In Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, there is a statue that represents the Mexican nation in the form of a skinless, musclebound Yaqui. He holds a long spear that pierces through a hybrid beast that represents invaders and the ignorance that drove their actions. “Mono Bichi” is the name given to this figure by the locals, and it is paired with a statue of Benito Juarez.
Oscar Valdez, a native of Nogales, holds the Mono Bichi dear to his heart. When searching for something to embody his roots, the first thing that popped into his mind was the skinless figure. He used it as a logo of sorts when first becoming a professional boxer. It’s an apt representation of a fighter, who can often be figuratively described as stripped down and naked when performing in a ring, and a fitting symbol of the type of person Valdez is.
“Every fighter out there who would say that they don’t get nervous, I believe, is lying,” Valdez told Hannibal Boxing in a recent phone interview. “It’s like any other sport, when you go and perform, you will get a little bit nervous, but with time you learn how to handle it. I’ve done this my whole life. I’ve been boxing since I was eight years old. Twice I went to the Olympics and I’m a world champion already. I know how to handle it. Once I touch the ring—that’s my world—it’s my favorite spot to be. More than anything, I’m anxious. I can’t wait because it’s been a long time. By the time I step in the ring, it’s going to be eleven months since my last fight. I’m definitely ready to let all that stress out in the ring.”
It’s been the longest span of time he’s ever gone without a fight, but it was a necessary layoff to recover from the gruesome injury he sustained in his last match. Valdez broke his jaw midway through a heated battle with Scott Quigg last March, and saying it was a career-altering event doesn’t give its impact enough credence, considering how the fight trade has driven his entire life. This Saturday night in Frisco, Texas, Valdez is set to make his return against Carmine Tommasone, and while there may be no real intrigue in this barely-ranked contender, on the line is the future of one of boxing’s most exciting action fighters. How he got to this juncture is a story in itself.
A year ago, Valdez was sent to an obscure Guadalajara gym for a grueling training camp in preparation for Quigg, who was perceived as his toughest test to date. Having already gone through action-packed battles with Miguel Marriaga and Genesis Servania, it was thought to be necessary for Valdez to hunker down in Mexico along with a few teammates, far away from the Southern California gym scene where he’d normally prepare and ensuring there were no hiccups or distractions. Ultimately, the trip was a success, but Valdez and his team would soon be confronted with a decision that would render it pointless.
“Once we knew [Quigg] didn’t make weight, we were barking back and forth that he doesn’t want to make weight, try to make weight, or have the next day weigh-in,” Valdez recalled. “Frank Espinoza, my father, and my trainer at the time, Manny Robles, didn’t want me to take the fight. All three of them said to me it’s not a good idea to fight him, but obviously, I somehow convinced them.
“They were very mad. I could tell in my Dad’s face, and Frank was very upset. They were always on the phone talking back and forth. Scott Quigg and his team didn’t want to agree on no terms. They said, ‘Take it or leave it,’ pretty much.”
Canceling the fight would’ve ruined the entire event, which was set in Carson, California, and the headlining feature of an ESPN card put on by Valdez’s promoter, Top Rank, which was also in the early stages of an exclusive deal with the network. There wouldn’t have been any acceptable backlash publicly for Valdez not taking the fight, but with his first main event on ESPN hanging in the balance—early in a career that had been largely hidden on pay-per-view undercards—Valdez was determined to go forward with his big night.
“I told them that there was no way in the world he was going to beat me,” Valdez said. “Because I was very well in shape and very focused on this fight. There was nothing in this world that was gonna beat me. I convinced them. I literally told my father and Frank, ‘You know what, just give him those pounds—it doesn’t matter.’”
Quigg was a credible contender with past success at junior featherweight, and going into the fight with Valdez he had made the 126-pound limit during a three-fight win streak. Surprisingly, he came in two and a half pounds overweight. Though he couldn’t contend for Valdez’s WBO featherweight title and he was docked a percentage of his purse, Quigg’s ultimatum could’ve been perceived as an advantageous coup for the all-important win. That theory is probably what Valdez’s team had in mind as they tried to talk Oscar out of it, but it wasn’t enough. Yet for the fighter to do the convincing in this situation— given the mental aspects of the fight game—it was the only way anyone would let the fight go on. Even with his decision made, however, the apprehensions of those opposed were probably furthered on the night of the fight. Los Angeles was in the middle of its worst torrential downpours in recent memory, and with the fight staged at an outdoor venue, surely someone had to internally scoff at watching the ridiculous task of someone wrapping Valdez’ feet in plastic trash bags ahead of his ring walk. Nonetheless, the show went on; but just as Valdez may have put some worry to rest with a great start to the fight, the brutal injury inflicted on him changed everything, and another predicament faced Valdez and his team.
