"I was so broken. I was starting to hate boxing. I stopped being happy. I didn’t want anyone to think of me as a stepping stone. I was just so frustrated and I didn’t know where my career was going to go."
Those are the words of Ray Beltran, who overcame boxing politics, thoughts of retirement and a number of career disappointments to ascend to the top ranks of the lightweight division. In his last fight against Ricky Burns, Beltran, on enemy turf in Scotland, was deprived of a world title by receiving a controversial draw. But instead of harboring bitterness, today Beltran is a very happy man.
On April 12th in Las Vegas, Beltran (originally from Mexico, but an Arizona resident since childhood) will fight in the biggest event of his career, facing Roman Martinez, the former two-division world champion from Puerto Rico. The match will be the co-feature of the Pacquiao-Bradley II card.
In this interview, Beltran, who is in training camp, shares his feelings regarding the Burns fight and how that initial disappointment led to positive developments for his career. He also reveals how he fought one-handed against Ji-Hoon Kim, why he doesn't like to scout opponents and how at 32, and a pro for 15 years, he believes that he is now hitting his peak as a boxer. In addition, Beltran opens up about the outsized role that Manny Pacquiao has played for his career.
Interview by Adam Abramowitz:
Let’s start at the top. You are going to be fighting on one of the biggest stages of your career on April 12th against Roman Martinez, the chief support to Manny Pacquiao-Tim Bradley II. At this point in your career, what does this opportunity mean to you?
It’s a big opportunity. It’s the biggest event of my life, being on the undercard of one of the greatest champions. It’s a dream come true.
How do you size up Martinez as a fighter?
He fought my cousin, Miguel Beltran, and I was in my cousin’s corner. We shook hands after the fight. I respect him as a fighter like I respect all of my opponents. He was world champion a couple of times and he’s an aggressive fighter. But I never think that much about my opponents going into a fight. I’m focused on my camp and my training to practice for any situation that I need in the ring.
Are there things for this fight that you are specifically working on in the gym?
I have sparring partners that I think give me a hard time. They demand a lot of me. They box. They come straight at me. Some guys I don’t feel comfortable with on the inside or the outside. I know that if I do good here that I will be ready.
Let’s talk about the Ricky Burns decision. Almost everyone had you winning the fight, which would have been your first world title – instead you were given a draw. How did you feel after hearing the scores the first time?
It broke my heart. Frustration. But I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been in that situation many times before. I was kind of waiting for that to happen. It was so frustrating because that was the biggest moment of my boxing career. It was a world title. It was my dream come true and they took it out of my hands because of politics.
But I move on though. I get stronger. I’m a true fighter and warrior. For me, it’s now in the past. With that performance, I knew that I opened some doors for the future.
Coming back to the U.S., what were those first few weeks like after the Burns fight?
When I got back home, my friends, everybody around, they started to congratulate me. They thought of me as a world champion. That’s what matters to me. I made my name from that fight. I knew that good things were going to happen for me.
Going back to the Burns fight, one thing that impressed me about your performance was your ability to cut the ring off and keep Burns trapped along the ropes. What have you worked on in your career to learn those skills?
I saw the way he fought and I reacted. Sometimes I don’t make plans in the gym. Because you can make any plans you want but in the moment of the fight, if your plans don’t work, then what? But working with the best, training with the best, sparring with the best, it gets you ready for that kind of situation. You have to be mentally ready for that moment.
How close was the Burns rematch from getting signed?
It was about 90% done, but it wound up not happening. But hey, things happen for a reason. Now I have a big fight and a big event. I’m happy. As long I’m fighting in a big event and I have a great opportunity, that’s very good for me. I’m positive and I know I’ll fight for a title soon.
There was some discussion about moving up to 140 lbs. after the Burns rematch fell through. What kept you at 135 and how long do you plan on staying at the division?
Honestly, I might move up pretty soon. It depends what’s best for me. I could fight at lightweight but I’m open to fight anyone at 140. I was trying to fight Ruslan [Provodnikov) or Mike Alvarado, anybody at 140 lbs., but they offered me a good fight. If I can fight for a title at 135, I’ll go after that. Hopefully I’ll fight for a title. Hopefully I will win the title and then move on.
