Puerto Rican boxing still searching for its next star
ABS-CBN Sports on Jun 11, 2016 08:21 AM
Puerto Rican boxer Felix Verdejo poses after his weigh-in, Friday June 10, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Verdejo will contest the WBO Latino Lightweight Championship against Mexico's Juan Jose Martinez, Saturday June 11 at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
SAMANTHA PELL, AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — With Miguel Cotto nearing the end of his career, Puerto Rican boxing fans are looking for his replacement.
For more than a decade, Cotto has been the top Puerto Rican boxer and has often headlined a big New York fight before the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
This year, Cotto is sitting out the weekend, and Felix Verdejo is co-headlining a Saturday night card at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Rocky Martinez is also on the card, although he is the opponent for up-and-coming Ukrainian star Vasyl Lomachenko, who says he has plans to ruin the weekend for Puerto Rican fans.
It seems a long way away from 2007 when Cotto beat Zab Judah in front of a sellout crowd in the Garden's big arena. And it's unclear if Verdejo or any young Puerto Rican boxer is ready to lead the island's long tradition of superstar fighters, including Cotto, Felix "Tito" Trinidad and Wilfredo Benitez.
"I am happy to fight and honored to fight in this historic place and to be continuing the legacy (Trinidad and Cotto) built," Verdejo said. "I am proud to be Puerto Rican and to represent my countrymen on the day before the parade is an honor, a special honor."
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum hopes Verdejo can be the star who brings out enthusiastic Puerto Rican boxing fans, but he needs a few more big wins before he can move from the theater into the big room.
That's why Arum scheduled the undefeated No. 2 world-rated lightweight contender to fight on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade.
"We (Top Rank) are so used to doing an event that's fashioned for the Puerto Ricans on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade and nobody else has done it and we've done it for years," Arum said.
Verdejo, 23, will face Juan Jose Martinez in the co-main event. Verdejo, who has fought twice before in Manhattan during Puerto Rican weekend, took part in the Puerto Rican Festival in the Bronx on May 28 to work out for fans.
"Big crowds went to the fight (last year)," Arum said. "He (Verdejo) was a grand marshal (of the Puerto Rican Day parade) and so forth and when we signed Verdejo and realized what a talent he was, we are doing the same thing to replicate the success we had with Cotto."
Top Rank promoted Cotto until he signed with Roc Nation Sports last year.
Cotto headlined during Puerto Rican Day weekend at the Garden in 2005 and continued to do so in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2014. Cotto also headlined at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx in 2010 during the festivities.
In addition to Verdejo, Martinez, a three-time world champion, said he is ready for the opportunity to fight at the Garden during Puerto Rican Day weekend and wants "to be the man for all Puerto Ricans."
Martinez said he encourages all Puerto Ricans to come out to support when he "wins on Saturday."
"I think the crowd will be, maybe, half and half, but more with Puerto Ricans," Martinez said. "I am happy to fight in this show in Madison Square Garden before the Puerto Rican Day parade, and to show my boxing."
AP Sports Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report.
(ABS-CBN Sports+Action channel 23 will air Lomachenko vs. Martinez on June 12, Sunday at 12 noon.)