Here are some of today's young boxing stars, hoping to one day be remembered as great:
- Heavyweight Anthony Joshua, touted as the next great heavyweight of his generation.
- Light heavyweight Russian youngster Dmitry Bivol.
- Minimumweight titleholder Kosei Tanaka.
- Former 2012 US Olympian Jose Carlos Ramirez, fighting at jr. welterweight.
- Power punching American super-featherweight Saul Rodriguez.
- Former 2012 US Olympian Joseph 'JoJo' Diaz Jr., fighting at featherweight.
- Argentinian buzzsaw light middleweight Brian Castano.
- British giant super-middleweight Callum Smith.
- Olympic medalist and hopeful cruiserweight title challenger Evander Holyfield.
- Cossack otaman and rising cruiserweight contender Oleksandr Usyk.
- Floyd Mayweather's favourite young fighter: welterweight
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- Fan favourite Chechen hammer Artur Beterbiev, fighting at light heavyweight.
- Young and developing American light middleweight Erickson Lubin.
- Kiwi heavyweight banger Joseph Parker.
- Former Mexican amateur star Oscar Valdez, fighting at featherweight.
- Lithuanian dental therapist Egidijus Kavaliauskas, fixing people's jaws at welterweight.
- Philly fighter and soon-to-be jr. middleweight title challenger Julian Williams.
- Japanese light flyweight champion Kenshiro.
- Heavyweight cousins Tyson and Hughie Furry.
- Thai teenage flyweight prodigy Stamp Kiatniwat.
- Russian welterweight dazzler Konstantin Ponomarev.
Today we are rolling our sleeves and we're going for the big one: we'll be looking at Puerto Rican super-prospect Felix "El Diamante" Verdejo.
Let's cut straight to the chase: Felix Verdejo is big, big business for his promoter, Top Rank. With Miguel Cotto nearing retirement, the Puerto Rican public (one of the most dedicated and involved demographics) are desperate for a new star to be the heir and current face of Puerto Rican boxing. Puerto Rico has had a big name, star boxing champion to be proud of almost without interruption going back to Wilfredo Gomez and the mid 1970s. With very few other prospects shining, Verdejo is the brightest hope and Top Rank are trying to develop him into a star attraction, a PPV mainstay and a P4P fighter for years to come.
Verdejo showed a lot of promise early in his amateur career by winning the Panamerican Youth Championships in 2010. But other than making it to the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Olympics (and giving Vasyl Lomachenko a stiff test), his amateur record didn't have too many remarkable wins or achievements. But Top Rank saw something in him and convinced him to turn pro early and he made his debut in 2012 at only 19 years of age. They have guided his career ever since and, if nothing else, they really have managed to make him very popular in Puerto Rican circles. Verdejo is already main-event material and selling out arenas in the New York City area. Furthermore, a string of impressive performances made him the Prospect Of The Year for different press outlets such as ESPN or USA Today. His current record stands at 21-0 (14 KOs).
His progress was slowed a bit in mid-2015, when he had surgery on his left hand and recovery from the procedure has been slightly slower than expected. Waching a few of his bouts after the procedure, many fans complained that he maybe didn't look as destructive anymore.
But since this week he is getting a prime spot on the Lomachenko - Martinez undercard in the Madison Square Garden Theater, I thought we'd take a very detailed look and decide for ourselves exactly how good of a prospect Verdejo is. Beware, many fights linked below...
- Here he is losing to Vasyl Lomachenko in the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Olympics.
- Here is his 5th pro bout, a 1st round stoppage of basically some guy (who hasn't fought since).
- Here is his 8th pro bout, a quick stoppage of Minnesota club fighter Gary Eyer, who hasn't fought since.
- Here is his 9th pro bout, an 8-round decision in Macau (on the Pacquiao-Rios card) against some local prospect called Petchsamuthr Duanaaymukdahan, who hasn't won another bout since then.
- Here is his 10th bout, a quick stoppage of (at the time) undefeated prospect Lauro Alcantar, who has barely won a bout since then.
- Here is his 12th pro bout, another immediate stoppage of... somebody... who has, predictably, barely won a bout since.
- Here is his 13th pro bout, which you will notice is yet another immediate stoppage of... yet another somebody, who has, once again, barely won a bout since.
- Here is his 14th pro bout, an 8-round decision over light-punching prospect tester Oscar Bravo, who took a 2-year hiatus afterwards.
- Here is his 15th pro bout, an absolutely epic KO of young gatekeeper Sergio Reyes Villanueva.
- Here is his 16th pro bout, a 4th round stoppage of 3-time unsuccessful European title challenger Karim El Ouazghari.
- Here is his 17th pro bout, a mid-round stoppage of rapidly-fading young veteran Marco Antonio Lopez.
- And here is his 19th pro bout, a quick stoppage of fading Brazilian empty-record-possessor Josenilson Dos Santos.