I’d like to talk about some of your other notable fights. One fight that turned a lot of attention to your favor was your majority decision win against Hank Lundy. After losing very close decisions to Sharif Bogere and Luis Ramos Jr., could you describe your emotions after finally getting that close win in your career?
I remember after the Bogere and Ramos fights, I got offered to fight Lundy. At that moment, I was so broken. I was starting to hate boxing. I stopped being happy. I didn’t want anyone to think of me as a stepping stone. I was just so frustrated and I didn’t know where my career was going to go.
But when they gave me the fight, I remember I talked to my friend and I said it’s a good sign. I was fighting good prospects and I got shit. But instead of going backwards, I can go and fight a better fighter, who was number-two in the world in the WBC. To me, I saw it as a good sign. At that point I said, you know what, God has a plan for me. I really believed it. So I said to my friend, if I don’t win the fight I’m going to retire. I was that close to retiring. I wasn’t going to let the game play with me and play with my dignity.
So I went there and it was a close fight. I believe I won the fight. I thought they were going to shit on me again, but they gave it to me. When they announced the decision I said, “Wow! This is unbelievable!” I was so happy. I was emotional. Finally, I got a good victory over the best guy [of my career]. I believe that moment was the beginning of a change in my boxing career. That was a new beginning.
In that fight, you were able to beat a guy who probably had faster hands than you and had good foot speed? How were you able to succeed against Lundy?
With Lundy, I had a plan in my head. Lundy had seen me fight aggressive, going forward all the time. So that was the type of fight he would expect – me going forward and not trying to outbox him. So I put pressure on him but I stayed a little bit on the outside. He was uncomfortable because I was in front of him, but enough away from him where I wasn’t putting constant pressure or too close. That was my plan and it worked. I got him with some good body shots and I rocked him in the third round.
I think psychologically that [plan] worked out for my side because he wasn’t ready for that. He was expecting something different. So he had to readjust. And it became more difficult than he expected. So I took advantage of the moment and it worked.
I noticed that you did the same thing at times with Ricky Burns where you boxed a little bit at a distance instead of constantly rushing him. I felt that you had success doing that as well.
It was difficult with Ricky because he was holding and hugging so much. So I was trying to stay away so I could throw punches. And then when we went to the ropes, I went in with my hands down, kind of saying, “C’mon. Throw something.” But he didn’t do it. He was hugging too much.
I’m not judging him. I don’t want to talk bad about him. He did what he had to do. Maybe he feels he could do better, but he wasn’t fighting. And that made it more difficult. If he fought more with me, that would make him more open. I would’ve had more chances to rock him. But he was being defensive or hugging me, and it’s hard to hit a fighter like that.
Another fight that captured a lot of attention was your victory over Ji-Hoon Kim. Within the first 90 seconds of the fight you were dropped and then you came back later in the round and knocked him down. You won the fight pretty handily but what do you remember about that first round and what were some of the instructions in your corner after the knockdowns?
[Laughs] I remember. When I fought Kim, he was very aggressive with me. I thought, “Wow, he wants to kill me!” So it took me a little bit to adjust and find my distance. But he got me good with a kind of hook. It was up but it came in front of my hands. It was in a good location. He got me good on the button. I thought I was on the ropes, but I wasn’t; I was towards the center of the ring. Then soon, I was down on the canvas.
And I said to myself, “Whoa. I got to get up and do something.” I never thought of quitting. I got up and I said I got to get him. I recovered quickly because I was in great shape. And then I got him down with a good hook.
I went back to my corner and they said put your hands up and whatever. But the thing is I hurt my left hand in that round and I couldn’t really use it anymore. I think by the seventh or eighth round I thought my hand was broken. I was in so much pain. I’d hit him in the body and it hurt. I tried the face and I was in so much pain.
But I never lost focus. I never lost hope. I never lost concentration. I said, whatever, I have my right hand. I just stayed focused and basically I beat him with my right hand. Someone asked me why I didn’t throw combinations. Well I couldn’t. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t let my left hand go.
