By Nat Gottlieb
Could unbeaten, power-punching Nicholas Walters be on the verge of staking his claim to the loaded featherweight division?
Will Puerto Rican sensation Felix Verdejo really be the next great fighter from the island, the heir apparent to the iconic Felix "Tito" Trinidad? Or will the 22-year-old boxer join the list of rising Puerto Rican stars that fell short of expectations?
These are the dominant questions that boxing fans hope to see answered June 13th at the Theater at Madison Square, when four fighters with a combined record of 88-0 square off in co-featured bouts on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York.
Walters (25-0, 21 KOs), a power-packing Jamaican, comes into his fight with hard-hitting Colombian Miguel Marriaga (20-0, 18 KOs), following a stunning beat-down of former four-division champion Nonito Donaire last October. While the 29-year-old Walters has only fought twice in this country, he has made enough of an impression that HBO commentator Max Kellerman says, "If not for [Vasyl] Lomachenko's presence at 126, he would be viewed as a potentially dominant champion."
Should Walters win this fight, and eventually arrive at a showdown with Lomachenko, Kellerman predicts a close fight. "Even in a matchup with Lomachenko, while he would be the underdog, it would be viewed as a fantastic fight where Walters would be very live," he says.
Although unbeaten, Walters was relatively unknown in this country until he knocked out Donaire in emphatic fashion. It was a shocking result, not only because the Filipino was a longstanding champion and on everybody's pound-for-pound list, but it was also the first time Donaire had ever been down in a fight, let alone knocked out.
A very compact fighter with tremendous power in both hands, Walters first flattened Donaire in the third round. With 29 seconds to go in the round, the Jamaican threw a vicious uppercut that exploded through Donaire's high-glove defense and landed flush on his cheek.
As the fight wore on, Donaire, a former flyweight who had dominated the bantamweight and super bantamweight divisions, seemed to realize he was overmatched with the bigger, stronger Walters. And so late in the 6th round, he went for broke. The Filipino threw a couple of wild power punches, the second of which was a left hook. That hook left him off-balance and vulnerable for Walters, who countered quickly with an overhand right that caught the Filipino just above his left ear and knocked him down. Although he tried gamely to get up, referee Raul Caiz Jr. had seen enough and waived the fight off.
"I have never seen a featherweight with as much power as Walters," says his promoter, Bob Arum. "I've seen featherweights with a lot of power, but nobody with the concussive power this kid has. The one question I had was could he take a punch."
Against Donaire, one of the hardest-hitters in boxing, Walters answered that question in the second round when the Filipino nearly dropped him with a left hook right at the end of the round. It was the kind of shot that Donaire had routinely used to knock out boxers at the lower weight classes. But Walters stayed on his feet, took another massive shot later on, and still kept on going.
Aside from his power, Walters has a freakishly long reach for a featherweight at 73 inches. In comparison, none of the top welterweights, including Floyd Mayweather Jr. (72"), Kell Brook (69"), Manny Pacquiao (67"), Tim Bradley (69"), Amir Khan (71"), and Marcos Maidana (69") can equal that reach. Walters takes advantage of his long arms with a crisp jab that makes it difficult for a fighter to get inside and work his body. It also enables the Jamaican to fight from outside where he can fully extend his arms and get maximum power in his shots.
His opponent, Marriaga, while not remotely as skilled as Walters, has the power fight fans have come to expect from Colombians who venture north to the States. An underdog despite being unbeaten, Marriaga will still have a puncher's chance to upset Walters' rise to the top of the division.
In the co-feature, the Garden will be rocking when Verdejo (17-0, 13 KOs) tries to stay on course to superstardom, facing another unbeaten lightweight, Ivan Najera (16-0, 8 KOs). Fans in Puerto Rico and across the U.S. will be intently watching Verdejo's HBO debut, hoping that the island finally has its next big thing in boxing. "Verdejo has a real chance to not only eventually take the baton from [Miguel] Cotto, but to be the biggest Puerto Rican star since Trinidad," Kellerman say. "He's the real deal."
The charismatic Verdejo, a former Puerto Rican Olympian, has created quite a buzz with his combination of fast hands, hard-hitting punches, and superb boxing skills. His undefeated opponent, the pint-sized (5'5") Najera, will be looking to draw the taller Verdejo (5'9") inside for a brawl, where he'll hope to work Verdejo's body, slow him down, and pull off the upset.
Luis Cadiz, a longtime boxing writer in Puerto Rico and a friend of Trinidad, has watched Verdejo's career carefully since his days as an amateur and knows what's at stake for the young fighter. "The boxing public here on the island will always be on the lookout awaiting Tito's 'heir apparent,'" Cadiz says. "Verdejo has characteristics that excite fans here and draws comparison to Trinidad. Like a young Trinidad, Verdejo is dark-skinned and has a thin build, but moves better than Tito. When Verdejo shoots the uppercut/hook combo using the same fist, it's reminiscent of when Tito would do it as well. But Verdejo does it in angles. Tito wasn't too keen on angles, given that he preferred head-on devastation. The charisma is there. Even the name Felix is."
Whether Verdejo will prove to be the next Tito, or come up short like another Puerto Rican "heir apparent," Juan Manuel Lopez, remains an open question. Cadiz says, "The island is divided. The most rabid boxing fan here will tell you YES!! While the more analytical follower will say not yet, he needs more testing. The general consensus on Verdejo is that he's good, he shows promise, he has the tools, and he can become a world champion. But for him to get to Tito status, the verdict is out on that one yet."