I recall the last generation of Puerto Rico boxing, the birth of Miguel Cotto taking the torch from Felix "Tito" Trinidad as the island's biggest star.
It was an interesting era with Cotto leading the way and others such as Juan Manuel Lopez, Ivan Calderon, Kermit Cintron, Carlos Quintana, McJoe Arroyo and countless others. From Sixto Escobar on the 1930s to Carlos Ortiz in the 1960s to Wilfredo Benitez and Wilfredo Gomez in the 1970s and so on, so forth to Cotto in the 2000s, there has always been one or two major boxing stars that came from Puerto Rico. Right now, there isn’t anyone we can definitively count on to be the country’s flag bearer when it comes to pro boxing.
As I prepare to leave the island I’ve lived for nearly my entire life and permanently move into the United States. I look back on the way boxing is being viewed in the island and where it stands in today’s boxing era. As I look back on it all, boxing in Puerto Rico today is at a crossroads.
There are no world champions and only one fighter is booked in a title bout. That would be Wilfredo Mendez, who is facing WBO minimumweight champion Vic Saludar in August, and unless Mendez wins the title and goes on a near-legendary and Hall of Fame title run like Calderon did when he held the belt from 2003 to 2007 and then the light flyweight title from 2007 to 2010.
The one hope that fans had for the last few years was Felix Verdejo, whom many had tabbed as this generation’s next big star, and he has come nowhere near close to meeting those lofty expectations and likely never will.
There had been a number of boxers who have gone to win titles and recent years, but for one reason or another, they lost their titles shortly after winning it or never had the spotlight to truly shine. Angel Acosta and Alberto Machado were two candidates well-suited to become major stars but they lost their titles on separate DAZN cards this year.
Jesus Rojas never broke through as a secondary featherweight titlist and perhaps his title reign was marked by a loss to Joseph Diaz Jr. in a non-title bout and then a loss to Can Xu this past January. Jason Sosa also had a secondary title run at super featherweight but with fights in China and Monte Carlo, hardly anyone really got a real chance to see him before losing to Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2017.
So how do you fix this? Where do you find Puerto Rico's next boxing star? Who will it be?
Well, the answer isn't so simple, nor one that I have. I recall a conversation I had with former world champion Victor Callejas, the current president of the boxing federation in Puerto Rico, about this very topic last year. In short, it's going to take practically building up the foundation of Puerto Rican boxing from the ground up. The amateur system is not up to par with the renowned Cuban amateur system or have the level of resources that the United States has or even the pure talent pool that many Eastern European countries have.
But Callejas also said there needs to be better care of the promising amateurs looking to make the jump to the pro ranks. Time and time again, we've seen rising prospects have their careers derailed because of greedy promoters or incompetent advisors. Take heavyweight fighter Carlos Negron, for example. He represented Puerto Rico in the 2008 Olympics, but barely got any help when he moved up to the paid ranks and promotional issues caused the first few years of his career to be crippling to his development.
What also needs to be considered is the fact that Puerto Rico is currently in the midst of a very slow, and sometimes stagnant, recovery due to the devastation from Hurricanes Irma and Maria which left a majority of the island in tatters back in 2017. I've spoken with plenty of boxers from the island who have had to move out and head to Mexico or the United States because their gyms are either completely flooded or destroyed. Right now, the resources to support and rebuild boxing from the ground up are scarce and until that gets resolved, it's hard to properly develop fighters.
So does Puerto Rico stand a chance to be a true boxing superpower once more? Maybe, but it will definitely take time. At this time, there are no rising stars that no one can really count on being this generation's Cotto or Trinidad or Benitez. But like the sun which always rises in the east, Puerto Rico will always churn out boxers who will be massive stars and carry the flag into a Hall of Fame type of career.