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For Viloria, it’s sweeter the second time around

13
Jan

Brian Viloria didn’t care about the outcome as he prepared for his ring walk to face junior flyweight titleholder Ulises Solis on April 19. Win or lose, he was back. He was fighting for a major belt in front of a supportive crowd in Manila. That’s all that mattered.

And it’s not hard to understand his thinking. A year earlier, after going 0-2-1 in three consecutive title bouts, he sat in a Honolulu bar with some friends contemplating retirement. Some said he was a shot fighter at only 27. The fire that enabled him to become a U.S. Olympian in 2000 and holder of a major title five years later, it seemed, was gone.

Viloria wasn’t so sure, though. The fire was dim, he admitted, but it existed. He was young, in his physical prime. And he believed he still had the tools to succeed. He decided he wasn’t ready to fade away.

“I remember sitting down with my manager [Gary Gittelsohn],” Viloria said. “He told me, ‘You’re going to have to take a step back.’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be given to you like it was when you came out of the Olympics.’ I was spoon fed. He said, ‘You have to want it and want it bad.’

“He wanted to know that it was something I wanted to do, not something this person or that person wanted. And if so, this is what’s going to happen. He was honest with me.”

Gittelsohn was right. Viloria, humbled like never before, had to fight in farflung venues against anonymous opponents to rebuild his reputation and contender status, which is exactly what happened under new trainer Robert Garcia. As a result, Viloria’s second run atop the junior flyweight division is 10 times sweeter than the first.

“A HUNDRED times sweeter,” he said.

Success in boxing always came easily to Viloria, a quick, skillful boxer with the power of a featherweight who won many amateur titles, reached the second round in the Olympics and stopped Eric Ortiz in one round to win a junior flyweight title.

The problem was it was too easy. He ended up on cruise control, believing all he had to do was show up to continue winning at the highest level of the sport. Or as he put it, “I started reading about myself and believing what I read.”

Viloria’s sudden decline was more complicated than that, though. Other factors contributed, including private family issues that sapped his enthusiasm for the sport, his near-fatal fight against Ruben Contreras, which came before the Ortiz fight but lingered for years, and the wrong trainer.

The Contreras fight was traumatic for Viloria. The Mexican fighter collapsed after the sixth round in Los Angeles and had emergency brain surgery, during which he was placed in a medically-induced coma. Contreras survived but Viloria was shaken.

He nearly killed a man and it changed him.

“I had always just let my hands fly even as a kid,” he said. “I didn’t even care if the punches were blocked; I kept throwing them. I was afraid to let my hands go after what happened with Contreras, though. It hit home that this sport can be pretty deadly. I was gun shy after that. It was pretty tough to deal with.”

To refer to Freddie Roach as the wrong trainer might seem odd. However, that was the case with Viloria. Roach did well with his talented protege — guiding him to his title — but he devoted most of his attention to his superstars, fighters like Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao.

That left Viloria feeling neglected enough to turn elsewhere after his first loss, to Omar Nino Romero in 2006. He worked with Joe Hernandez for one fight, losing a rematch with Romero that was later changed to no-contest when Romero failed a drug test. And Joe Goossen worked his corner for one fight, a close loss to Edgar Sosa in 2007.

“They’re style of training just didn’t fit my style,” said Viloria (26-2, 15 knockouts).

That’s when he sat in that bar in Honolulu contemplating retirement and then dismissed the notion.

Gittelsohn was right when he said the road back to the top would different from Viloria’s initial journey. It started with Garcia, a former titleholder and rising young trainer with whom Viloria clicked immediately. Garcia doesn’t tinker too much with Viloria’s technique, stressing fundamentals and keeping a fire going beneath him — both between fights and between rounds.

The system has worked well. Viloria will be 8-0 under Garcia if he beats Carlos Tamara on Jan. 23 in Manila. Garcia’s job really isn’t very complicated.

“I just keep him positive,” Garcia said in his new gym in Oxnard, Calif., where Viloria trains. “I keep him thinking like a winner, thinking like he’s the best, which he is. I just keep reminding him. He might fight Ivan Calderon [in a title-unification bout in April]. That’s how I want him thinking.”

Viloria didn’t feel like a winner in his first fight with Garcia, against Jose Bernal in January of 2008.

First some background: After he knocked out Ortiz to win the title in 2005 in L.A. — on the same night Manny Pacquiao beat Hector Velazquez — the ethnic Filipino became royalty in his ancestral land, where he lived for few years. He was invited to the president’s palace and was feted in a ticker-tape parade.

Now back to Bernal: They fought an eight-rounder on the undercard of a show at the outdoor Alameda (Calif.) Swap Meet during a driving rainstorm. Only the ring was covered with a canopy. The area was so wet that Viloria was carried to the ring so his shoes wouldn’t get soaked.

To say that experience was humbling would be an extreme understatement. Yet Viloria, who fought once more at the venue and also in the parking lot of a casino, didn’t mind.

He laughs at the memory, almost relishing the experience.

“Gary laid it out for me,” he said. “The swap meet was just a starting point. I was OK with it. I knew this was what I had to go through to get where I wanted to get. I knew I’d have to bite down and put my pride aside. I did ask myself, ‘What’s a former world champion doing here?’ It didn’t matter , though. I knew why I was there.

“Did I feel like a rookie?” he continued, suddenly smiling broadly. “I felt like I was in a cock fight. That’s how I felt.”

Viloria said he would not have a problem fighting at the swap meet again ÔǪ but don’t expect it to happen any time soon. He’s not only back on top, he’s bigger than ever.

Solis was one of the hottest titleholders in the world, having made eight consecutive defenses of his belt, when he met Viloria. The challenger was an underdog even though he was fighting in front of what amounted to a home crowd.

That’s what made the ending particularly spectacular: Viloria instantly ended a close, compelling fight with as devastating a right hand as you’ll ever see in the final seconds of the 11th round. The winner sank to the canvas and lay on his back, drinking in the moment, until he was mobbed by his handlers.

He couldn’t have been any farther away from that swap meet in Alemeda.

“I remember coming out of the lockerroom before the fight,” Viloria said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m just going to enjoy this, win or lose. I had a big smile on my face. Everyone else around me was nervous. They said, ‘This is a big fight. You’re fighting a big opponent, a guy who hasn’t lost for three or four years.’ I said, ‘All I wanted was another chance, a chance to redeem myself. And I got it.’ I remember sitting down after the 10th round and telling myself, ‘This is so much fun.’ And I thought, ‘Just go out there and let your hands go.’ And that was it. I won.

“And I appreciate it so much more than the first time, when it came too easy. It was effortless. This time, I had to go through a lot to get there. I experienced what it’s like to lose; it was like a big kick in the butt. To win like that was great. It was a lot better than sitting in some bar thinking about what could’ve been.”

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]

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