a less than spectacular 30-4-2 record, took the fight with little more than a week’s notice..
The Lightweight Lightning fight card certainly lived up to its potential for thrills. But, in the end, a line-up that had the potential to vault 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 135-pounder. And while many compare him to Arturo Gatti, maybe he needs 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 the skeptics minds.
The Venezualan dynamo has earned an invitation to join the lightweight division’s list of top fighters and possibly admission into that pound-for-pound club.
He was appropriately proud of his victory, letting his new fans in Austin know that due to his limited licensure, 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.
But, Valero made it clear that he is ready for any 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, now, I am here to stay."