Comes now the major U.S. television debut of Edwin Valero, the electric lightweight who’s the biggest puncher in the sport today but has gobs of flaws and a messy life outside the ring. Even though it’s his opponent Saturday, Antonio DeMarco, that Showtime has nurtured, make no mistake that Valero is the focal point of the night. How can he not be? Just check out that Charlie Manson look in his eye. Watch how his foes react when he connects on one of his quick, wild, thudding shots. Observe the arrogance with which he carries himself in the ring, the passion he exhibits when he scores a knockout, as he’s done in all 26 of his fights. There are Valero believers and there are Valero skeptics and people like me who are somewhere in between, but he has commodities that give him big star potential, if he can even out the considerable potholes and uneven pavement in the road ahead.
DeMarco hopes to be a mighty big pothole for Valero. He’s got his own path to popularity, like the chance to become the Mexican boxing hero that he’d likely become if he beat Valero. The 24-year-old really only recently graduated from prospect to contender, and just a couple fights ago, when it was clear he was lining up as a mandatory challenger for Valero’s alphabet title belt, the idea of him beating Valero was outlandish at best. But over the course of his last three fights, DeMarco has matured from pure brawler to tentative boxer-puncher to something like a fully realized version of himself.
It’s remarkable we even arrived at this point, given Valero’s troubles. In the United States, he can only fight in Texas because of a brain injury he suffered in a motorcycle accident long ago that left him medically unfit to do battle in states other than Texas (although Nevada may reconsider due to some regulatory changes there). Then he went and earned himself a DUI when he was here, and that prevented him from getting a visa — although his promoter, Bob Arum, says that he’s sought treatment and that should clear up his visa woes. In between, he’s had weird allegations of assault against his mother — he denies them — and he’s espoused weird theories like saying his visa woes were related to his love of his president, Hugo Chavez, whose mug is tattooed on his chest. Turns out the way around it was that Valero-DeMarco is happening in Mexico.
In the ring, he has gifts that cannot be denied. Early on, his gaudy KO rate was the result of him not fighting much of anyone, but he’s stepped up the competition and the gaudiness continues unabated. His first top-notch opponent was Vicente Mosquera, ranked #4 at junior lightweight by Ring magazine the year before they fought, and he went life and death with him. Mosquera decked Valero, which was a bad sign for him considering Mosquera’s not a huge puncher, but Valero got up and showed heart to stop Mosquera late, which was a good sign. That was 2006. Last year, he knocked out fellow KO artist Antonio Pitalua in two rounds. Those are the two best opponents of his career, and Pitalua was ranked #7 by Ring at the time, so he’s only beaten one really decent lightweight — and even then, Pitalua really only had one quality win at the time. That makes the #9-ranked but promising DeMarco one of the three best opponents of Valero039;s career, and you wonder if he wouldn’t be further along without all the messiness, given that he’s been a YouTube sensation for most of a pro career than began in 2002.
Besides his obvious consciousness-erasing specialty, and besides speed that’s in the upper range of elite boxers, he does some other things well. He is pretty good at controlling distance, and he has good reflexes, so he never got hit cleanly by Pitalua for a test of his chin. It’s an important point. If Mosquera could rattle Valero, it stands to reason someone else could. And while he’s so offensive-minded his opponents are more concerned with getting out of the way than firing back, he’s awfully vulnerable when he’s on the attack. Valero makes no pretenses to tuck his chin down whatsoever. He comes in with his head straight up. And he’s wild as Bill Donovan with his punches, which leaves him all the more open. They border on slaps. He gets away with both tendencies because he’s so overwhelming and because he has such natural explosiveness that he can hurt you with even poorly-thrown shots. He’s become more disciplined over the years, even working in a nice jab to the body in his repertoire, but I notice in equal parts when I watch him fight how dynamic he is and how vulnerable he is.
Like Valero, DeMarco is a southpaw, which adds a dimension of difficulty to fighting both men. DeMarco’s height also makes him difficult. At 5’10” and with a 72″ reach, he’ll have advantages in both categories over the 5’7″, 69″-reach Valero. He doesn’t hit as hard as Valero, but nobody does. DeMarco hits plenty hard, with 17 KOs in 23 wins. His knockouts are usually the result of accumulated damage, but he does have one-punch power. He’ll knock down or wobble an opponent with one punch. Valero has power in both hands; so does DeMarco. He’s a converted southpaw, so his right hook is his favorite weapon, but his straight left is potent as well. He controls distance more by stepping back or to the side than with his jab, a most important punch for a tall fighter, but he worked it better in his last fight against Jose Alfaro than he had in the past.
If you go back four fights in DeMarco’s career, you’ll find a completely different fighter than the one who fought Alfaro. He was all about standing and trading. Against Almazbek “Kid Diamond” Raiymkulov, he was patient to a fault, but it was clear he’d recognized that Kid Diamond was a real puncher, and standing around and swapping punches with him would be unwise. Against Anges Adjaho, he also was patient to a fault, giving away rounds just as he had against Kid Diamond before closing the show. Against Alfaro, he was fighting in a patient, measured style, but winning, too. And then he closed the show. The proper balance between boxing smartly and being aggressive eliminated some of DeMarco’s problems, but he still has some problems. His speed is in the “good” category, more like a C+ among top fighters than Valero’s solid A, A-. He’s sharpened up his defense, but he still gets hit a fair amount more than he’ll want to against Valero, often getting tagged when retreating after throwing a long punch that misses. And his chin has held up to the tests presented to it, but it’s still a little bit of an unknown, given his inexperience — and inexperience is another knock on him.
I imagine the fighter who beats Valero will be a skilled counterpuncher with power who matches or exceeds him in speed. Valero wants Manny Pacquiao some day sooner rather than later, and while I wouldn’t be surprised if Valero is the heavier hitter of the two men should that day come (Valero, according to his biggest advocate Ring writer Doug Fischer, says Valero KOs Urbano Antillon in sparring and Pacquiao doesn’t), I would pick Pacquiao to demolish Valero. I don’t think Valero quite deserves his #1 ranking by Ring based on his accomplishments, but I do think he’s the guy I’d probably pick to beat all the other lightweights right now. That obviously foreshadows my prediction. There’s a part of me that thinks DeMarco has the stuff to beat Valero, but I think that part of me is the part that likes the kid, who comes across as personable and passionate and has grown immensely as a fighter. I think DeMarco probably has the power to hurt Valero, and I think his size could present problems. I think DeMarco can counterpunch a little, which gives him opportunities to catch Valero. But mainly I think Valero’s going to be zipping in on him, closing distance quickly, and at times trapping DeMarco against the ropes, where he gets a lot of hurting business done.
I bet DeMarco makes a fight out of it, but if he makes it out of the 8th, I’ll be surprised.
(Reminder: The preview and prediction game is in effect for this one, too, because it says “preview and prediction” above. You have to have your prediction in place by Friday at 11:59. And don’t forget to have your prediction in place for Glen Johnson-Yusaf Mack by 11:59 Thursday. These reminders won’t keep coming forever, so get in the habit, playas. And please don’t forget the rules [like making sure your name is the same as last time].)