Felix Verdejo: The next Puerto Rican superstar
‘Ser Boricua Es Un Honor’ reads the poster for Felix Verdejo’s upcoming fight with Ivan Najera. ‘To be Puerto Rican is an honour.’
Verdejo, 17-0 (13 KOs), may not have a map of the island tattooed on his torso like his famous countryman Miguel Cotto, but the pride with which the 2012 Olympian carries his nation’s famous red, white and blue flag into battle has invigorated Puerto Rico’s fanatical fight fans who are searching for a new hero to continue their proud boxing tradition. The 22-year-old lightweight from San Juan has captured the imagination of the Isle of Enchantment.
“It means a lot to me. The love and the support they [the Puerto Rican fans] give me is something I want to return to my people and to everybody who supports me out there,” Verdejo told Boxing Monthly ahead of his 13 June fight with Ivan Najera at Madison Square Garden Theater. “It motivates me to work even harder because I don't want to disappoint anyone.
“I think they are happy if you really try your best but that you also prepare yourself to do just that. If you don't show yourself to be in shape to do your best they will notice that because they really know the sport and their fighters.
“I remember in 1999 when Felix Trinidad beat Oscar De La Hoya. It was like the world had stopped. I don't think there has been any event of that magnitude before or after. All of the television stations worked together and the government even had to shut down the international airport for five hours because of the amount of people who went there to greet our champion. That's one of my dreams.”
So far, the weight of expectation doesn’t seem to be weighing too heavily on Verdejo’s shoulders. Once the first bell rings he maintains a Cotto like mask of concentration and is also beginning to work with the patience of the four-weight world champion from Caguas. Outside of the ring he is rarely seen without a Trinidad-esque smile on his face and he shares the Hall of Famer’s love of a spectacular knockout. The man responsible for building Verdejo to this point is his manager-trainer, Ricky Marquez. He is certain that there is much more to come.
“In Puerto Rico, boxing is part of our culture,” Marquez told BM. “People here are willing to support their boxers and expect big things from them because of the great victories of past champions like [Carlos] Ortiz, [Wilfredo] Benitez, [Wilfredo] Gomez or [Felix] Trinidad. Right now, Felix is the hottest prospect of the island and almost everyone expects him to become the superstar they have been waiting for over the last couple of years; the one who will really celebrate his victories with them.
“I created Team Diamante many years before we started calling Felix ‘El Diamante’ and it has been a great journey. I’ve been almost everything [to the fighters] from a paternal figure and a counsellor to a friend, a teacher, a trainer and a manager,
“I met Felix when he was only nine years old,” continued Marquez. “His godfather brought him to me because, at the time, I was training his son, Jean, who was another little kid beginning a boxing career. I used to send my boxers to run before or after training but that day I decided to run with them to make sure the skinny little kid was able to finish the run. To my surprise, he was ahead of the group of teens. When I saw that I asked him if he used to run and he just said ‘no’. I knew right there that he was a special athlete.
“I have always told my kids to dream big and I'm very confident Felix can become a big star if he can only handle all the outside pressures that will come with success. If he keeps himself humble, with his feet on the ground and keeps working on his development in the gym he will be able to show the world what he is made of and become that big superstar we all think he can become. As a person he is a great man. He is lazy and always sleeping when not in training, but he’s just a great human being who I have learned to love like a son. He is a respectful person with a smile always ready to give to anybody he meets. He has a love for our people and our island that very few possess.”
It has become something of a tradition for a Puerto Rican boxer to fight at Madison Square Garden the night before the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade through Manhattan. In recent years, Trinidad and Cotto have performed to adoring crowds on the second Saturday in June. Cotto made his annual appearance in the Big Apple this past weekend when he dismantled Daniel Geale at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn but this year it is Verdejo who will have the honour of representing his people at Madison Square Garden the night before New York’s huge boricua population make their annual parade along Fifth Avenue. His fight with the unbeaten Nareja will take place in the Theatre adjoining ‘the World’s Most Famous Arena’ but his appearance has the feeling of a final dress rehearsal for a starring role in the big room next door rather than an audition.
Maybe Verdejo taking over - temporarily or not - Cotto’s June residency at The Garden symbolises the first stage of a passing of the torch. In the two-and-a-half years since he turned professional, Top Rank has showcased Verdejo around the USA and as far away as Macau but the reception he received when he returned home and dismantled Marco Antonio Lopez in April proved that the fans have been taking notice. An eye-catching performance this weekend should help ensure that Verdejo graduates from being the man most likely to a genuine Puerto Rican hero.
“I felt very good especially because it was in Puerto Rico, the place I would love to fight every time,” Verdejo said about the Lopez fight. “The coliseum was full of people and that atmosphere was something I will never forget. It was electrifying. I noticed how everyone was interested in me going into the fight. This was the first time that Jason Marquez (son of Verdejo’s trainer and mentor, Ricky) with the new Diamante Promotions was co-promoting an event like that with Top Rank and the people really responded to the promotion.
“It’s a dream come true to be fighting at Madison Square Garden the day before the Puerto Rican Day Parade,” Verdejo told BM. "It’s something I remember ‘Tito’ Trinidad and Cotto used to do so for me to now have the opportunity to be the one my people support in a place like that is really great.
“This is what I have been working really hard with my trainer for more than ten years. Big dreams were part of what he always used to keep me motivated and it has worked. To be at the point we are right now is something we dreamed of many times, but this time it will be real.”