I wanted to talk about your beginnings in boxing. You grew up in a boxing family. At what age do you first pick up the gloves?
I come from a family of boxers. I’d say I was eight – seven or eight. My dad used to train me on the porch, outside of our house with the heavy bag. He taught me how to punch, how to defend myself in the streets. Then maybe I had one or two amateur fights when I was eight and then I didn’t do it anymore. But when I was 14, I started all over again, and then I couldn’t stop.
Can you tell us about your decision to turn pro at 17?
I was in high school. I was an illegal. I didn’t have a green card or nothing. I was in high school but I couldn’t go forward anymore. I was boxing already in Arizona…I was fighting in the amateurs. And maybe I could turn pro and do something with my life – take it more serious. That was my goal but it was also my only choice at that time. That’s why I turned pro. You know, I had nowhere to go.
You lost two of your first seven fights as a professional and then made a steady progression to tougher opponents. At what point did you think that you could make it world level and that you could compete with the best?
I was always confident from my first fight. But when I fought Sean Fletcher (I think I was 10-2 at the time and he was 25-7 with something like 19 or 20 knockouts [it was 19]), he had fought top-level guys and world champions, guys like Juan Manuel Marquez and Cesar Soto, and I had only had 12 fights. Marquez stopped him in the seventh round and I stopped him in the ninth [the fight was technically declared a disqualification]. I fought a good-level guy and I beat him up good. I felt like I was ready. That was a good test for me and I was ready to go to the next level.
What has been your toughest fight to date?
Sometimes fights are tough because, as fighters, we’re not always ready. You’re having trouble making weight. And your opponents are tough because you’re barely making it [weight]. Sometimes you fight with your heart and that’s it.
But I think, being ready and in good shape, my toughest fight has been Kim. I hit him with everything but he kept coming. He’s good and he can punch hard. Every punch he hit me with hurt. I think he’s one of the hardest punchers I’ve faced. There are fights that are difficult and there are fights that are tough. Definitely my toughest fight was Kim.
What has been your best moment as a professional?
I think when I fought Burns. I fought a world champion. Now I know how to beat a world champion. In my heart, I know if it wasn’t for politics, I’m a world champion. I think that was my best moment because that put me in front of the eyes of the whole boxing world.
At 32, and a pro for almost 15 years, how long do you see yourself continuing boxing?
I feel so good. My reflexes are there. I feel I’m better now than I was before. I’ve learned a lot with nutrition and strength and conditioning. My team is complete now – before it was just me and my trainer.
I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. I don’t party. Hopefully I’ll become like Marquez, 39 or so and still fighting at the top level. If I feel good and I can keep doing it, I feel I can keep going…maybe three years, maybe four. Who knows? Five or six?
Sometimes when fighters become champion too soon, 21 or 22, they’re not mature enough. They start drinking. They start partying. So by the time they’re 32, they’re already done.
They call that an “Old 32.”
Yeah, they punish their body so much…and with all the wars. But I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’ve been very careful. So I think that will make a difference in my boxing career. That’s my hope.
After you hang up the gloves, how would you like to be remembered in the ring?
I want people to remember me as a real fighter – a fighter that wasn’t made by politics, a guy who could put on a good show and was of the people – a tough, good action fighter.
A final question for you, I know that you’ve been a sparring partner for Manny Pacquiao in the past and now you’re going to be fighting on one of his cards as a chief support. What has he meant to you and your career?
I look up to him. Manny is one of the greatest of all time. And he’s also a great human being. I really admire him because he is so humble. The money didn’t go to his head, or the fame. He’s humble. He cares for people. He appreciates them. He takes care of people. I just admire him.
As a kid, I wanted to be a world champion. I looked up to Sugar Ray Leonard. He was one of my idols. But then I came here and I met one of the greatest. And not only that, but he’s my friend. I’ve worked with him for eight or nine years. To me, as I said, it’s a dream come true. He’s a great guy, a great human being. And to fight on his undercard, it couldn’t be more perfect for me. I’m just so happy, so excited.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.www.facebook.com/SaturdayNightBoxing
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