Most boxing fans were introduced to the Mexican jr. welterweight Juan
“Pollo” Valenzuela on February 15, 2003. That night, on HBO, he came in as the opponent and soundly
beat Ricardo Williams Jr. in his native Cincinnati. As a last-minute substitute, Valenzuela overwhelmed the
Olympic silver medalist with nonstop wild bombs from every conceivable
angle. Before the fight, the HBO
commentators told viewers that Valenzuela was just a journeyman with a 15-6
record—he sure didn’t act that way. He was fearless and brash and exhibited a chutzpah not seen since
“Prince” Naseem was somersaulting into the ring: After delivering a
combination, he’d sometimes drop his gloves, turn towards the crowd, and
provocatively pump his hips. They say boxing is full of metaphors, so I took this one to mean: One
day you’re a million-dollar baby, and the next you’re getting buggered by
some nobody without Vaseline.
Valenzuela may not have been a name fighter then, but the
year before he also shocked Julio Diaz (who is about to fight for the IBF
lightweight title) with a KO in the first round. He then lost his next two bouts, albeit against an
undefeated Alex Trujillo and a seasoned Ernesto Zepeda. He promptly switched trainers and
began working with Jesse Ochoa at the Boxing Gym 2000 in Orange, CA. Their first fight together was
against the aforementioned Ricardo Williams Jr. Since then “Pollo” has been on a tear, winning four fights
in a row (three of them blowouts). BoxingTalk rates Valenzuela number twenty in the deep 140-pound
“Pollo” is the type of hungry fighter that insists on
fighting the best. So it’s only
natural he had his sights set on Top Rank’s Puerto Rican phenom Miguel Cotto,
arguably the best prospect to come out of the 2000 Olympics. The fight was made, and was to be
broadcast on HBO this past Saturday as the undercard to Pacquiao-Marquez. But a few weeks ago, disaster struck Valenzuela. While sparring, he sustained a
detached retina to his left eye. Now his career is suspended indefinitely. Some fighters, most famously Sugar Ray Leonard, have
survived this type of injury; others have not. At 23, just when his career was kicking into high-gear and
he was prepared to face his greatest test as a boxer, “Pollo” must instead contemplate
the possibility of retiring. Lovemore
N’Dou replaced “Pollo” last Satuday at the MGM Grand, and gave Cotto all he
could handle. All “Pollo” could
do was watch with the rest of us and wonder, “What if?”
ZL: First of all, I’d like to say I’m very sorry about
the injury you sustained to your eye. Can you comment about how it happened precisely, and when?
JV: It happened a few weeks ago, sparring at my gym here. I was hit in the left eye. And I didn’t think it was anything
bad—I kept fighting. There was
some bruising around the eye was all. About a week after that I had an eye exam (the routine physical before
a fight), and they told me my retina was detached.
ZL: Has your eye
been operated on already?
ZL: How is your
JV: I feel fine. My vision never felt impaired or
blurry. I’m going for another
visit tomorrow. They’re going to
check up on me.
ZL: Rumors are circulating that the nature of the injury
is such that it might be career-ending. Is that true?
JV: The doctor said that it would be better for me not to
ZL: Have you made
up your mind about that?
JV: No, I’m going to wait about four, five months and get
it checked out again. I’m also
going to consult with two other doctors, and then I’ll decide.
ZL: Is your
detached retina similar to the one Sugar Ray Leonard suffered?
JV: It could be the same.
ZL: Your trainer (Jesse Ochoa) has explained that you
are, understandably, extremely depressed and emotional right now. Can you comment on your state of mind
JV: Yes, I
feel bad. And I want to continue
ZL: Oscar De La Hoya (Golden Boy Promotions) is your
promoter. Has he called
you? Has he offered you any
JV: Yes, he called me through his people—they called me. They said, ‘Anything you need, let us
ZL: Jesse said you were in very good form, very strong,
very well-prepared for Cotto . . .
JV: (cutting in) The BEST. I was prepared better than ever.
ZL: Did you or your
trainer see any technical flaws in Cotto as a boxer?
JV: No. Cotto fights very well. He’s a very good fighter.
ZL: Do you think that Cotto would have been the greatest
challenge up to this point in your career?
JV: Up till this moment, yes.
