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Can Felix Verdejo still become a top-tier lightweight?

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Felix Verdejo has been a disappointment, but he’s not too old to deliver on his potential.

Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Felix Verdejo came out looking to impress on Thursday night after his bump into the main event role on ESPN, and the Puerto Rican veteran did just that.

Verdejo (27-1, 17 KO) has been criticized a lot over the years after being a high-profile signing out of London 2012 for Top Rank, just not living up to his hype and promise, and is now seven-and-a-half years into his pro career without, being honest, a whole lot to show for it. No world titles. No world title shots, even. And it’s more than just the fact that he suffered an upset loss in 2018, too. He’s been criticized for a lack of motivation, a lack of dedication, and flat performances in victory before and after that L to Antonio Lozada.

But Verdejo, now 27 and in his second fight with highly-respected trainer Ismael Salas, absolutely wiped out Will Madera last night, battering the previously-unbeaten B-side and stopping him late in the first round.

Here are multiple looks at the highlight reel thrashing Verdejo dished out:

Now, listen, Madera (15-1-3, 8 KO) is not some world class fighter, but he’s also not a complete scrub, and he’s no worse a fighter than some of the guys Verdejo has kind of struggled to impress against in the past, including Manny Rojas just this past January — a fight where even Verdejo fully admitted he wasn’t exactly scintillating.

“I would give myself a C,” Verdejo said after that fight. “I want to keep working hard and developing, because I want to look like a class-A fighter. I have the desire, I have the hunger. I’m going to keep working hard.”

It appears he has kept working hard. He looked in great shape for Thursday’s fight, no softness after the COVID-19 lockdown that didn’t just shut down TV boxing but gyms, too, meaning a lot of fighters surely have fallen out of their training habits for at least a bit.

And yes, Verdejo is absolutely young enough to still deliver on the promise he was thought to have after a solidly competitive performance against Vasiliy Lomachenko at London 2012. Lomachenko was already an amateur legend going into those Olympics, and he would go on to win another gold medal. And Lomachenko was 24 years old, incredibly experienced and seasoned in top-level amateur competition. He’d won gold at Beijing 2008, too.

Verdejo, meanwhile, was freshly 19 years old, still a kid, but he held his own, losing a 14-9 decision where the Ukrainian stud just kept nicking the rounds, largely using his excellent defense and footwork to seal the deal. But Verdejo, clearly, was someone to keep an eye on at that point.

As a pro, it’s been a journey. He was doing as expected early on, running through far less talented fighters. But little cracks showed against the hype. He coasted a bit against William Silva and Jose Luis Rodriguez in 2016. The biggest thing, perhaps, at least in retrospect, was that it was becoming clear against even slightly better competition that Verdejo is not the “new” Felix Trinidad, nor the “new” Miguel Cotto. He is, generally, not a vicious puncher or a demolition man in the ring. And the early positioning and promise of Verdejo was that he would be the next in line as a Puerto Rican superstar, and expectations were for thrilling performances that just weren’t coming.

A motorcycle accident derailed a potential shot at then-WBO titleholder Terry Flanagan in 2016, and he didn’t look great upon return in early 2017 against Oliver Flores. The negotiations to face Flanagan came back, and a deal was reached for a Sept. 2017 fight in London, but Flanagan was injured and the fight didn’t happen. Then Verdejo was injured and a return against Antonio Lozada was postponed until Mar. 2018.

Jose Ramirez v Amir Imam Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Lozada beat Verdejo, stopping the favored fighter in the 10th round. It took eight months for Verdejo to return, and though he won three straight, his decision victories over Bryan Vasquez and Manny Rojas were, as mentioned, fairly unremarkable if solid.

What Verdejo did to Madera last night has re-sparked interest in the Puerto Rican, and with good reason. People love a knockout, and for two minutes and 59 seconds, he did look like a destroyer, a Trinidad/Cotto type of Puerto Rican fighter. He hurt his opponent and pounced effectively, battering Madera to the canvas with ruthless efficiency.

The skill and talent have always been there. Even as he performed against, say, Vasquez or Rojas or Flores or Silva, all fights that earned so-so reviews, it’s not like Verdejo would have been among the 500 worst world title challengers in boxing history had he gotten a shot off of any of those wins. Even the loss to Lozada — shit happens, it’s boxing. He shouldn’t have lost to that guy and nine times out of 10 probably doesn’t, but he did on the night he fought him.

It’s not even really that Verdejo was fully written off, it’s just that expectations had become so diminished. It’s been a long time since Verdejo was being talked about as a possible top 10 fighter at 135, or a title contender. But he has that ability, and he absolutely has the time to make it happen still.

The question now is whether or not this will be “the real” Verdejo going forward. He’s not going to do to a top fighter like Lomachenko — whom he said he would like to fight — what he did to Madera, period.

Did Verdejo just get the right shot in and capitalize against an opponent not good enough to hold on or hold him off? Is the pairing with Ismael Salas paying dividends? Is Verdejo now truly as dedicated as we would like him to be?

Only more fights and strong performances will prove those things to be the case. But it’s fun to get excited about boxers and boxing, so go ahead and get excited about Verdejo possibly being “back,” as he says he is. If he disappoints from here, it won’t be a a first-time story in boxing. But if he goes on a run, even a tear, it won’t be the first time a fighter “found it” around this age, either.