Puerto Ricans and the Garden: A Perfect Match

By Christian Giudice on June 13, 2015
Puerto Ricans and the Garden: A Perfect Match
Tonight Verdejo continues along his boxing path when he faces undefeated Ivan Najera.

“Tito Trinidad and Miguel Cotto showed me the way to represent our island in the Garden and around the world…”

Over the years, Puerto Rican fighters have established such a strong connection with fighting at boxing’s Mecca, Madison Square Garden, that they deserve a small pocket of the magnificent fight venue reserved specifically for them. Most notably, in 1972, lightweight challenger Esteban DeJesus walked into the Garden and dethroned the great Roberto Duran in a virtuoso performance. For the first time in his life, Duran faced a challenger who could both dictate the pace of the fight and counter his aggressive ambushes. Nevertheless, Duran learned from and avenged the defeat with two convincing stoppages over the next six years. 

Decades earlier, in 1956, Jose “Chegui” Torres paved the way for DeJesus and other fighters to leave their mark when he won the WBC and WBA versions of the World Light Heavyweight title with an early knockout of Willie Pastrano. The argument could be made that no Puerto Rican had the same social impact as Torres who seamlessly transitioned into the literary and political spectrums.

It wasn’t long after DeJesus made his presence known at the Garden that another Puerto Rican prospect with a startling blend of speed and power made his professional debut—Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez. In 1974, Gomez, who trained out of and adopted Panama as his second home, made his professional debut at the Gimnasio Nuevo Panama against Jacinto Fuentes. Five years later, Gomez made his Garden debut a memorable one by making quick work of Nestor “Baba” Jimenez. Five months after shocking the boxing world with an easy stoppage of the great Carlos Zarate, Gomez only needed five rounds to stop Jimenez as he utilized an impressive combination to close the show. The fight was supposed to be a tune-up for an eventual showdown with Danny Lopez, but it never materialized.

While Gomez had 24 professional bouts before making his Garden debut, a young, powerful Felix Trinidad entered the boxing haven at age 24. Trinidad was 30-0 when he faced and demolished Troy Waters in one round on August 23, 1997 in a light middleweight bout. The Waters fight acted as a steppingstone for Trinidad, who would establish himself as a Garden favorite over the next decade. While DeJesus and Gomez overwhelmed their opponents with constant pressure and relied on an accumulation of punches to hurt their opponents, the crowd-pleasing Trinidad often needed only one punch. Fortunately for fight fans, Trinidad had such a vast array of knockout punches—hooks to the body and to the head as his specialties—as his power and personality made him extremely hard to replace in the pantheon of Puerto Rican legends upon his retirement.

For many boxing fans, Miguel Cotto picked up where Trinidad left off. He accepted the mantle and started to build a boxing résumé that rivaled his countrymen. Cotto had already won the super lightweight championship by the time he made his Garden debut on June 11, 2005 when he stopped Muhammad Abdullaev in nine rounds. Cotto established a loyal following on the East Coast as he made numerous appearances at the Garden and Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.

First it was Torres, DeJesus, Gomez, Trinidad, Cotto, and now is the time to add Felix Verdejo to the list. Tonight Verdejo continues along his boxing path when he faces undefeated Ivan Najera (16-0, 8 KOs) in a 10-round lightweight bout. Making his Garden debut, Verdejo has exhibited a unique penchant for speed and power. Verdejo is well aware of what it means to be fighting at the Garden. Trainer and mentor Ricky Marquez has been a calming presence for the young fighter as he heads into his eighteenth professional fight. Fighting for the first time at the Garden can be overwhelming for any fighter, but Verdejo learns a little about himself from each fight.

“Since I was a kid, Ricky (Marquez) always told me about when he won the New York Golden Gloves lightweight championship,” said Verdejo, “and then Tito Trinidad and Miguel Cotto showed me the way to represent our island in the Garden and around the world.”

In his last fight, Verdejo showed patience against Marco Antonio Lopez before he ended the fight in violent fashion in the fifth round.

“Patience is one of the things Ricky always emphasizes and now, I think, it’s one of my biggest weapons because I used to be overanxious in my first couple bouts,” said Verdejo.

In a few hours, Verdejo steps in against his toughest opponent to date. Najera is a fighter who will come forward and has decent speed. Similar to so many of the Puerto Rican fighters who came before him, Verdejo has developed a vaunted left hook that he has perfectly set up in previous performances. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal situation as Verdejo fights for his people one night and then represents them the next day in the Puerto Rican parade.

“There is a lot more media coverage (here in NY),” said Verdejo. “I hope there will be a lot more Puerto Ricans coming to support me.”

Christian Giudice
Author: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello
Author: Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran

Website: christiangiudice.com; belovedwarrior.net
Twitter Account: https://twitter.com/#!/chrisgiudice
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  1. nicolas 11:05am, 06/16/2015

    ERIC: After the Rosario match, it seemed that Camacho was off the radar of boxing back then for the next few years. He never really seemed to achieve the greatness that he seemed destined for, though he will certainly be inducted in the IBHOF in 2016, would be shocked if he was not. 
    Back in 67 however, I don’t think you would have been able to convince the Madison Garden people that Puerto Ricans and the Garden were a perfect match. After the second Tiger-Torres fight, there was a riot when Torres lost a very close match. It was the third riot in the Garden in 21 months where a Puerto Rican fighter was involved in the main event. The Garden decide not to have a Puerto Rican fighter fight in the main event for a while, for a cooling off period.

  2. Pete The Sneak 07:23am, 06/14/2015

    Eric, I was thinking the same thing…That fight was a native Island Puerto Rican (Chapo) VS a US inner city Neuyorican (Camacho) and believe me, Ricans were taking sides…That’s the fight that changed Camacho’s boxing style forever. After the Rosario fight, Hector decided he did not want to get hit anymore and became the ‘Stylist’ Fighter we got to see for the rest of his career…Not that it was a bad thing, but people forget what a fierce, aggressive fighter Camacho was Pre-Rosario…Peace.

  3. Eric 03:17pm, 06/13/2015

    Hector Camacho vs. Edwin Rosario was an all-Puerto Rican matchup that came to mind while reading this article.

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