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One of the most skilled men in the game

 

On March 25, Venezuelan boxer Jorge Linares won a rematch fight with English fighter Anthony Crolla in Manchester, England. The victory was significant for Linares for a number of reasons.

First, it sealed the Venezuelan’s dominance over his English rival. The victory ended a short-lived rivalry that had always tilted toward the Venezuelan, but is now a closed chapter. Second, Linares got to keep the WBA Lightweight belt that he won from Crolla in their first match in 2016, as well as his WBC Diamond Lightweight title. Third, it was Linares’ first fight over 12 full rounds, debunking criticism over his endurance, and showing critics that he can go the distance and win.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the victory paves the way for Linares to fight the current WBC Lightweight champion, Mikey Garcia, a potentially career-changing fight for Linares. And even better for the Venezuelan, Garcia (36-0-0), who was guest commentator for Showtime in Linares vs Crolla 2, is open to a unification bout. If the fight happens, Linares may find himself a main event in the world’s biggest boxing stage, and closer to becoming the greatest Venezuelan boxer.

Venezuelan Born, Japanese Trained

A native of Barinas, Venezuela, Linares moved to Tokyo at 17 years-old, fighting out of Japan for most of his pro career. His family’s decision to send Linares to Tokyo came after a successful amateur career (89-5) and the lack of opportunity to monetize his talents in Venezuela. Lives and careers of athletes are often times shaped by the political and economic conditions of the day, and Linares is no exception.

Born in 1985, Linares came of age just as the oil-reliant Venezuelan economy began to feel the adverse effects of the collapse of oil prices. He was born to a family that loved boxing (his father had a boxing gym in front of the family home), but his amateur career reached its peak before he could legally fight as a professional in Venezuela. He left the country immediately after finishing high school.

Linares left in 2002, a year of political and economic upheaval in Venezuela. In April 2002, a military coup unseated then President Hugo Chavez, who was reinstated to power after 48 hours by his political allies. In December that year, thousands of businesses went on strike, paralyzing the economy. The events of 2002 were a harbinger of things to come for a country that would produce some of boxing’s great champions but would be unable to showcase its own athletes.

Linares trained in the Teiken Boxing Gym in Tokyo’s Shinju-ku area. He eventually learned Japanese and adapted to a culture so different from his own but one that he had long since come to admire.  In an interview with ESPN in 2007, he said he will “live and die in Japan”.

Fighting out of Japan gave Linares an international pedigree. He still fights under the Venezuelan flag and considers Venezuela home, although he has fought just four professional fights in Venezuela in his 14-year pro career. Indeed, he has fought more times in Japan, Mexico and in the US than in his native country. In comparison, Garcia, a California native, has fought nearly all of his fights in the mainland US, with occasional bouts in Mexico and Puerto Rico. To become a Venezuelan champion, Linares has had to leave his country and create a name for himself elsewhere.

Whether as a challenger or a titleholder, Linares travels to his matches, often disadvantaged by the absence of support of a hometown crowd, and having to rely on his record and a reputation as a fast and accurate puncher. Traveling to fight means that even as a champion, Linares is always perceived as a challenger, carrying the burden of proving himself to an opposing crowd. He fought Crolla twice in six months in front of a packed, largely pro-Crolla crowd in Manchester. If he ends up matched against Garcia, the bout will most likely be in the US, and Garcia will inevitably have the home court advantage in crowd support.

Linares has trained under famed Japanese trainer Sendai Tanaka, who went into coaching after a relatively short professional career. Tanaka has spent a long coaching career in Latin America, learning Spanish and training world champions, most notably Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. Teiken Gym is where two distinct cultures intersect and Linares represents the best of those worlds. He is calculated and methodical with just the right amount of aggression in the ring.

Remembering Edwin Valero

In hindsight, migration to Japan was not only a search for opportunity but provided an escape from Venezuela, whose fortunes rose and fell under Chavez. Fellow Venezuelan boxer Edwin Valero was, in a way, an embodiment of Venezuela’s contemporary history. Fighting under the ring alias of Dinamita, Valero conquered boxing with an intensity that was rarely seen by observers. He had a perfect 27-0 record, all victories by way of knockout. He was a two-weight class WBA champion who was, at one point, eyed for a bout with eight-time world champion Manny Pacquiao. But the fight never materialized and Valero’s career came crashing to a tragic end in 2010

Born in 1981 to a poor family, Valero started his pro career in Venezuela and quickly earned spots in the US under Golden Boy Promotions. But in 2004, he was banned from fighting in the US due to irregularities detected in an MRI scan. Valero had been in a motorcycle accident in 2001, which led to a skull fracture. He then moved to Japan, trained in the Teiken Boxing Gym and fought in numerous countries until he was allowed to fight in the US again in 2008.  Valero promptly fought in Texas where he knocked out Antonio Pitalua to take the WBC World Lightweight title.

Valero, the champion, was celebrated for his aggression, and had a cult following in Venezuela. But he harbored a dark side that took an ugly turn in 2009 when he was arrested for assaulting his wife. Not long after, on April 18, 2010, Valero’s wife was found dead in a hotel in Venezuela. He became the prime suspect and was thus, taken into custody where he reportedly admitted to killing her. On April 19, Valero was found dead in his cell in an apparent suicide.

His wife’s relatives were quoted in numerous media outfits saying that the Venezuelan government was partly to blame for the tragedy that befell Valero’s family. Family members apparently knew of his violence and drug habit, but the government had turned a blind eye to these allegations because of Valero’s celebrity status. His wife’s family believed that the Chavez government gave the hometown hero preferential status. Valero was also openly supportive of Chavez. The Venezuelan flag with Chavez’s face was tattooed on his chest.

In a country that was slowly going into political and economic decline, Valero had an outsized image, but this may have contributed to the heartbreaking end of a very promising career at the age of 28.

The New Venezuelan Champion

Seven years after Valero’s death, a new Venezuelan champion has clearly emerged. Now training under Cuban trainer Ismael Salas in Las Vegas, Linares has taken his career to a new level. He will not match Valero’s perfect record, having lost thrice by knockout, but he will match and may surpass Valero’s win record with 27 victories of his own, and counting. The new Venezuelan champion does not have Valero’s temperament. He is mild mannered, well spoken and cosmopolitan, but no less hungry for greatness.

By leaving his country and making a new home in another, Linares took a road less traveled. It was a road that may have been long and lonely, but looking at where he is now and thinking about what could have been had he stayed, it was a path worth taking.