“I remember clearly what round it was and what punch it was,” Valdez explained. “It was the fifth round and he caught me with a right hand. I made a mistake in going back and not having my left hand up. My hands were down and he got me good. There was a moment where I thought I could actually readjust my jaw back together, but that didn’t work. The round finishes and I go back to the corner. I remember clearly telling my father that he broke my jaw. I’ve never seen my Dad so afraid in his life. He asked me if I’m okay and if I could continue. I was very nervous. I didn’t want my Dad, my trainer, the referee or the doctor stopping the fight. Any one of them could’ve easily stopped the fight if they would’ve seen the injury. So, in my mind, the only thing I wanted to do is hide the injury and take it round by round. That was my mentality. That’s exactly what I did, and I think I did a good job hiding the injury because the referee didn’t know, a lot of people on my team didn’t know, and the most important part was that Scott Quigg didn’t know that my jaw was broken.”
The blood pouring out of Valdez’s mouth was an indication something was wrong, but it wasn’t fully realized until the broadcast caught a good look at his mouth, showing the bottom row of his teeth in shambles. The fight soon turned into something else as Valdez and Quigg traded punches at a frantic pace. Valdez recalled hearing his jaw break even more after the two were in a clinch late in the fight, but he managed to outduel Quigg to a convincing unanimous decision victory. It was hard to see his elation thanks to the fractured jaw, but Valdez somehow managed to do the post-fight interview on ESPN.
“I’d been nervous before, but not to this point,” Valdez said before explaining what exactly makes him nervous. “The pain—I could handle the pain, but losing—that was going to stay with me the rest of my life. I’m actually scared of losing, so that was very important for me. This was definitely the most I’ve been nervous for being this close to actually losing a fight because somebody could’ve easily stopped it. Or I could’ve been knocked out by a heavier opponent like Scott Quigg. But I’ve been nervous before. In my previous fight, I touched the canvas at one point, but this was much more, and one I struggled the most due to this injury. It was the most brutal fight I’ve had in my career. My jaw was broken—I broke Scott Quigg’s nose—we were both bloody. It was a fight a lot of people will remember as a war, so that fight is definitely going to leave something in my career. That’s one of the best fights I’ve had.”
Eventually, Valdez would be whisked away in an ambulance, but not without a big smile on his face and his hands signaling the “W” he had just achieved. Soon that smile would be wired shut after having surgery, and Valdez would be left with oodles of time to think about a burgeoning career that was abruptly stalled. That’s when the sorrow kicks in for a fighter—when he can’t fight or do anything at all relating to his craft.
“People will easily assume that the hard part was the fighting with a broken jaw, but to be honest, the hard part was after the fight,” Valdez said. “I had my mouth wired shut, I couldn’t eat for two months, I was drinking nothing but liquids. I’m the type of person that likes to stay in the gym. After a fight, I’ll take probably a week off, get with the family, and go back to the gym to keep on training. I’m a gym rat, but due to this injury, I wasn’t eating well. I would want to go run even though I had my mouth wired shut, but I would get light-headed. Like I was going to faint because I had no nutrition in my body. I went down in weight, lost a lot of muscle, and it was very tough. Very tough for me and my family. I’m used to being on diets, and it’s okay for me every now and then, but my family, it wasn’t okay for them because they would feel bad for me when eating in front of me.”
In an effort to change, Valdez, twenty-eight, hired trainer Eddy Reynoso—who has helped cultivate Saul “Canelo” Alvarez into one of the best fighters in boxing. Of course, that move alone wasn’t going to magically change the outlook of his jaw, nor did it mean he wasn’t going to get hit again.
“Even though we’ve been working a lot on our defense—this is boxing—you will definitely get hit and I did get hit to the jaw [in sparring],” Valdez said. “Nothing happened. I didn’t even feel a little pain. Like I said, my mind is telling me that I’m a hundred percent healed, and we tested it. We got hit, it was a pretty decent shot and it was okay. It gives me more positivity to know that I am a hundred percent ready. I’m very happy that I’m back in shape. I’m in great condition to fight again, and my jaw is ready. I’m physically ready, and most importantly, I’m mentally prepared for this. So I’m very anxious to get back in there and start where I left off.”
Valdez, 24-0 (19), was well aware that learning new tricks wasn’t going to happen in one training camp. Repetitions on defense have been the main focus so far and, according to him, the early rapport with Reynoso has already brought improvement.
His enthralling left hook will never go away, certainly, but only time will tell if his jaw holds up.
“This fight, this injury, it definitely opened my eyes on a lot of things in a lot of ways,” said Valdez. “It made me realize that one fight can change a whole career. My next, with Tommasone, could be my last fight, so I have to be well prepared physically and mentally. I am the kind of person that believes you have to be very strong mentally to overpass all these obstacles. It’s not easy. You can be well prepared but if your mindset is not there in the fight, you can easily lose control and lose the fight. So I’m very prepared—more than anything—mentally.”