Jonathan Maicelo credits everything to tough upbringing in Peru
Nobody can tell Jonathan Maicelo that dreams don’t come true.
Seven years ago when he first came to America from Peru, he was fighting in front of an empty gymnasium across the Hudson River at a Union City, New Jersey elementary school. Now this weekend he’ll face Ray Beltran at Madison Square Garden in front of an international audience on HBO Boxing After Dark. If he wins, he’ll likely be next in line to challenge for the IBF lightweight title currently held by Robert Easter.
And years before that, he rose up from the crime-riddled slum of Callao, Peru to come within a win of earning a spot at the 2004 Olympics, upsetting the Brazilian in Brazil at the semifinals of a qualifying tournament, only to have the decision overturned on a scoring error that night, his trainer Edgar “Butch” Sanchez says.
Before he learned to box, he knew how to fight, brawling with neighborhood toughs in the streets before being guided to the gym. He credits his hard scrabble upbringing in Peru for his ability to navigate the sport.
“I owe everything to that because that’s made me the man I am today. I thank God for putting me in a rough area like that, that made me a humble person and made me who I am today,” Maicelo (25-2, 12 knockouts) tells RingTV.com through a translator.
Maicelo never knew his father, and says he was raised by four women – his grandmother, his mother and his two aunts. It was his grandmother who instilled in him the need to be tough.
“I remember as a kid that my grandmother would tell me ‘If you let that kid beat you up, I’m gonna beat you up,’” says the now 33-year-old Maicelo. “That was something that I take with me as a thing of joy.”
She passed just prior to his 2015 fight against Darlys Perez, and as told to Keith Idec in an outstanding article last week, her death greatly impacted him. It also gave him purpose to fulfill his promise to become a world champion. He hopes to one day bring a title back to Peru to put on her grave.
The Beltran fight is an eliminator in more ways than one. After starting his career undefeated at 19-0, Maicelo lost a pair of fights in 2013 and 2015 on ESPN, being knocked out by Rustam Nugaev in eight rounds, and was on the wrong side of a decision against Perez.
Since the Perez fight, Maicelo has been on a tear, winning four straight, including victories over once-beaten Brandon Bennett, and in his last fight, knocking down Jose Felix five times on his way to a one-sided decision. If Maicelo is going to make something out of his career, he has to do it now.
“At this point in my career there cannot be any setbacks, I have to win,” said Maicelo, who is now based out of North Bergen, New Jersey. “I saw it with Brandon Bennett, I saw it with Jose Felix and I’m seeing it now.”
Beating those guys and beating Beltran are two different things altogether. Beltran (32-7-1, 20 KOs), a two-time title challenger, is as tough as they come, having only lost in his last ten fights to Terence Crawford, who defends his WBO junior welterweight title in the main event against Felix Diaz. In his last fight, Beltran knocked out Mason Menard in seven rounds.
At 35, Beltran is also facing elimination from the top of the sport if he can’t get past Maicelo.
“Beltran is a durable fighter, he’s fought Terence Crawford, he’s fought a lot of those good guys but I’m ready and this is my time,” said Maicelo, who is rated No. 4 by the IBF, a spot above Beltran. “Inside the ring there’s no friends. We can be friends outside the ring, and we can get something to eat after the fight, before the fight. But in the ring there’s not gonna be any respect and that’s what’s gonna make this a great fight.”
And what about Easter, who will make his second title defense against Denis Shafikov on June 30?
“Honestly we’re looking at Beltran because Beltran is always a tough nut,” said Sanchez, who trains Maicelo out of the Garden State School of Boxing in Paterson, New Jersey. “I did the same thing with Felix because Jose Felix is a lot younger with a lot of power, I kept telling everybody that we gotta get what you have ahead of us. At this stage, everybody at that level is pretty tough. Let’s get past Beltran and then we’ll fight either of those guys.”
A title win for Maicelo would be significant in Peru, where Maicelo is featured in TV commercials for products like Pepsi and is met at the airport by cameras and media when he returns to his home country. He’s a folk hero to some because of his rise from poverty. Maicelo has done commercials in his home country for Pepsi and Lays potato chips, and appeared on Dancing with the Stars there. His gym, Fighter Club, offers free membership to poor kids who aspire to pursue boxing like he himself did.
Peru has never had a boxing world champion, with ‘60s light heavyweight Mauro Mina being the country’s standard bearer before an eye injury cut short his career. Maicelo hopes to become the country’s first ever pro champion. For Maicelo, that would be the ultimate dream come true.
“At this point in time I’m putting Peru on the map. I’ve worked hard for it,” said Maicelo.
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.