- And here is (a poor film of a poor stream of) his most recent bout, a 10-round decision over late replacement opponent, random Mexican Jose Luis Rodriguez.
As usual, let's have a comprehensive look at his strengths and weaknesses:
The Very Best
1) Hand speed. I think it's fair to say Verdejo has the fastest hands in the current lightweight division.
2) Foot speed. Not only does Verdejo have Star Trek teleportation, but he can also do it while moving in any and all directions. His lateral movement is just as fast as his forward movement, unlike someone like, say, Anthony Joshua, who moves faster backward than he does sideways.
3) Punching on the fly. Verdejo can separate movement and punching in his head like they are performed by two different persons. Not only does he not need to set his feet to let punches fly, but he can rain punches both while moving forward and while moving backwards, without needing to stop and adjust his feet or his stance.
4) Guard. Verdejo has easily the tightest guard of all the prospects we've covered in this series. His hands are glued to his face and there is almost no room for any punches to sneak in, either from the side or from the front. What's more, his guard even protects him against body punches. The only downside to this is that it's so tight that he often feels it is all the defense he needs. However, as our technique analyst Connor Ruebusch once pointed out (while discussing 80s defensive master Marlon Starling), there are some disadvantages to using an 'earmuff' defense.
5) Combination punching. Verdejo alternates all sorts of punches and angles nicely and will even alternate between punching in combination or taking single shots.
6) Left hook. Although many of his KOs come from the right hook or overhand, his most beautiful and most useful punch is his left hook, which he throws with precision, speed and mean intentions. He also doubles up the left hook superbly.
7) Punch technique. Verdejo really digs with his whole bodyweight in all of his powerpunches.
8) Intercepting moving opponents. Verdejo is particularly adept at cutting off or swarming an opponent who tries to avoid his punches by moving away. His very fast feet and excellent anticipation allow him to jump right in the path or the grill of an opponent who has taken a punch and is trying to retreat. What's even more amazing is that Verdejo seamlessly continues the initial combination in the new position without missing a beat.
9) Punch variation. Vicious uppercuts, jabs, hooks, body punches, overhands... everything is on the menu! (perhaps his straight punches could see a bit more usage)
10) Safety-first offense. Verdejo has a rare skill. He always, always keeps his chin protected when attacking. He either keeps his back hand totally glued to his chin while attacking, or moves his head so it's always in a different place while his punches are flying, or moves his feet to ensure his whole body is in a different position at the end of a combination. This makes him very very difficult to counter. Other prospects like JoJo Diaz Jr., Joseph Parker or Saul Rodriguez should be made to watch tapes of Verdejo... Clockwork Orange-style... until they start keeping their back hand by their chin even in their sleep.
11) Changing angles and position mid-combination. It is not uncommon for Verdejo to initiate a small jump sideways right in the midst of one of his very speedy combinations to find a new angle of attack. This happens so fast that opponents probably don't even realize why punches are suddenly coming from another direction. This really improves his accuracy as opponents who try to turn away still find themselves in the line of fire.
12) Ring movement. Verdejo uses his lightning-fast feet to close distance on his opponent in any direction but on top of that, he usually keeps active and keeps circling or moving sideways even when he isn't attacking.
13) Body punching. Verdejo does mix in body punches into his combinations and he seems to get good angles on them. They just seem wider and less concussive than his head-punches.
14) Size. Listed at 5′ 9″ with a 71½″ reach, Verdejo has a pretty standard size for a modern lightweight / jr. welterweight. His body looks like it could easily translate up to welterweight. For comparison, he is about the same size as Amir Khan.
15) Work Rate. I haven't looked at punch stats, but I bet they are slightly deceiving. Because when he does throw, he throws multiple punches in combination, the stats might show him to throw at an above-average pace. But in reality his punches are concentrated into about a third of each round if we were to add up the offensive times, whereas he spends probably more than half of every round circling around with his hands up.
16) Power. Verdejo has plenty of stoppages and some of them look just monstrous, but seriously, his opposition has been laughable. Almost all of the guys he hasn't stopped have been stopped numerous times by other fighters.
17) Jab. This has been perhaps his biggest area of improvement. He used to employ almost no jab, whereas nowadays he uses it both for prodding and for setting up some of his combinations. It's not very powerful, active or bothersome for opponents, but at least it works as a range finder for him.
18) Stamina. On the one hand I've never seen him gassed and I haven't noticed his punch output drop in the latter rounds. On the other hand, he clearly starts rationing his effort as soon as he gets a sense that a fight is going to go rounds, so he is at least a little bit concerned in that regard.
The Not So Great But Improving
19) Head movement. This one is almost impossible to judge accurately. His opposition has been so woefully poor that to be honest he hasn't had to move his head at all. Personally I don't like his tendency of taking all of the punches on the guard instead of rolling or dodging at least some of them, but maybe I'm just being too harsh.
