Photo: Top Rank Boxing

By MARK LORENZANA

“I want to be one of the greatest Mexican fighters of all time.”

This was the confident answer of Óscar Valdez Jr. — a two-time Olympian who represented Mexico in Beijing 2008 and again in London in 2012 — when asked at a pre-fight interview before his scheduled bout against World Boxing Organization (WBO) super featherweight champion Shakur Stevenson what he wanted his legacy to be in boxing. And he certainly looked the part when Valdez met fellow Mexican Miguel “Alacran” Berchelt in the ring on Feb. 20, 2021, to challenge Berchelt for his World Boxing Council (WBC) super featherweight title.

In that fight, Valdez — originally from Nogales in the northern Mexican state of Sonora,but now fighting out of Tucson, Arizona — flattened Berchelt, the odds-on favorite. With a minute and 10 seconds remaining in the ninth round,  Valdez landed a hybrid right overhand-uppercut followed by a left hook that dropped Berchelt, who recovered well after the knockdown to keep on fighting.

The end, though, came a round later when an aggressive and desperate Berchelt, trying to score a knockout, lunged and left himself wide open, absorbing a crushing left hook from Valdez that deposited him to the canvas. There would be no recovering for Berchelt Olympics, after that devastating shot; Valdez was crowned the WBC super featherweight champion that night.

Valdez, however, wasn’t expected to duplicate that feat against Stevenson, who himself picked up his super featherweight strap in impressive fashion by dominating erstwhile WBO champion Jamel Herring in October of last year en route to a 10th-round technical-knockout victory. Berchelt, like Valdez, has dynamite in his fists, but he doesn’t quite possess the ring savvy of a Stevenson — an Olympian in his own right, who represented the United States at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Río de Janeiro.

On the one hand, Berchelt is a jackhammer who keeps on coming, overwhelming opponents through sheer blunt-force trauma. But Berchelt’s come-forward style can also be his undoing, as evidenced by that well-placed counterpunch that Valdez used to knock Alacran out in their fight. Stevenson fights at his own pace — and forces you to fight at his own pace. Pure pressure fighters — in the mold of the aforementioned Berchelt, as well as, to an extent, Valdez — like to keep their opponents on the defensive end all night long, while fighters like Stevenson with a high ring IQ can adjust to an opponents’ fighting style and make you fight their fight.

Which was exactly what unfolded when Shakur Stevenson finally traded leather with Óscar Valdez Jr. on the night of Saturday, April 30, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for their unification bout, with both fighters’ titles on the line, in addition to the Ring Magazine super featherweight belt.

It was evident at the outset who would control the fight. The 31-year-old Valdez came out at the opening bell eager — too eager, perhaps — as the Newark, New Jersey–native Stevenson, seven years younger, made him miss and miss badly. (One of those bad misses caused Valdez to slip and stumble and fall to the canvas in the first round.) While Valdez appeared overeager, sometimes lost, Stevenson controlled the distance with a crisp and effective jab.

It was also evident who the bigger fighter was. At the weigh-in the day before, it didn’t really matter as both fighters — like any other boxer well-versed in the art of making weight — did their darn best to dehydrate to make the 130-pound limit, with Valdez weighing a shade below at 129 pounds and Stevenson just making it. On fight night, however, the five-foot-five-inch Valdez looked every inch like a 130-pound super featherweight soaking wet, while the five-foot-seven-inch Stevenson, completely rehydrated, seemed like he had the frame of a full-fledged welterweight. It didn’t help that Stevenson also had a two-inch reach advantage.

This reach advantage Stevenson utilized to the hilt, as he smartly pumped his jab and confused Valdez all night. The bigger Stevenson also had more pop in his shots, as he repeatedly peppered Valdez with power punches: An accurate straight left, and powerful hooks and uppercuts that the American unleashed while on the inside but also, impressively, while backpedaling whenever the Mexican tried to put on the pressure — which lasted the entire 12 rounds, a testament to Valdez’s stamina. The problem for Valdez: It wasn’t effective aggression.

Stevenson punctuated his power advantage in the sixth round when he sent Valdez sprawling to the canvas with a left uppercut to the head. By the championship rounds, Valdez had a mouse under his left eye, a cut below his right eye, and redness and swelling on his forehead; Stevenson was mostly untouched.

In the end, Valdez simply had no answer for Stevenson. Two of the ringside judges scored it 118-109 in favor of Stevenson, while a third saw it 117-110 for the American.

“He is a tough champion, but I was prepared to beat him,” Stevenson said in an interview after the fight. “This victory means everything to me,” he added. “I told you what I would do, and I did it. Valdez is tough, rugged and has power. But I’m ready for anyone, I want all the belts.”

Valdez, for his part, acknowledged that he was bested by Stevenson, at least on that night.

“He has a very great boxing quality, and today he was the best in the ring,” Valdez said. “He moves very well. He’s a champion. He has speed. He’s a great boxer.”

Valdez also apologized to his countrymen.

“I tried to bring the belts to Mexico. I’m sorry, we tried,” he said.

Let’s be clear: A champion who gave all he could against a younger, taller, bigger, stronger and faster opponent has nothing to be ashamed of, or to apologize for.

But being one of the greatest Mexican fighters of all time?

That, unfortunately, would have to wait.

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