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“He did not undergo what I’ve”: Oscar Valdez is prepared for Miguel Berchelt

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February 19, 2021

Mark KriegelESPN

The seduction of Frank Espinoza – of Simmons Avenue in East LA, an occasional member of the City Terrace gang, son of a welder whose hands had been mutilated by arthritis – began in his teenage years, sometime in the mid-1960s on his maiden voyage to the Grand Olympic Auditorium, 1801 S. Grand Avenue, which until then was far from great.

He remembers a number of battle posters, one of which shows a then and future champion named Mando Ramos who fought a total of 27 Olympics between 1965 and 1973. The pale yellow walls were full of bubbles and lumps. The air is thick, brownish, and stale from filterless cigarettes. Men in fedoras and short sleeves held bundles of worn bills. The betting was feverish and uninterrupted. Cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon would become makeshift projectiles if the crowd thought the action was insufficiently bloodless.

Espinoza was immediately enthusiastic. “I knew immediately that I wanted to be in boxing,” he says.

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6:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN +: Miguel Berchelt versus Oscar Valdez undercard bouts

10:00 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN and ESPN +: Miguel Berchelt versus Oscar Valdez, 12 rounds, for Berchelt’s WBC Junior Lightweight title

More than half a century later, Espinoza has led well over 100 fighters, all Mexicans or Mexicans, including 10 champions. The first, Isidro Garcia, was eating a hot dog and drinking a Coke in the stands at Fantasy Springs Casino when he was invited to fight for the WBO flyweight title as the opponent had just dropped out. The youngest is Oscar Valdez, Mexico’s two-time Olympic champion, a former featherweight champion. On Saturday in Las Vegas, Valdez will fight his former friend and neighbor from Hermosillo, WBC Junior Lightweight Champion Miguel Berchelt, the division boogeyman.

Hence, you will hear much enacted with absolute authority about Mexican Warriors, fighters whose pride supposedly commands them never to resign. It’s a subject that Espinoza got its expertise on the hard way. “The guys I compare to Oscar and Berchelt are Vazquez and Marquez,” he says.

He is referring to Rafael Marquez and Israel Vazquez whom he administered. They split their fights between 2007 and 2010, with the second and third being named Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine (among others) – not despite their spectacular brutality, of course, but largely because of it.

Manager Frank Espinoza signed Oscar Valdez in the summer of 2012. Espinoza boxing

I remember Vazquez in his Huntington Park house after the third fight. By early morning the stitches – no less than two dozen – had been removed. They wouldn’t call him cured – not by that purple slit over his red eye – but he was in great spirits.

“They weren’t deep,” he said of his wounds. “I am happy.”

In fact, his satisfaction was verging on ecstasy. Just a few years earlier, a promoter had advised Espinoza to send Vazquez home to Mexico City – that there was no future for him to fight in the United States. Even so, Espinoza had a feeling and let the child stay in his house for about a year.

Now Vazquez was a man with two sons of his own. He owned his own house. With his profits, he started his wife in the beauty salon business. And he had just won the fight of the year.

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Problem was, he wanted to do it all over again – a fourth fight with Marquez. “I didn’t want him to fight again,” said Espinoza, “but I couldn’t stop him. He felt his honor was at stake.”

He would lose this fourth fight. And a few years later he would lose his right eye in an operation.

It’s not a topic Espinoza likes to talk about, although I wondered if it informed his inquisitive mother Hen’s reputation (curious only in boxing) that he was “babysitting” his fighters. Among those he whispers to have given himself up in some way is Valdez, who – after a mistake – seeks to be the archetypal Mexican warrior.

In 2018, Valdez fought Scott Quigg, who weighed almost four pounds for a featherweight title bout. Espinoza urged him to break it off. Valdez wouldn’t hear about it.

Quigg broke his jaw on the fifth. It was a gruesome pause, during which the coaches couldn’t remove his mouthpiece and his mouth turned into a bloody lagoon. Over the next seven rounds, however, Valdez reacted to taking up his attack and winning unanimously.

“I’ve always wanted that since I was a little kid,” he told me the following year.

He wasn’t talking about the jaw. He talked about the recognition at home in Mexico, where quite a few fans found Olympic-style boxing convenient. “Everyone looks at me like a warrior, a true champion,” he said. “And sometimes that’s worth more than money.”

After the Quigg fight – Valdez’s third “war” in a row – Espinoza begged him to hire the famous Eddy Reynoso as his coach. Reynoso – known for his work with Canelo Alvarez – had the idea to extend his career by making Valdez a better defensive boxer. So far, however, the results have been mixed.

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Miguel Berchelt has some of the toughest and most consistent hits in the world of boxing today, but will that be enough against Oscar Valdez?

Berchelt, on the other hand, is who he is: taller, stronger and, at five inches longer, the most feared fighter in the 130-pound division. “Everyone thinks he’s the monster,” Valdez told me this week. “I don’t see it that way. He didn’t fight a man who can box. He’s slower. I see a lot of openings.”

Even so, Valdez, on some level, believes he can outperform Warrior Berchelt. The only time Berchelt was knocked down – a shocker in the first round against a man named Luis Florez in 2014 – he was knocked down. Valdez was knocked down twice, winning each time by unanimous decision and TKO. Then there is the jaw. But that’s not all.

“I’ve fought a broken rib twice,” he says, referring to injuries sustained while sparring before his first title defense and his highly competitive fight against Miguel Marriaga. “I’ve never said that because I didn’t want to make excuses.”

But now he wants Berchelt to know.

“He didn’t go through what I got,” says Valdez. “I don’t think, ‘What if it happens again?’ But I know whether I can struggle through a broken jaw or rib or get off the canvas, I know that I will always get through. I know that because of the way I think I will be victorious. Losing is never an option. “

He’s 28-0.

I ask him about Espinoza.

Oscar Valdez will face Miguel Berchelt for the junior lightweight title on February 20th. AP Photo / Cooper Neill

“Mi familia,” he says. “He takes care of me. But he’s very worried.”

For his part, Espinoza hopes the Nevada State Athletic Commission will allow him to complete his usual self-appointed role. He likes to lead his fighters into the ring, to give everyone his mouthpiece and to send them into battle. But he’s not sure what officials in the top-rank bubble will allow.

It’s not that it bothers the bladder that much. Nor is it that he lives in the past. But for one night he will miss the cigarettes and the beer, the seductive stench of a communal bloodlust. He will miss the men in hats waving the bills, the profane oaths they took, and the patriotic ones too:

Mexico, Mexico, Mexico …

“A fight like this,” says Frank Espinoza, “would have been great at the Olympics.”

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Melinda Martin