Valero and Alcazar look to prove skeptics wrong
Robert Alcazar (left) goes over the finer points of boxing with new charge Edwin Valero, a fighter known for his dynamic punching power but often criticized for his lack of technique. Alcazar, who trained Oscar De La Hoya in the 1990s, has had his share of critics. Both hope to change perceptions with an impressive performance this Saturday. Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank
When Edwin Valero enters the South Coast Martial Arts gym in Costa Mesa, Calif., people take notice.
The men and women taking karate and Jiu-jitsu classes are not hardcore boxing fans. They have no idea who the sinewy little man with long hair and black-rimmed glasses is as he struts into the Orange County-based kickboxing fitness club.
However, once Valero — one of the hardest punchers pound for pound in the sport — is gloved up and hitting the mitts held by new trainer Robert Alcazar, everyone stops what they're doing in the gym and all eyes are on the impish-looking madman in the ring.
They are transfixed by the intensity in his eyes, the ferocity in his facial expressions and the obvious power in his rapid-fire punches.
No doubt about it, Valero has the ability to command attention.
It’s the self-assured way he carries himself outside of the ring, the full-tilt manner in which he trains and the eye-popping statistics of his professional record.
The 27-year-old southpaw has a perfect ledger: 24 fights, 24 knockouts. An astounding 19 of his opponents failed to make it out of the first round.
And yet, among fight fans and boxing media, the jury is still out on Valero, who fights Antonio Pitalua for the vacant WBC lightweight title in the main event Saturday on HBO from Austin, Texas.
They know he can punch. They know he has talent. They’re just not sure whether his God-given ability is enough to make him a force in the 135-pound division or carry him to the elite ranks of the sport.
The skepticism is due to the fact that most fans, even the diehards, have barely seen him fight.
In January of 2004, Valero failed a pre-fight MRI exam the day before he was scheduled to headline an HBO Latino-televised card in New York City. A small dark “spot” was discovered on the MRI scan. When he was asked about it by the commission doctors, Valero admitted that he sustained a head injury in a motorcycle accident in his native Venezuela that resulted in surgery in 2001. The New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license on medical grounds and Valero was effectively banned from fighting anywhere in the U.S. just as he was beginning to make waves in the sport as a 12-0 prospect.
He was out of action in 2004 and off U.S. television when he decided to continue his career in mid-2005, fighting in Argentina, Venezuela, Panama, France, Japan and Mexico. Hardcore fans have watched one- and two-minute clips of the “Valero world tour” on YouTube.com and while they are impressed with his physical prowess most are not blown away by his technique.
Valero basically trained himself from 2005 to 2007 and it showed in his fights, even the one-round demolitions of average fighters. He rushed into his opponents with his hands down and his chin in the air. He seldom made use of his jab. He swung wide, looping power punches from his hips and his feet looked like they were stuck in cement.
Ricardo Mayorga had better form.
However, there was hope that he could recapture the promise he showed early in his career when it was announced last year that the boxing commission of Texas would allow Valero to fight in its jurisdiction and that veteran trainer Ken Adams was hired to work with him.
But four weeks ago Valero left Adams and his camp in Las Vegas, where they had trained for close to a year, set up operations in Orange County and began working with Alcazar, who is best known for training Oscar De La Hoya but hasn’t worked a corner in almost nine years.
It was a head-scratching move that made Valero the butt of jokes from more than a few boxing columnists.
If Valero does have real promise, the fight scribes wondered, is Alcazar the right trainer to maximize his potential?
Valero thinks so.
“We work very well together,” Valero said through his publicist, Reynaldo Solarzano, last week. “I learn from Robert, which is why I call him ‘The Professor’.
“I’m getting technical instruction from Robert. He’s teaching me to hit and not get hit. He’s teaching me how to establish my distance and not smother my punches. I’m learning how to change up the speed of my punches, how to turn my opponent and get different angles on my punches.”
Valero will need to add some the finer points of boxing to his usual power game if he hopes to beat Pitalua without having to go to war.
Pitalua (46-3, 40 knockouts) is just as unknown as Valero in the U.S., but the 39-year-old veteran is a bona fide lightweight contender who is durable, physically strong and very heavy handed.
