New York: Eight years ago on a cold January evening, and inside The Hulu Theatre at Madison Square Garden, a young 19-year old Felix Verdejo quickly disposed of his opponent in the first round. It was his second pro fight and New York debut on a Top Rank boxing show that was televised on HBO Boxing.
After the win, Verdejo posed in the ring with a Puerto Rican flag draped around his shoulders. The sold out crowd of 5,500 in the adjacent arena to the Garden would cheer until he exited the ring. Many of those fans proudly displayed the flag.
New York City has a majority of boxing fans from Puerto Rico. They are proud of their fighters and what they represent. Verdejo was their next superstar and there was potential to succeed Hall of Fame champions Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto.
I was there that evening at ringside. Verdejo, a lightweight, was coming off a successful amatuer career fighting for Puerto Rico in the 2012 Olympic games and was to be the next and popular champion from Puerto Rico.
“I am proud to be here and want to fight here more before my people,” Verdejo said to me in a quick interview before entering the doors for post fight testing with officials from the New York State Athletic Commission.
I will say, Felix Verdejo had all those qualities of a champion and persona. Personality, smile, a good punch, and he could fight. I could see another superstar in boxing and representing Puerto Rico with pride.
He was proud and wanted to follow Trinidad and Cotto, along with all the other prominent names from Puerto Rico that have carried the flag in and out of the ring. He could not speak English and relied on his management team to do the translation.
But Like Cotto, Verdejo learned to Speak English and sessions with the media were becoming routine with brief and concise answers.
That evening at the Garden, Trinidad and Cotto passed the torch to Verdejo as the next superstar and there was promise with Top Rank, a promotion that excels in marketing their young and upcoming fighters from Puerto Rico and New York City has always been the perfect setting.
Top Rank was enthusiastic. Bob Arum, the Hall of Fame promoter, saw Verdejo as that successor after signing him to a reported $600,000 promotional contract. There was going to be more of Felix Verdejo at the Garden and fighting in front of a partisan New York Puerto Rican crowd with an annual event in June on the eve of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Arum said, “We will have Felix back here in June and every year after that. Felix has that following with fans here and in Puerto Rico and can be the next Trinidad or Cotto.”
Years later, Verdejo would continue his quest to be in that same company with Trinidad and Cotto. He was on his way in the lightweight division and not far from challenging for one of the titles.
In 2016, the WBA ranked him Number 2 and the WBO third after stopping Jose Luis Rodriguez in Puerto Rico with his devastating punches to the head and body in the 10-round fight.
But there were setbacks including injuries to a hand. An almost fatal motorcycle accident in Puerto Rico put Verdejo on the sidelines and the major title aspirations were put on hold.
There were more fights and the comeback. Felix Verdejo was again on track and in good hands with Top Rank.
But all of that promise and hope came to a sudden halt the past few days. The 27-year old Verdejo, will never be in the ring again after surrendering to authorities in Puerto Rico and hit with multiple criminal charges connected to the murder of a 27-year old pregnant woman and her unborn child.
The ugly details have been reported and I am not going to rehash what the criminal report states. Verdejo, married and father of a young girl, apparently knew the victim for a long time as classmates at a school in Puerto Rico.
Yet a married man and father and a fighter with success, will not follow in the footsteps of Trinidad or Cotto. Verdejo, to those with knowledge of the sport, was on that comeback trail. But he was still a few fights away from a challenge to a lightweight title or testing the waters at 140.
It does not make a difference now. Because Felix Verdejo is now in the biggest flight of his life. The FBI and prosecutors are seeking life in prison and there is a call in Puerto Rico to seek a death penalty.
You wonder why? What led to these tragic events? And this has certainly been a setback to those who believed and loved Felix Verdejo. Top Rank has removed his name from their roster and in due time another star will emerge.
But a young life and unborn child were the victims here. And Felix Verdejo is the unfortunate story of another promising fighter that went bad in a society that seems to dwell on violence.
It’s difficult to comprehend.
Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso
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