Let’s be honest: 2016 has been far from an exciting year for boxing with few truly compelling matchups. This Saturday night will bring us one of the biggest bouts of the year, but the lack of buzz for such a high-profile clash is clear to all. Yes, Pacquiao and Bradley are both elite fighters, but we have seen this movie twice already. And Bradley, in my humble opinion, does not have the power to make Pacquiao think twice. Simply put, there is a reason he was picked as Manny’s “final” fight.
Thus I will be less focused on the main event come Saturday and instead directing my full attention to a Mexican fighter on the #NoTrump undercard. And I’m not talking about Gilberto Ramirez, who is likely to make history with a victory over Arthur Abraham. Instead I’m talking about a warrior who has the potential to become the next big Mexican star in boxing. I’m talking about Oscar Rafael Valdez.
I first became familiar with Valdez back in 2012, when he participated in the Olympic Qualifier in Rio de Janeiro. Four years before that, he gave a mediocre performance at the Beijing Olympics, but he then went on to prove himself one of the most successful Mexican amateurs of recent decades. Thus, it was no surprise that Valdez was heavily favored to bring back a medal from London. Those hopes came to an abrupt end with a controversial loss at the hands of Ireland’s John Joe Nevin. Most Mexicans were furious with the judges’ decision that day, but none were more heartbroken than the young man from Nogales, Sonora.
That heartbreak was more than evident when I spoke to Oscar a year ago in my hometown of Laredo, Texas. Valdez was there headlining a Top Rank event at the Laredo Energy Arena, and Oscar immediately struck me as a charismatic individual. That day I broke the ice by bringing up his pet alligator, Steve, which Valdez then warned me not to make light of. Yes, Valdez is such a bad-ass that his adored pet would scare the shit out of any sane person.
Once we got talking about boxing, I learned how hungry he is as a fighter, and how much of that hunger comes from his Olympic disappointment. The dream of winning a gold medal has changed to a dream of one day holding aloft the coveted green belt. The WBC’s championship strap is the belt most Mexican pugilists strive for and Valdez is no different in this regard. Oscar talked about it as if he had dreamed of holding it many times, and hearing him talk reminded me of the pure desire, unsullied by greed, to compete and triumph, something ever rarer in the sport these days.
Incidentally, that is one of the things which used to separate Mexican fighters from all others. But the truth was Oscar was still a prospect at this point with a long road ahead in order to realize his dream. I asked if he was frustrated with the quality of opposition Top Rank was matching him with when considering Vasyl Lomachenko had gotten a title fight in only his second bout. Oscar replied that if it were up to him he would be getting in the ring with Nicholas Walters, even going so far as to describe how he would best “The Axe Man.” I admired his confidence, but suggested a man like Evgeny Gradovich might be a good challenge to overcome first, and Oscar agreed that “El Ruso Mexicano” would be a good test.
A severe thunderstorm and flash floods that night did not stop boxing fans from watching Oscar dismantle Jose Ramirez inside of three rounds with a superb jab that I did not know he now carried in his arsenal. But what also stood out that night was the way Valdez carried himself in the ring. If you think Saul Alvarez has charisma, you have yet to see Oscar Valdez in his element.
But there’s a more significant difference between the way Oscar and Canelo approach the fight game. As his recent weight shenanigans and choice of opponent make clear, Canelo is starting to rely on the Mexican flag and his heritage as little more than a marketing tool. Valdez, on the other hand, gives the impression of possessing deep patriotic pride, something evident from our conversations and his interactions with the fans in Laredo. When I learned Top Rank had matched him with Gradovich on the undercard of Pacquiao vs Bradley, I not only felt like some kind of boxing seer but was also thrilled to know Oscar was getting his first really big break, the chance to truly prove himself on a huge stage.
For fans looking for the next great Mexican boxer, Valdez represents a more than welcome alternative to Canelo Alvarez. There’s no doubt the Mexican redhead is an excellent fighter, but his catchweight demands and avoidance of the biggest challenges are making him look more like a primadonna than the Mexican boxing hero he’s supposedly striving to become. While Valdez is still far from being the best active Mexican fighter—Juan Francisco Estrada holds that distinction for now—he definitely has the potential to become his country’s next pugilistic star, and a real threat to Canelo’s popularity.
This Saturday night will bring Valdez the hardest test he’s seen yet and the biggest fight of his life. If he wins, he instantly becomes a big player in a deep featherweight division; should he lose, he’s dismissed as the Mexican prospect who failed to meet expectations on the #NoTrump undercard. The stakes couldn’t be higher, which is why on Saturday night I will be watching the undercard with more anticipation than a third unnecessary meeting between “Desert Storm” and “The Pacman.” –Alfonso Jasso