Oscar Valdez and the War Against Cliché

The bell was supposed to signal the end of the round. But there would be no more rounds. Instead, its plangent couplet barged into the silence that bore witness to Miguel Berchelt’s collapse. It was as if the bell, that signal of rest and respite, also knew the fight was over, that Berchelt, unmoving and alone on the MGM Grand’s blue canvas, needed a doctor, not a stool. And it was over. The adage goes that a fighter who hits the canvas facedown stays there. It makes some sense, that. If the reflex to defend your face—so primitive, elementary, undeniable—is inert, what can ten seconds’ grace do?

Oscar Valdez, the new WBC super featherweight champion, knew it was over, too. He savored that collapse, punctuated it with a scream, and bolted for his corner. Valdez had shattered Berchelt and public expectations on what may prove to be his defining night. “There’s nothing better in life than proving people wrong,” said a jubilant Valdez in the aftermath. “I had a list of people who doubted me. My idols doubted me. Boxing analysts doubted me.” Little wonder, then, he sought his corner so quickly: they were integral to his success—and their belief never wavered.

What Valdez did was wage war on cliché; on the cheap, the oversimplified, the unimaginative. That kind of thinking is not without its merit, just as the phrase “it is what it is” conveys a meaning despite its lifelessness. After all, Berchelt was supposed to be too big for Valdez, a point reinforced by the 16 pounds Berchelt gained between the weigh-in and the opening bell. That difference in size was never more glaring than in those few moments when Berchelt put Valdez in retreat, when the former featherweight disappeared from view behind the churning shoulders of “El Alacran.” But then came the fourth round and the headbutt that wasn’t. The one that stumbled Berchelt and left him beseeching referee Russell Mora for a calibrating reprieve.

Berchelt mistook Valdez’s left hook for a headbutt because Valdez wasn’t supposed to hurt him. While his nose bled from the second round on (pierced repeatedly by Valdez’s searing jab), Berchelt, bolstered by the added pounds, had absorbed it all. Not that lead hook, though. When Valdez shook Berchelt in the fourth round, when he drove him into the ropes and for a knockdown, his commitment to murderous punching transformed from folly to wisdom. Valdez had to hurt Berchelt early to sow doubt, to show Berchelt that the weapon he surely trained for—Valdez’s left hook—would land with consequence.

Because he was never going to outbox Berchelt, or so they said. Valdez was wired for carnage, and when Berchelt hurt him, as he surely would, Valdez would embrace attrition. Valdez tried to dampen that fire, switching trainers from Manny Robles to Eddy Reynoso in 2018, a change he made while nursing the broken jaw Scott Quigg gifted him. He’d been in stylistic limbo since: a natural fighter encumbered by instruction and left vulnerable thereby. The move to Reynoso was supposed to be preservatory; the matchmaking that accompanied it had been too. But Valdez was drifting from the security of his most violent self and only looked comfortable when he embraced that style and suffered its outlay. That changed Saturday.

“No Boxing No Life.” If you are a member of the Reynoso stable, this is your slogan. It too, is cliché, a clunky formulation short on wit and a tidy stroke of punctuation. But it implies both a dependency and an integration, an integration that contains genuine meaning for prizefighters (and perhaps for them alone). The obvious implication is that for some—and presumably, all of those who entrust their careers to Reynoso—boxing is what allows them to live both in a cheaply poetic sense and a more literal one. To live boxing, these men integrate into their existence such that there is no living free of boxing—its rewards, yes, but also its demands.

The improvements Reynoso has made in Valdez speak to that integration. Under Robles, Valdez seemed like someone you’d see playfully rolling uppercuts in a grocery line; punching, the most fundamental aspect of fighting, defined him. Does he pivot when he steps out of his car now? Weave branches when he walks through the woods? Because his footwork, his upper body movement against Berchelt are reflective of living differently, of using every opportunity to commit to muscle memory those instructions that run counter to his disposition. (It is not as absurd an idea as it may sound. Once asked about the source of his power, Julian Jackson responded by saying he lived it, that everything he did was for the purpose of maximizing and maintaining the ether in his fists.) Perhaps it took Valdez years to integrate Reynoso’s teaching, to code it into his movements. Against an opponent who demanded discipline, daring, and trust, Valdez showed all. The qualities of freshness and energy that Martin Amis celebrates as the opposite of cliché? They were there too.

That freshness and energy were crucial. Berchelt found Valdez’s chin, his ribs, his temples in the middle rounds. Indeed he might have rendered inconsequential his ugly start with a lesser version of Valdez before him. But Berchelt, like Reynoso, showed Valdez what he was capable of. When he dropped Berchelt hard in the ninth, Valdez proved he need not retreat to victory. One round later, Valdez walked Berchelt into the kind of punch that reroutes futures.

Perhaps there is nothing better than proving people wrong, at least in the case of athletes. Consider how readily they fabricate animosity, disrespect, doubt when steeling themselves for competition; or the way they do it after the fact to sweeten victory. Valdez didn’t have to fabricate anything: he knew what Berchelt was supposed to do, why, and how he was supposed to do it. So he didn’t just prove people wrong Saturday—he waged war on the clichés that undergirded their doubt. And left them facedown.

 

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Killed in Brazil?: The Mysterious Death of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, by Jimmy Tobin

About Jimmy Tobin 74 Articles
Jimmy Tobin is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in The Cruelest Sport, 15 Rounds, Undisputed Champion Network, Esquina Boxeo, El Malpensante, The Queensbury Rules, and The Fight Network. Jimmy is the author of Killed in Brazil?: The Mysterious Death of Arturo "Thunder" Gatti, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter.