BN-IX351_nyboxi_J_20150614151119Ivan ‘Bam Bam‘ Najera, left, is pinned against the ropes by Felix Verdejo. Verdejo won the bout by unanimous decision. PHOTO: MIKEY WILLIAMS FOR TOP RANK BOXING

By Jim Chairusmi –

Miguel Cotto has been entrenched as the most popular Puerto Rican boxer for the past decade. But he might have some competition for that title. Felix Verdejo is quickly emerging as the sport’s next big star.

At the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, Verdejo (18-0, 13 knockouts) outslugged Ivan Najera (16-1, 8 knockouts) to earn a 10-round unanimous decision. The 22-year-old from San Juan dominated the bout, knocking down the previously undefeated Najera in the fifth and seventh round.

“With right hands to the head, left hooks right down the middle, right uppercuts, overhand rights on the chin, left uppercuts up the middle, the kid showed a powerful arsenal,” HBO analyst Roy Jones Jr. said on the television broadcast of the bout. “He showed every kind of punch you could think of.”

About an hour after the bout, Verdejo answered questions from reporters in Spanish, with an English translator at his side. He expressed satisfaction “with the work we did.”

Over the past decade, Cotto had been a headliner for a Top Rank boxing card at the Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade, including championship bouts in New York against Paulie Malignaggi, Zab Judah and Joshua Clottey. But with Cotto now signed with Roc Nation Sports, Top Rank is hopeful that Verdejo can fill the void.

“With skill, personality and ring management, he brings a new dimension to the sport,” Top Rank chief executive Bob Arum said.

On Saturday, Verdejo connected with 194 of 487 punches (40%), compared with 101 of 333 (30%) for Najera. But it was the power shots where Verdejo made the most impact, connecting on 138 of 271 (51%) of his power punches, compared with 90 of 232 (39%) for Najera. Two judges scored the bout a 100-88 shutout for Verdejo, while another judge had it 99-89.

“Verdejo’s charisma is outstanding and his ability in the ring is outstanding,” said Top Rank president Todd DuBoef. “You’re probably going to see in the next 12 months that he’ll make a run for the title.”

Verdejo has also drawn comparisons to another legendary fighter from Puerto Rico: Felix “Tito” Trinidad. “Verdejo is very reminiscent of Trinidad,” DuBoef said. “You don’t yet know on the power, but Verdejo has some incredible assets. You want to see him take each step and make sure he is developed correctly.”

Besides sharing the same first name, Verdejo is flattered by the comparison to Trinidad, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014. “It’s an honor to be compared with a star like Tito, someone who gave so much happiness to my country,” he said.

The only thing that didn’t go Verdejo’s way this weekend: he aggravated a left-hand injury that he had initially suffered in December. Verdejo said his hand “was not 100 %” against Najera and that he would see a hand specialist in the coming days.

But before that, Verdejo brighten when he was asked after Saturday’s bout about being featured on a float in Sunday’s parade. “He understood that question,” his English translator said with a laugh as Verdejo nodded and flashed a smile.



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Tim Smith –  NEW YORK – Mikey Garcia had hoped for dynamite, but he had to settle for dominance as he pounded out a lopsided 12-round unanimous decision over Juan Carlos Burgos to retain the WBO junior lightweight title at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Garcia looked completely unmarked after the fight. He said it was not the type of fight that he expected. He expected fireworks from a hungry challenger.

“He wasn’t engaging like I thought he was going to do,” Garcia said. “He might have felt my power and respected that. He might have decided to box and try to come out with a decision.”

Once Garcia (34-0, 28 knockouts) got his rhythm going, he just walked Burgos down and came away with a very easy decision.

Much of the electricity had been drained from The Theater by the time Garcia and Burgos got to the ring. The place had been charged up by several Polish fans who came cheer for Artur Szpilka, who was stopped on a 10th round TKO by Bryant Jennings in the co-feature.

It was going to be up to Garcia and Burgos to re-energize the place. As they settled into a tactical boxing match with few fireworks, that seemed like an uphill battle. Garcia’s slow burn style is not conducive to the kind of instantaneous combustion the Garden boxing crowd craves.

But Burgos (30-2-2, 20 KOs) threw a brief thrill into the fans when he pulled a page from the Rocky Martinez playbook, landing a solid shot on Garcia’s chin that buckled his knees and sent the champion sailing backwards. But Garcia didn’t hit the deck like he did against Martinez. This time he steadied himself before his backside or gloves could touch the canvas, sparing himself a knockout. As he did against Martinez, Garcia remained poised and came back firing.

“It was a left hook,” Garcia said. “I caught him with a good right hand and he came back with a left hook. He wobbled me a little bit, but I wasn’t hurt.”

Burgos tried to press his height advantage. But he found it difficult to get inside of Garcia’s tight defense to land anything telling after that shot to the chin that nearly decked Garcia in the second round.  Meanwhile Garcia effectively used his jab as a range finder and landed his combinations with pinpoint accuracy. Garcia hurt Burgos in the third round with a body shot and that seemed to push Burgos into a more conservative mode.

“He probably felt my power and respected my power,” Garcia said. “I felt that as he was getting a little hurt he decided that he didn’t want to engage.”

By the seventh round Garcia was in full stalker mode, urged on by his brother and trainer, Robert. The constant pressure was draining Burgos and you could see him begin to wilt in the ring. Burgos punches had lost their snap and his feet were moving across the canvas as if there was lead in his shoes.

Entering the match, Garcia had called Burgos a dangerous fighter because the challenger from Tijuana, Mexico had come up short in his two previous world championship matches and had to deal with Garcia being considered one of the top boxers in the game. Burgos had fought to a draw against Martinez for the same title and in the same ring that he challenged Garcia on Saturday night. To add to the injury, Garcia had won a featherweight world title in the main event that night and went on to defeat Martinez by TKO for the junior lightweight title.

Garcia defused any danger that Burgos posed after that second round near knockdown. By the 10th round Burgos was as dangerous as a toothless tiger and in the end that world title had eluded him again.

“I feel good. We did a good job,” Burgos said. “I hurt him but he recovered well. He was prepared. I know I have to work harder. He has a lot of ability. He’s fast and strong. Luck was not with us tonight.”

Bob Arum, Garcia’s promoter at Top Rank, has an ambitious plan for Garcia, wanting to move him from 130 to 135 to 140 pounds and eventually up to 147 pounds to face Manny Pacquiao. Garcia said he is comfortable at 130 pounds – this was just his second match at the weight. And he probably should stay there for at least one more fight before considering moving up to lightweight.

Yuriorkis Gamboa made a cameo at the fight, even climbing into the ring after the fight with his promoter, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson to press for a match with Garci. Garcia-Gamboa is an attractive match at 130 pounds. Now it’s a matter of whether it makes dollars and sense.

“Gamboa knows what to do. Sit down at the table and negotiate and if all parties can come to an agreement, then good,” Garcia said. “He can put on a pair of gloves and we can finish it right now. But it’s yet to be determined.”

Photo gallery / Naoki Fukuda –