20) Defensive distance control. When he isn't punching, Verdejo stays in the opponent's punching range. He's doing the European high-guard, body straight-up thing and patiently awaits his opponents' punches to break like waves in his wall. Doesn't move his upper body, doesn't move his feet significantly (at least not away from his opponent), just waits to be punched. Sort of a "your turn - my turn" style of boxing. The disadvantage of this is that it allows even fighters with no jab and slow feet to reach him easily.
21) Inconsistent assertiveness. Despite his supreme skill and athleticism advantage over his opponents, Verdejo doesn't dominate or punish them as much as he could (or should). He is content with little bursts of shots mostly intent on setting up a big left hook or a big right cross. If that works out and he manages to squeeze a power shot right on the button, he usually stops his opponents. If it doesn't work, he doesn't try anything else. He will let opponents rest and let them attack and try the little burst three or four times more per round. Verdejo almost never seems to beat up, tire out or frustrate opponents.
22) Counterpunching and dealing with attacks. Verdejo does not punish his opponents enough for attacking him. 80% of the time he just absorbs all incoming punches and 20% of the time he just moves away. He does not time or counter opponents much at all which will eventually translate in them attacking him more and more (since it hurts them more to not attack him and let him start his offense)
23) Not grabbing and holding. There are 12 pro bouts linked above. I have counted the times he actually grabbed or smothered an opponent who was attacking him and pushing him back. That number is 0. ZERO! I mean, I know that I've already said that Verdejo lets opponents attack him at will, but Verdejo REALLY lets opponents attack him at will.
24) Experience against southpaws. In his pro career thus far, Verdejo has only faced a single southpaw, and that was a 4-4-1 guy 3 years ago. Not good.
The Downright Horrible
25) Matchmaking. Top Rank has a habit of building up prospects very slowly, letting them fight very poor opposition for several years, giving them time to improve and test themselves very gradually and in a calculated manner. Having said that, Verdejo's opposition has been almost unbelievably poor, even by Top Rank standards. 3 and a half years and 21 bouts into his career, Verdejo has yet to face a single fighter I would deem as even 'decent'. I honestly think it's getting to the point where this competition is not helping him evolve at all.
26) Left hand troubles. As mentioned earlier, Verdejo missed a good part of 2015 due to surgery to remove bone spurs from his left hand. That is already bad news, but even more worrying, he postponed one of his return bouts due to the hand still giving him trouble. And when he did start fighting again, his game was different. As mentioned earlier, his left hook used to be his best weapon by far. Without it he looks out of ideas in the ring. If he is just being cautious with it as part of the recovery process, that's fine. But if he can no longer use the left hand the way he used to because it is permanently damaged, then that, my friends, is the end of that... Here he is earlier this year talking about how there's no problem with his left hand but at the same time giving this chilling insight:
"We have worked on a few different types of moves that will not put as much pressure on my hand just to be careful."
The "worst case scenario" interpretation of this quote is that Verdejo is changing his game to live without his best weapon.
Well damn, by the 8th bout I was preparing this glowing review about how Verdejo is actually the best prospect in boxing, but I've been massively deflated by watching his latest performances. Something has clearly happened to Felix Verdejo along with the left hand troubles. Either his hand is giving him more trouble than he is telling us, or he's been out of the gym for a long while and he's still rusty, or perhaps the very slight increase in opposition is having an effect, or maybe there's just something distracting him in his personal life... who knows... The Felix Verdejo we saw until mid-2015 was a supremely talented fighter. Insane speed, sick angles and punch variation, technique, precision... And most interestingly, Verdejo was and still is one of the most cautious boxers in the entire sport. Even when going full speed he is always totally prepared to avoid return fire. This particular asset of his makes his prospect bubble unburstable from my point of view. If someone is ever going to beat him, they will have to outclass him, not hope to catch him unprepared. Expect Verdejo to continue to have zero trouble at the very least until he runs into the first world-class opponent.
Having said that, both his plan of attack and his plan of defense are very one-dimensional, as effective as they might be. And I have seen absolutely no sign of improvement in that regard. Even without the recent drop in form, Verdejo was always going to have to make this adjustment before becoming a "can't miss" long-time contender. Also, as a side note to his matchmakers: he's never faced an inside-fighter, he's never faced a brawler, he's never faced a jabber, he's never faced a decent body puncher, he's basically never faced a southpaw... What on Earth are you doing?!
There is no doubt in my mind that there needs to be a big change in Verdejo's development. I think his team needs an upgrade because they aren't expanding his tactical game. I think his matchmakers are either holding him back by not challenging him, or they know something we don't know (more likely). And if the drop in form we've seen recently is caused by something in his immediate environment, he might need to move to a new location and start a new, more focused life.