By Austin Killeen December 30, 2016
(Click on thumbnail for larger image)
In 2016 five boxers separated themselves from the rest of the herd by making a statement outside the friendly confines of New Mexico. The big boys are Austin Trout and Fidel Maldonado Jr. as they will fight anybody, any place, any time, and win. Unfortunately Trout lost his only fight this year, a unanimous decision to Jermall Charlo for the IBF super welterweight title. But it was a competitive match and Trout is still very relevant at the world class level. Maldonado fought an exciting draw against Art Hovhannisyan and scored two stoppages to keep knocking on the door of world class opportunity. Traveling to California in December for a televised bout against undefeated Antonio Orozco (25-0-0, 16 KO’s) the rug was pulled out from under him at the scales. He was told that Orozco had fainted that morning and have a save trip back to Albuquerque.
Three other boxers from the “Land of Enchantment” also separated themselves from the crowd by their success in fighting anyone anywhere. Josh Torres lost a competitive bout against world class Mike Alvarado in Dallas, Texas but looked flat against Jose Marrufo. Torres desperately needs to get a win against a live body to remain in the discussion outside of New Mexico. Jose Salinas and Ron Boca had big years, winning on the road as underdogs. In big matchups Salinas lost a majority decision in New York against Billel Dib (21-1-0, 10 KO’s) than upset Dardan Zenunaj by unanimous decision on national television. On January 27, 2017 Salinas will face undefeated Erick De Leon (14-0-0, 8 KO’s) in a televised bout from Studio City, California.
Ron Baca started 2016 with a loss, but then caught fire. In August he traveled to Denver, Colorado and upset favored Kenny Lemos. In a rematch three months later he was beating Lemos again when the ring collapsed and had to settle with a No Contest. He then traveled to Louisiana and fought an eight round draw against undefeated Justin Jones (19-0-2, 11 KO’s) in December to close out the year. The amazing thing about Baca is that he is a terrible gym fighter, but is a much better fighter when he fights in front of a live audience. These five boxers want to be champions and are willing to travel anyplace to achieve their goal of being number one. None of them have undefeated records, but are at the top of their game due to the level of their competition. When they finally hang up their gloves, they won’t have to wonder what could have been. They’ve faced the best competition they could get in the ring and gave their very best effort. Based on that philosophy they are all winners.
In selecting fight of the year, two bouts stand out; Edgar Zubia versus Oscar Espinoza in Hobbs, NM and Augustine Banegas versus Tony Valdez in Pueblo, NM. They were both grudge matches not fake face offs, youth against age, polarized fan bases, and drama that a screen writer couldn’t make up. Looking back at the bouts I couldn’t image the outcomes, because there were so many possible endings. Finally there were no losers in these contests, because how can you lose when you give your very best.
Entering the ring the Zubia/Espinoza main event had more questions than answers. Zubia hadn’t fought in two years, had survived a horrific truck accident, was fighting three weight divisions above junior welterweight and giving away over seven years in age. For his part Espinoza was at a huge disadvantage in experience and facing the overwhelming darling of the fans. At the opening bell Zubia exploded from his corner and started smothering Espinoza with leather. Espinoza was answering back, but clearly getting the worst of the exchanges. Suddenly Zubia slipped under a left and dropped his rival on his back with a left hook to the head. Barely beating the count, Espinoza found himself being banged all over the ring by his rival in the hope of going home early. Connecting with a right to the head Zubia sent Espinoza to the canvas for a second time. Looking dazed, Espinoza beat the count only to be under attack again. Fortunately for Espinoza there are only three minutes in a round and the bell came to his rescue. Returning to his corner Espinoza had a nasty cut to his right eye.
Zubia opened the second round with the intent of finishing what he had started in the first. Surprisingly he started clowning after the first thirty seconds. Was he clowning or had he punched himself out? Espinoza started throwing left jabs, forcing Zubia to react, either by punching back or retreating. The veteran did a little of both, but clearly the pace was taking him out of his comfort zone. Encouraged by the turn of events Espinoza picked up the pace, adding overhand rights and left hooks to his arsenal of punches. The round was hotly contested, featuring some heated exchanges; I gave the edge to Espinoza. In the third Espinoza continued to push the pace of the fight and I definitely felt he won the round.
At the start of the fourth fans were going crazy, as this contest was a beauty. If Espinoza could score a knockdown it was conceivable he could still win the decision. Zubia must have realized the same thing, as he reached deep within himself to stage a rally. Espinoza fought back, but clearly the round belonged to Zubia. When ring announcer Abel Arriaga sorted the score cards before reading the verdict the audience seemed to be holding their collective breaths. Judge Anthony Romero had a score of 39-37, while Ester Lopez and Mark Sanchez both had scores of 38-36 (the same as my score), making Zubia the winner by unanimous decision.
In the Valdez/Banegas fight, Banegas entered the ring to a chorus of boos, while Valdez entered the ring to the thundering sound of cheers. I expected the hard hitting Valdez to tear into Banegas, but it was the Las Cruces boxer who was doing the stalking. I’ve seen most of his fights and never seen any indication that he had any kind of a punch. For his part Valdez seemed comfortable fighting out of a crouch and would fire back each time he felt the ropes touching his back. The first two rounds were mirror images of each other with Banegas scoring with left hooks off his jab and Valdez answering with left hooks to the body. I gave both rounds to the visiting fighter but the rounds were close and the fan favorite appeared to have opportunities to counter with powerful punches of his own.
In the third round Banegas added a straight right to his arsenal and it seemed to throw Valdez off his game. About half way through the round Valdez was trapped on the ropes and the crowd villain unloaded. Stepping to the middle of the ring, Valdez lost his balance and took a seat on the canvas. Referee Valez correctly waved off the count, ruling it a slip. But Valdez was in trouble and soon found himself trapped near his rival’s corner. Banegas unloaded a brutal left hook to his opponent’s head and followed it with a seven punch combination. Sitting on the lower strand of the ropes Valdez was defenseless and Referee Valez halted the contest at 2:30 of the round. These were two emotionally charged fights that lived up to the hype; to pick one over the other would be impossible.
Fighters on the horizon, who could have a break out year are undefeated boxers Brian Mendoza, Brandon Holmes, Jason Sanchez, Elijio Sena and Angelo Leo. Not to be over looked are Jose Luis Sanchez, Alex Holquin, Antonio Martinez, Pat Holmes Jr., Jesus Pacheco and Jose Osorio. One well respected trainer who I will not mention by name thinks Angelo Leo might be the best fighter with the most potential of the entire bunch. This trainer has absolutely no connection with Mr. Leo, so that is very high praise. Two new comers who turned pro this year impressed me with their poise under fire; Isidro Castillo Jr. and Cristian Castillo; no relation to each other. Isidro Castillo Jr. is trained by his father who was an outstanding amateur boxer many years ago. Apparently the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree. Cristian Castillo is trained by Aaron Perez and showed great head movement for such an inexperienced pro in his debut.
Tomorrow I will rate the boxers by division.