ZL: What did you see in Cotto that gave you the
impression that you would have beaten him?
JV: Cotto doesn’t fight good fighters . . . he fights a
lot of fighters, but they’re easy. You’ve got to consider that when you’re looking at a fighter.
ZL: Had you fought
Cotto on May 8, would we have seen the same relentless “Pollo” fans have come
JV: Well, the same but better. I’m better prepared, and I would have fought more franca (forthright, direct). I wanted to make an impression on him
and not leave him alone throughout the twelve rounds.
ZL: You’re one of the more entertaining boxers in the
game but, if you don’t mind my saying, you sometimes get a little wild with
your punches, a little out of control. Is this something that you would have curtailed against Cotto?
JV: Well, I’m not sure if I understood you properly . . . But
my consistency and pressure would have made the difference. Well, anyway, the truth is I think I
would have beaten him. But I
know he is a good fighter—he’s fast, he has good defense, he has a hard punch. But I think I have the endurance to
take his punches. I think I
would have given him a problem.
ZL: You turned pro
at 18, that’s not uncommon among Mexican fighters.
JV: I started fighting at 17. Where I come from (Culiacan, Mexico), one has to work for
money. I needed money. Life at home was very hard.
ZL: I take it
Culiacan is a poor city?
JV: Yes. Everything was hard in every respect. (Valenzuela moved to Orange, CA in May 2000.)
ZL: Before you
turned pro, what kind of amateur career did you have?
JV: I had 47 fights.
ZL: And how did
JV: 41 wins, 5
losses, and one draw.
ZL: Compared to
when you began, is there anything different in the way you train now? Jesse said that you used to just hit
the heavy bag and spar—and little else.
JV: Jesse makes me work harder than ever before. And in the past I had never done things
like mitt work.
ZL: How did you and
Jesse hook up?
JV: I met him four years ago at the Westminster Gym. I was with another trainer then. I broke my contract with the other
trainer in 2003, and have been with Jesse for my last five fights.
ZL: You two seem close. It seems like Jesse cares a lot about your welfare in and
out of the ring.
JV: Yes, we’re very good friends.
ZL: What has Jesse
taught you as a boxer, and as a man?
JV: Boxing-wise, he helps me with everything he sees, any
fault that I have. He focuses me
more on jabbing, improving my footwork . . . and in general, he helps me focus,
so I’ll be in better condition when I fight. I know he’s with me when I’m fighting. He’s behind me, he’s behind me.
ZL: Culiacan is famous for producing the great Julio
Cesar Chavez. Has his success had
an influence on you?
JV. Yes. He is a hero of mine.
ZL: Do you two know
JV: I knew him a little bit when I was 11 to 13.
ZL: Did you always
want to be a boxer?
JV: Yes, always.
ZL: Was fighting—be it in the street or in the ring—a
big part of life in Culiacan?
ZL: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
JV: Yes, there were seven of us in the house. I have five sisters and one brother.
ZL: Any other
boxers in the family?
JV: No, just myself.
ZL: What do your
parents do for a living?
JV: My father is a gardener in Culiacan, and my mother was
ZL: When you’re
fighting, it seems like you have no fear. Is that how you feel?
JV: Claro (of
ZL: Because even Mike Tyson talks about fear, and how it
can serve you well. It’s a
matter of how you use it. Do you
agree with that?
JV: I don’t know what fear is.
ZL: When you came in on short notice to fight Ricardo
Williams, Jr., were you confident that you would beat him?
JV: Yes, his conditioning was bad. I was in very good condition, just
like I always am when a fight might be coming up.
ZL: Before your fight with Williams on HBO, you put
yourself on the map by knocking out Julio Diaz in one round. Did you expect to take him out so
JV: The truth is that I was very well-prepared, and I knew
that I was going to beat him. But I didn’t expect to beat him in the first round. I thought maybe in the seventh or
eighth round. Again, I knew I was
going to beat him—I knew it. But
I never thought that I would knock him out so quickly.
ZL: You looked devastating in your last two fights,
stopping Ernesto Zavala (18-2) and Guillermo Valdes (12-1), respectively. You definitely had momentum going
into the Cotto fight. We hope to
see you fight again. But it
looks like we’re going to have to wait, what did you say, four or five
months? We wish you a speedy recovery.
JV: Thank you.