In observing Oscar Valdez's recent outings against Adam Lopez and Jayson Velez, it's safe to say that he was a fighter caught between styles. As a young pro, he had risen as a brawling pugilist with a nasty left hook. But a switch to trainer Eddy Reynoso led to Valdez incorporating additional elements of a purer boxing style into his attack – boxing off his back foot, switching stances, and using his legs more. Until Saturday's fight against junior lightweight titlist Miguel Berchelt, these disparate styles had yet to coalesce. What Reynoso was requiring of Valdez did not necessarily seem natural for the fighter and furthermore, it seemed that Valdez's natural aggression and offensive talents were being marginalized.
Yet on Saturday, it all cohered seamlessly, as if everything the pair had been working on for the last two years had been building to this one, singular performance. Valdez's stunning tenth-round knockout of Berchelt was a product of these years of hard work. And what had seemed like a series of strange career decisions and ring tactics now revealed themselves to be profound calculations by a young fighter taking control of his career and a trainer who has emerged as one of the best strategists in the sport.
|Oscar Valdez (left) lands a left hook|
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank
Valdez's performance on Saturday illustrated a complete mastery of a tough opponent. And for everything great that Valdez did in the fight, I believe that two specific attributes were chiefly responsible for his win: the application of a speed advantage, and sowing confusion.
Although Berchelt held massive physical advantages over Valdez, Reynoso believed that his fighter had superior speed that, if applied correctly, could provide the open window needed for winning the fight. And it's this specific application of Valdez's speed that highlights Reynoso's strategic brilliance and Valdez's overall skills as a fighter. To Reynoso, many of the traditional measures of speed in the ring would not be effective against Berchelt. He didn't emphasize being first during exchanges or want Valdez necessarily running around the ring hoping to tire Berchelt out; how he envisioned Valdez’s speed advantage was far more subtle. He wanted everything to be quick: incisive jabs, sharp lead left hooks, in-and-out movement, turning and spinning off the ropes, and fast changes to the southpaw stance. In the early rounds, everything was one shot and out.
Reynoso believed that it was imperative to minimize Berchelt's comfort in the ring. He didn't want Berchelt to be able to plant his feet or establish a consistent offensive rhythm. A large part of accomplishing this goal was for his fighter to avoid slugging it out in the center of the ring, where Berchelt could unfurl his numerous offensive weapons.
With Reynoso's plan, Valdez could also marginalize Berchelt's physicality. In particular, Valdez avoided two tactics as best as he could: inside fighting and clinches. Throughout the fight, Valdez did almost all of his work from mid-range and distance. Rarely did he try to grapple with Berchelt or assert himself in the trenches. Even when Berchelt was able to corner Valdez along the ropes, Valdez did not initiate a clinch or hold, where he could be worn down by Berchelt's more muscular frame. Instead, he expertly used his hands and body to maneuver himself away from Berchelt, often by spinning Berchelt or manipulating him away from the action. These moves were quick and subtle, but they were highly effective.
The early-round success for Valdez culminated in a knockdown in the fourth. Because he was able to establish a punishing jab from the outset of the fight, Valdez forced Berchelt into making a mistake. In the beginning of the fourth, Valdez cocked his left hand and Berchelt extended his arms expecting to block a jab. However, Valdez followed with a sharp left hook that bypassed Berchelt's outstretched arms and landed with maximum authority. Immediately, Berchelt's legs turned to jelly. Valdez would land another half-dozen pulsating left hooks in the round and eventually would get a knockdown. But all of this started with his hard jabs earlier in the fight and Berchelt being wary of them.
After Valdez failed to get the stoppage in the fourth, he increasingly decided to fight in the southpaw stance, which seemed like a strange choice at the time. After all, he had just had his best moments of the fight in the orthodox stance. By the sixth and seventh rounds, Berchelt was able to work his way back into the fight by landing a number of hard straight right hands to the head and left hooks to the body. It appeared that the tide of the fight was turning. Despite being on wobbly legs and seriously hurt, Berchelt continued to press forward and his confidence grew.
However, the final three rounds of the fight illustrated the mastery of Valdez and Reynoso's plan. It was a clinic on how to confuse a technically limited opponent. Valdez would hit Berchelt with almost every shot imaginable, and from unpredictable angles: lead hooks and jabs in the orthodox stance, overhand rights, right hooks out of the southpaw stance and perhaps most notably, rear hooks out of the southpaw position. This final punch set up the second knockdown of the fight in the ninth round, where Valdez detonated a rear left hook from southpaw then switched to a right uppercut in the orthodox stance; Berchelt had no idea where the shots would be coming from or how to defend them.
In the final moment of the fight, Valdez landed the signature punch of his career, a short, rear left hook out of the southpaw position. The shot was so fierce that Valdez didn't even bother to look at Berchelt once the punch connected. He sprinted around the perimeter of the ring and then jumped into the clutches of his team. He knew that this was the moment of his career.
It should be noted that Berchelt was a sizable favorite coming into the fight. He entered the contest having defended his junior lightweight title six times, which included five stoppages, many of which were brutally impressive. More than a few, myself included, thought that Valdez was nuts for pursuing a Berchelt fight in that he would be severely undersized and outgunned.
However, one needs to understand that there is a certain arrogance that can be a blessing (or a curse) at the top levels of boxing. There is a belief by fighters and trainers that they can overcome any challenge or opponent. Now of course every team thinks that they have a strategy to beat the favorite, but it's not often where one witnesses a game plan executed to such perfection. All of what Reynoso had been building over the last few years – the back-foot boxing, the switching, the limiting of opportunities by opponents – led to Saturday's victory.
And as brilliant as Reynoso was on Saturday, he wasn't the guy in the ring. Valdez was the one who had the capacity to execute such a specific game plan. He had the physical ability and intellectual aptitude to add things to his craft. Not only could he switch stances, but he could initiate fight-ending sequences with them, a rare gift. He had the tools AND fully comprehended when, where and how to use them.
When Valdez left trainer Manny Robles for Reynoso, he had decided to undertake a radical transformation of his fight style, with no guarantee that it would be effective. His move was risky and had a chance of backfiring, but he maintained a belief in his chosen path, even despite spotty initial results. Not only does Valdez deserve credit for envisioning a more well-rounded style for himself in the ring, but he had the perseverance to stick with it even after getting dropped by an undersized Adam Lopez and looking less than menacing against Jayson Velez.
Valdez scored a knockout for the ages on Saturday; that left hook will always be the first clip of his career retrospective highlight reel. But what should not be forgotten about Saturday's performance is the culmination of an unusual journey, the transition from a front-foot slugger to a slick boxer-puncher. Valdez had bet on himself and won, validating one of the biggest decisions of his career. He saw something different in himself and, with Reynoso, a way to get there. And together they slayed a giant.