Photos: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
So great is his talent, and so seemingly limitless is his ceiling, that it is hard at times to remember that Felix Verdejo is a work in progress, still learning the craft at which he is already so skilled. But the Puerto Rican lightweight learned a valuable lesson on Saturday in how to deal with foes who do not collapse as soon as he hits them, as Ivan Najera kept churning forward, no matter what punishment Verdejo dished out over ten rounds. Still, if it was the toughest test of his young career, it was one he passed impressively, knocking down the steel-chinned and iron-willed Najera twice en route to a clear unanimous decision that raised his record to 18-0 with 13 KOs.
Verdejo might still be working his way up the mountain, but as far as his fans are concerned, he’s close to the summit already. The Theater at Madison Square Garden was rocking to a Boricua beat from the first bell to last, exploding with every Verdejo blow that landed, as the island’s next potential star kicked off Puerto Rican Day eve in Trinidad-esque style.
Even so, the opening round was a slow one, as Verdejo circled his shorter opponent, who sought to force the action by digging hooks to the Puerto Rican’s body and launching combinations to his head. Indeed, Najera stepped up his aggression in the second, bringing a smile to Verdejo, who promptly responded in kind but with far greater effectiveness, the speed and unpredictable angles of his punches giving him an advantage over Najera’s slower and more conventional offense. By the fourth, Verdejo had largely nullified Najera’s attack with his movement and jab, and after a left hand knocked his opponent back, he opened up against the ropes. Then, in the fifth, came what looked like the breakthrough: a devastating left uppercut that dropped Najera hard. Somehow, the man from San Antonio made it to his feet, withstood a Verdejo barrage against the ropes and was even coming forward and throwing punches at round’s end.
Two rounds later, however, Najera was down again, Verdejo luring him into an attack that he stalled violently with a hard hook that felled him at the bell. And yet, incredibly, still Najera came forward. The final three rounds were quieter, as Verdejo contented himself with circling and looking for opportunities to land hard counters to the head of the perpetual forward motion machine in front of him.
“He was the toughest opponent I’ve ever faced,” said Verdejo afterward. “He’s the first one I knocked down a couple of times and he just kept coming.” The Puerto Rican also revealed that he had hurt his hand in the first round, and promoters Top Rank afterward confirmed he would be undergoing minor surgery in the next week.
Injured hand or no, by bout’s end, Verdejo had landed 51 percent of his power punches, according to CompuBox, and 40 percent of the 487 punches he threw overall. He had added another notch to his already impressive belt. And for the first time, he had been take ten rounds by a determined opponent – an experience that will stand him in good stead as he continues what would seem to be his inevitable ascension to the highest levels of the boxing world.