The Mexico-based Colombian is on a 14-bout knockout streak and in his last bout he stopped Top-10 contender Jose Armando Santa Cruz, a young mauler who had given Joel Casamayor fits in 2007.
Valero says he respects his foe, but he isn’t intimidated by him.
“(Pitalua’s) dangerous,” he said. “He’s got a good punch, but that’s it. He’s old and he’s slow. I’m young and fast. I know he’s battle tested and he probably knows how to survive but it’s impossible to hide from a machine gun for 12 rounds.”
In all likelihood, Valero will shoot down Pitalua. However, he will have to do so in impressive and technically clean fashion if the U.S. boxing media is going to get behind him and his union with Alcazar.
Despite Alcazar’s success with De La Hoya, his talents as a trainer were often questioned by the influential boxing writers of the 1990s. Alcazar’s position with De La Hoya was believed to be more the result of his close friendship with Joel De La Hoya Sr. than his own merits.
That view may have been shared by Bob Arum, De La Hoya’s promoter at the time. After De La Hoya had a few shaky performances in the mid-1990s, Arum helped bring in respected veteran trainers such as Jesus Rivero, Emanuel Steward and Gil Clancy to take over as the young champion’s head coach, while Alcazar was demoted to assistant trainer.
After De La Hoya’s loss to Shane Mosley in June of 2000, Alcazar retired.
Many in the industry believe Alcazar was let go, and if he did retire, he did it because he knew his days with De La Hoya were numbered.
Not true, says Alcazar.
“I retired after the Mosley fight, and I didn’t think I would ever come back to boxing,” Alcazar said. “I was tired of boxing. I had been away from my family for 10 years and I was ready to move on.”
Alcazar opened a Mexican seafood restaurant in El Monte, Calif., and says he was content while away from boxing.
However, his years apart from the sport didn’t do anything to enhance his legacy. If Alcazar was any good as a trainer, many writers and industry folk wondered, why didn’t any fighters seek out his services in the past eight years?
“They did,” Alcazar claims. “I had offers to come back all the time, even to train world champions, but I resisted.”
The one time he seriously considered returning to boxing was when his friend De La Hoya Sr. asked him to workout with a young prospect named Edwin Valero in early 2005.
Valero was managed by De La Hoya Sr. at the time.
“We clicked immediately,” Alcazar said of the one workout they had, “but because his license situation could not be resolved he decided to continue his career in Latin America and later in Japan.
“But he convinced me with one workout that he was worth returning to boxing to train. His talent, his desire, his punch made him worth the sacrifice. Valero is the total package.”
Alcazar believes that the addition of finesse and defense to that package will make Valero unbeatable.
He would like nothing more than to be the trainer who helps Valero realize this potential as he feels that he never received any credit for the form De La Hoya exhibited in his prime.
“The media gave the trainers with the bigger names credit for the work I put in with Oscar,” Alcazar said. “But I think the fans are the ones who know the truth. Ask the fans who they like better, the Oscar who fought in the 1990s or the Oscar of this decade.”
Alcazar might have a point. The version of De La Hoya that he trained by himself in the early-to-mid 1990s, which was the fighter’s years in the lightweight division, had very solid technique. He kept his hands up, possessed a power jab, threw textbook hooks and right hands, and almost always punched in short, accurate combinations.
After working for close to a month with Valero, the southpaw slugger isn’t boxing like a prime Golden Boy but his form has improved.
Valero is using his jab, even doubling it up with devastating effect.
“I think he has the best jab in boxing,” gushed Alcazar after a grueling 10-round mitt session two weeks ago.
Valero’s body was more at an angle. He kept his distance and he was on his toes as he circled Alcazar and his sparring partners. He moved in and out as he punched in succinct two- and three-punch combinations that landed with considerable power. He didn’t load up with his punches and he didn’t lean in when he let his hands go.
He looked good, but he’s still a work in progress.
His chin was not tucked behind his right shoulder. He didn’t extend on all of his punches, even straight shots. He didn’t step with each jab and his knees weren’t slightly bent as they should be when he fires off his punches.
“There is still a lot for him to learn but he’s already a different fighter from his last fight,” Alcazar said.
Valero is improved enough to beat Pitalua and move on to bigger and better things, Alcazar says.
“I think Valero is special,” he said. “He’s the next superstar in boxing.”
Doug Fischer can be reached at [email protected]