Puerto Rican Fighters and The Garden: A Perfect Match



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By Christian Giudice
Over the years, Puerto Rican fighters have established such a strong connection with fighting at boxing’s mecca, Madison Square Garden, that they deserve a small pocket of the magnificent fight venue reserved specifically for them. Most notably, in 1972, lightweight challenger Esteban DeJesus stepped into the Garden and dethroned the great Roberto Duran in a virtuoso performance. For the first time in his life, Duran faced a challenger who could both dictate the pace of the fight and counter his aggressive ambushes. Nevertheless, Duran learned from and avenged the defeat with two convincing stoppages over the next six years.
Decades earlier, in 1956, Jose “Chegui” Torres paved the way for DeJesus and other fighters to leave their mark when he won the WBC and WBA versions of the World Light Heavyweight title with an early knockout of Willie Pastrano. The argument could be made that no Puerto Rican had the same social impact as Torres who seamlessly transitioned into the literary and political spectrum.
It wasn’t long after DeJesus made his presence known at the Garden that another Puerto Rican prospect with a startling blend of speed and power made his professional debut– Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez. In 1974, Gomez, who trained out of and adopted Panama as his second home, made his professional debut at the Gimnasio Nuevo Panama against Jacinto Fuentes. Five years later, Gomez made his Garden debut a memorable one by making quick work of Nestor “Baba” Jimenez. Five months after shocking the boxing world with an easy stoppage of the great Carlos Zarate, Gomez only needed five rounds to stop Jimenez as he utilized an impressive combination to close the show. The fight was supposed to be a tuneup for an eventual showdown with Danny Lopez, but it never materialized.
While Gomez had 24 professional bouts before making his Garden debut, a young, powerful Felix Trinidad entered the boxing haven at age 24. Trinidad was 30-0 when he faced and demolished Troy Waters in one round on August 23, 1997 in a light middleweight bout. The Waters fight acted as a steppingstone for Trinidad, who would establish himself as a Garden favorite over the next decade. While DeJesus and Gomez overwhelmed their opponents with constant pressure and relied on an accumulation of punches to hurt their opponents, the crowd-pleasing Trinidad often needed only one punch. Fortunately for fight fans, Trinidad had such a vast array of knockout punches – hooks to the body and to the head as his specialties – as his power and personality made him extremely hard to replace in the pantheon of Puerto Rican legends upon his retirement.

For many boxing fans, Miguel Cotto picked up where Trinidad left off. He accepted the mantle and started to build a boxing resume that rivaled his countrymen. Cotto had already won the super lightweight championship by the time he made his Garden debut on June 11, 2005 when he stopped Muhammad Abdullaev in nine rounds. Cotto established a loyal following on the East Coast as he made numerous appearances at the Garden and Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.

First it was Torres, DeJesus, Gomez, Trinidad, Cotto, and now is the time to add Felix Verdejo to the list. Tonight Verdejo continues along his boxing path when he faces undefeated Ivan Najera (16-0, 8 KOs) in a 10-round lightweight bout. Making his Garden debut, Verdejo has exhibited a unique penchant for speed and power. Verdejo is well aware of what it means to be fighting at the Garden. Trainer and mentor Ricky Marquez has been a calming presence for the young fighter as he heads into his eighteenth professional fight. Fighting for the first time at the Garden can be overwhelming for any fighter, but Verdejo learns a little about himself from each fight.
“Since I was a kid, Ricky (Marquez) always told me about when he won the New York Golden Gloves lightweight championship,” said Verdejo, “and then Tito Trinidad and Miguel Cotto showed me the way to represent our island in the Garden and around the world.”
In his last fight, Verdejo showed patience against Marco Antonio Lopez before he ended the fight in violent fashion in the fifth round.
“Patience is one of the things Ricky always emphasizes and now, I think, it’s one of my biggest weapons because I used to be overanxious in my first couple bouts,” said Verdejo.
In a couple hours, Verdejo steps in against his toughest opponent to date. Najera is a fighter who will come forward and has decent speed. Similar to so many of the Puerto Rican fighters who came before him, Verdejo has developed a vaunted left hook that he has perfectly set up in previous performances. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal situation as Verdejo fights for his people one night and then represents them the next day in the Puerto Rican parade.
“There is a lot more media coverage (here in NY),” said Verdejo. “I hope there will be a lot more Puerto Ricans coming to support me.”


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