The 2012 Olympic cycle has produced more than its share of outstanding prospects -- Oscar Valdez, Jose Ramirez, Errol Spence, Ryota Murata, Zou Shiming -- and, in one case, a champion in Vasyl Lomachenko that is quickly closing in on pound-for-pound status. But one of the brightest potential stars to come from this class resides in Puerto Rico -- Felix Verdejo -- and those in the know are equating him to another island star with the same first name: Trinidad.
This lightweight has a similar long and lean build to "Tito" and, at least so far, he appears to carry TNT in his fists as well. On Saturday he will take another step toward what he hopes to be stardom when he makes his first appearance on HBO. His opponent: 22-year-old San Antonio prospect Ivan Najera, who will be fighting in New York for the first time and will be facing the unquestioned crowd favorite.
Statistical factors that may influence the contest include:
Going To School, Then Cashing In: Most of Verdejo's fights end fairly quickly, such as when he spectacularly splattered Sergio Villanueva in three rounds, Karim El Ouazghari in four and, most recent, Marco Lopez in five. In all three of these contests Verdejo preferred to start deliberately (37 punches in round one against Villanueva, 45 and 37 punches in the first two rounds against Ouazghari and 23 punches in round one against Lopez). But once he finished his reconnaissance, he lowered the boom. Against Villanueva, the usually right-handed Verdejo fought the entire third round left-handed, from which he launched a monstrous counter right hook that sent Villanueva face-down and draped on the bottom rope. There, Verdejo led 42-12 overall, 25-5 jabs and 17-7 power while also leading 36%-11% overall, 34%-8 % jabs and 39%-14% power.
After testing El Ouazghari for the first two, he upped his work rate to 59 punches in round three, scored a knockdown with a hook and finished the job with a pair of rights followed by a hook that prompted Steve Smoger to wrap his arms around the staggering, helpless foe. Again, it was a statistical wipeout: 68-10 overall, 38-4 jabs, 30-6 power and percentage gaps of 42%-10 overall, 39%-7% jabs and 39%-14% power.
Though he averaged just 39.3 punches per round in the first three rounds against Lopez, Verdejo turned up the pressure in the fourth (55 punches), where Verdejo led 25-2 in total connects, and ended the fight in the fifth with two knockdowns. Lopez didn't throw a single punch that round and ended up trailing 84-14 overall, 40-7 jabs and 45-7 power as well as 41%-12% overall, 35%-9% jabs and 49%-18% power.
When he was extended past six rounds for the only time to date against Oscar Bravo, however, the pattern flipped. Verdejo started quickly (61.6 punches per round in the first five), slowed in the sixth and seventh rounds (46.5 per round), then finished strong in the eighth (67 punches thrown and a 19-6 overall connect lead). No matter, Verdejo was a resounding winner on the judges' scorecards as well as in the stats (132-53 overall, 27-4 jabs, 105-49 power). His percentages, however, were down a bit (28% overall, 13% jabs, 41% power), which may provide a glimpse into the future when he's facing better fighters over longer distances. Overall in those four fights, the patient Verdejo averaged 48 punches thrown per round (wgt. class avg.:62 per round) and landed 43% of his power shots. He's hardly been touches, opponents landed just 5 punches per round.
Busy But Flawed: In his last two fights against Luis Cervantes and Robbie Cannon -- both eight-round decision wins -- he showed the best and worst sides. The best: Averaging 88 punches per round against Cervantes and 71.6 versus Cannon, two mobile boxers who tried to use their speed to overwhelm him with activity (76.8 per round for Cannon, 93.3 for Cervantes) but lacked the power to move him. The result were big connect advantages for Najera (230-141 overall and 193-109 power vs. Cannon; 224-138 overall and 177-105 power vs. Cervantes).
Unfortunately, there were more negative aspects on display. First, against Cannon, the 140-pound Najera rehydrated to a soft 157 and he appeared to gain a similar amount after weighing in against Cannon. While he was a busy bee in terms of punch-per-round averages, in both fights he exhibited a bad habit that could prove disastrous against Verdejo -- following extended bursts he retreated to the ropes to take a blow, allowing his opponents to blast away. Cannon managed to land 36% of his power shots this way while Cervantes landed 31%. If Verdejo lands that percentage of his bombs, the fight may well end early.
Prediction: Najera is a good regional fighter but Verdejo is clearly a couple of pegs above him in terms of talent and punching power. Verdejo again may take a couple of rounds to survey his environment but when he turns on the switch, Najera's will soon be switched off. Verdejo by TKO.