Monday, June 15, 2015

The Verdejo Train

Felix Verdejo, the young Puerto Rican power puncher, has received considerable hype since beginning his professional career. A 2012 Olympian, Verdejo was awarded with a significant signing bonus from Top Rank upon turning pro. The company proclaimed him a phenom. Although many young prospects receive buzz from their promoters (much of it eventually to be unfounded), that Bob Arum, the grizzled promotional head of Top Rank, was responsible for such hosannas is quite notable; his company has a well-deserved reputation as being the best talent evaluators in North American boxing. 

Top Rank wasted little time in displaying its new talent to the boxing masses. In Verdejo's first 10 fights, he was given featured sports on the undercards of some of the company's biggest promotions, fighting in Madison Garden twice, Radio City Music Hall, in Macau and also on a Miguel Cotto card (Cotto is the current dean of Puerto Rican boxing). Clearly, the company had big plans for Verdejo. 

I've never been one to fall in love with prospects and while I immediately noticed several outstanding traits in Verdejo's early fights, I had enough questions about his overall package of skills to retain a bit of skepticism. On the plus side of the ledger, Verdejo clearly displayed an aggressive temperament in the ring that was fan-friendly. Possessing top-rate power, he was looking to knock opponents out in spectacular fashion, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Yes, there were highlight-reel stoppages but there were also the standard issues that young power punches face. He wanted to knock guys out with every punch and his shots would often get bigger and wider if the knockout didn't come quickly: he was doubling down on some technical mistakes. 

One of the other crown jewels of Top Rank's 2012 Olympic class was Oscar Valdez, a Mexican fighter who also possessed heavy hands and a television-friendly style. As both Verdejo and Valdez started to progress in their careers, it became a fun parlor game among boxing observers to compare the two fighters and project which one would ultimately become more successful. Valdez was more clinical with his shots than Verdejo was. His left hook was sensational and he had the better balance and footwork. However, Verdejo possessed a larger offensive arsenal, true one-punch knockout power and better hand speed. 

Of the two, I was initially higher on Valdez, believing that he had a better boxing foundation, stronger defensive fundamentals and a higher ring I.Q. And until this past week, I maintained that opinion. However, in preparing to write a preview article for Verdejo's fight on Saturday against Ivan Najera, I started to reconsider (full disclosure: the preview article never happened as life got in that way). I wound up watching probably 10 or 11 of Verdejo's bouts and the more that I saw the more excited I became. I witnessed his devastating counter uppercut knockout of Sergio Villanueva, where Verdejo, normally an orthodox fighter, landed a pulverizing left uppercut out of the southpaw stance. Verdejo also really impressed me with his patient work against Oscar Bravo; the knockout wasn't going to come but he stuck to winning rounds and didn't get discouraged. In addition, in his more recent fights I started to see a progression in his ring IQ. He was now setting up shots and opponents; there was a plan, not just raw power. 

Verdejo is still only 22 (and almost two-and-a-half years younger than Valdez) but he is already developing some quality offensive moves to go along with his destructive power. He doubles up the left hook beautifully, going to the body and the head. He has become much more comfortable countering than he was when he started his career. He seems to relish the back-and-forth of exchanges and doesn't get spooked after getting hit cleanly. These are the types of advancements that are imperative for young prospects. After my video session, I was even more eager to see Verdejo in person on Saturday; I needed to witness his growth with my own eyes. Was he the real deal?

Najera, his opponent this weekend, was a Texas-based undefeated prospect, although not a blue chipper pre-destined for greatness like Verdejo or Valdez. However, Najera could handle himself in the ring, had decent boxing skills and a high work rate. He was easily Verdejo's best foe of his career. 

I won't bury the lede: Verdejo was sensational. He knocked Najera down twice with the same punch, a hybrid left hook/uppercut. The first knockdown was just a sublime counter shot, the type of punch that can only land if a fighter is truly locked into his target. If Verdejo, overthrows that shot, he misses it wildly but his execution on the first knockdown was flawless. 

Najera was the perfect opponent for Verdejo at this stage of his career. He had a pretty tight defense and worked behind his jab. He kept throwing punches but did so responsibly. He used fairly good footwork to cut off the ring and he unloaded some carefully placed power shots when he could (most notably a left hook). If Verdejo wasn't on, or if he was just the product of hype, he certainly could have lost to a fighter of Najera's caliber. 

However, Verdejo had an answer for everything that came his way. When Najera's offense became too predictable, Verdejo pounded him with counter left hooks and lead right hands. He set traps for Najera along the ropes, playing a little possum waiting for Najera to unload power shots. After these moments, Verdejo fired back with even more ferocious thunder, hurting Najera two or three times when using this tactic. As Verdejo started to break down Najera throughout the fight, he continued to flash additional aspects of his offense. He had several impressive counter right uppercuts in the second half of the fight. In the final round, he switched to southpaw and had huge success with lead left hands. 

Najera was able to make it to the final bell but that speaks more to his intestinal fortitude (and an unsympathetic ref) than any deficiency in Verdejo's performance. Yes, Verdejo took some good shots (which, in fact, can be interpreted as a positive in that his response was excellent) but he was consistently the better fighter. Overall, Verdejo commanded the ring, displaying maturity while not doing anything to tarnish his star wattage. 

And during the fight, The Theater at Madison Square Garden morphed into quite the festive atmosphere. Puerto Rican flags were waving throughout the match; cheers were offered in multiple languages. The crowd celebrated Verdejo's display of firepower and exhorted him during lulls. Although the arena wasn't filled to capacity, those who were in attendance – the majority was pro-Verdejo – witnessed a crucial early step in Verdejo's rise to stardom. With performances like Saturday's, Verdejo's following will start to grow exponentially.  

There will still be tests ahead for Verdejo and, clearly, nothing is ordained in this sport. Najera had only average power and it still remains to be seen how good Verdejo's chin is against top power punchers. Fortunately for him, the lightweight division as it stands now has few of those but eventually that challenge will manifest. In addition, Verdejo still needs some room to throw his best punches. I'd be interested to see how he deals with a phone booth war from a true pressure fighter. But these aren't knocks on the fighter – just questions that one day will need to be answered. 

After the fight, it was reported that Verdejo had hurt his left hand and will be out of action for several months. This period will be an early test for the fighter. Will he be able to maintain his conditioning during the long layoff? Verdejo only needs to look to his native island to see the perils of blowing up in weight between fights. Juan Manuel Lopez was once as sure-fire of a prospect as there was in the sport. He had a fantastic amateur pedigree and he was more polished than Verdejo is. However, after becoming a champ, Lopez would balloon from the 120s to untold numbers. Some have claimed the 160s or even the 180s. It was ultimately Lopez's lack of dedication outside the ring that did him in as much as anything that Orlando Salido threw at him during their battles. For Verdejo, Lopez's story is a cautionary tale and it will be fascinating to see what Verdejo looks like when he returns to the ring. 

The Felix Verdejo vs. Oscar Valdez debate will continue and it won't be decided today or anytime soon. I'm certainly not in any way disparaging Valdez's skills or future prospects in the sport. I'll just say that I've been impressed in how quickly Verdejo has added to his raw tools. He's no longer just a knockout artist. He has developed poise and several crafty moves. His development in the ring coupled with a full-on adoption by the rabid Puerto Rican fanbase could lead to superstardom. For now, the Verdejo Train continues to gather steam and I encourage all of you to hop along for the ride. The normal disclaimers about young fighters should of course be applied but, for one night, I saw what might be The Future, and it was glorious. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter, SN Boxing on Facebook
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