Boxing champions come in all shapes and sizes and from every corner of the globe, even in a place like Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Although not considered a hotbed for boxing, Albuquerque was the birthplace of the late, great Johnny Tapia, who also was the city’s last world champion. However, just six months after his unfortunate, tragic and sudden death, Albuquerque saw the pro debut of what could be its next champion: Angelo Leo (19-0 with 9 KOs).
On a November 2012 day in Albuquerque in an event promoted by Johnny’s wife Teresa, Leo scored a majority decision win against Jesus Xavier Pacheco, a fight that would shape the man who will have a chance to follow in Johnny’s footsteps and capture championship gold for his hometown in just a few days, on August 1.
Many champions’ first fights are constructed to get that first W without having to dig too deep, but Leo’s pro debut was no walk in the park.
“That fight, my pro debut, was actually one of my toughest fights in my career,” said the 26 year old boxer. “A lot of people don’t know that, but that was one of my toughest ones, against Xavier Pacheco. I wasn’t like other fighters who got easier fighters [early in their career]. I got thrown into the wolves right away in my debut. That was a tough fight, but I got through it and those are the type of fights that made me who I am today. Ever since my pro debut, I’ve been conditioned for these types of fights to be under pressure and for me to stay calm under the bright lights.”
Fast forward nearly nine years and 18 more wins since that debut and now he’s set to face fellow unbeaten pugilist Stephen Fulton Jr. for the vacant WBO super bantamweight title. No fans will be in attendance, and the scrap will be televised on Showtime August 1 from Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena.
You can point to the current coronavirus pandemic for this strange set of circumstances. Entering the year, no one could have predicted this fight would be happening in the way it currently stands. Many fighters dream that their first world championship victory plays out on the biggest stage possible, in front of more than 10,000 passionate fans of the sweet science.
Instead, the winner of this fight will be met with a deafening silence as no one except fight officials and Showtime people working on the broadcast will be allowed to enter the arena. It’s certainly not what Leo had envisioned as he was moving up the ranks, while dad Miguel Leo offered instruction and encouragement.
“It’s not what I imagined or not what I dreamt of when I was a younger kid and all that, but it is a world title fight,” the 5-6 pugilist stated. “A fight’s a fight and it would mean the world to me to have my name as a world champion. It’s always what I wanted to accomplish and August first is that time I do it.”
Leo’s journey to this point saw him draw the attention of one Floyd Mayweather Jr, who signed him to be a part of Mayweather Promotions in November 2017.
The 26-year-old New Mexico native didn’t just have experiences from his interactions with Johnny Tapia, whose son Johnny was also trained by Leo’s trainer Luis Chavez, to fall back on in his fights, but he also benefited from some of the wisdom Floyd Mayweather had accumulated. It made Leo a better fighter, one that made him confident that he could fight for a world title even as far back as 2018.
“It’s an honor to have Floyd in my corner. He’s got a lot of experience and he’s been in the game for 20 plus years. He really knows how to break down a fighter and really knows how to get to them. He knows what style I need to fight them and he’s just a great asset, for sure,” Leo said. “I’m a person that likes to learn from other people and I learn by example. If I see Floyd doing something and if I hear my dad tell me something, I’m always listening with an open ear and I’m always taking in as much as I possibly can.”
His most recent win, an 11th round TKO win on Dec. 28, 2019 over former world title challenger Cesar Juarez, cemented his belief that he is ready for the big fights.
“I definitely feel I'm ready for championship fights. I thought I was ready for a world title three years ago. After I stopped Cesar Juarez in spectacular fashion, I knew I was ready for a world title,” Leo told me during Showtime’s press conference, which played out on Zoom.
The fight between Leo and Fulton has been something that Leo was looking forward to for some time. It was a fight he believed was destined to happen, pandemic be damned. That’s why Leo said he and his father kept looking at footage of Fulton for months, knowing full well that in order to become a world champion at 122 pounds, he’d have to face the unbeaten fighter from Philly.
“Stephen Fulton (click for record) is a fighter that me and my dad have been studying for awhile, like a year or two already. Everyone that’s been fighting on TV at 122 pounds, me and my dad were always studying them, figuring out ways to beat them. Fulton was in the mix, of course,” Leo said. “Before this quarantine, they had mentioned Fulton as a potential fight for the summer. Fulton was always on our mind. There weren't any tune-ups [planned] and it was always going to be straight to this fight. We didn’t know if this was going to be for a world title or for an interim title, but now we got the news that it is for the interim title. Stephen is a fighter that really knows his style. He’s got his style down pat. He’s got a good jab. He knows how to control his distance, but he’s not unbeatable. We’ve seen in his last fights get dropped. He’s been rocked before and he’s not untouchable and I’m going to exploit that on August 1st.”
Leo’s sights aren’t just on the WBO title. He wants to become boxing’s next undisputed champion and the first to do so at 122 pounds. But even the young, confident Leo knows that in order to fight the other champions (the WBC titleholder is Rey Vargas and the unified WBA and IBF champion is Murodjon Akhmadaliev), he needs his own hardware to make those title clashes happen and the only way to do is to come out on top against Fulton.
“Any of the champions in the future [I’d love to fight]. I would like to fight Rey Vargas. I would like to fight Murodjon and eventually become undisputed in the division. There’s only three fights I need to get past in order to become the undisputed champion and I feel like that’s possible,” Leo said.
For the record, boxing wasn’t Leo’s first love. Believe it or not, he had an affinity for art and has been creating art since he was a young boy. He might have tried to make a living with art, had it not been for boxing, he’s said.
Throughout this pandemic, Leo was able to re-discover his love of sketching and shake off the rust, like he has been doing in sparring in preparation for this fight against Fulton.
“My love for art goes way before boxing. I started drawing around five or six years old and from there, I just went sketching and then eventually, I got into boxing and then boxing really took up my passion, took up all my time. I wasn’t able to find time to draw as much. Drawing has always been in my heart though. I’ve been actually starting drawing again. I just got a pencil and it’s still there. I still got it. I just have to refine and take off the rust,” Leo said.
He traded a potential career drawing on a canvas for painting a new picture on a different kind of canvas. Instead of pencil sketches and strokes from a paint brush, Leo will look to create his own masterpiece with his fists on August 1st, one that will not only entertain the crowd watching from home, but will result in him becoming a world champion, like Johnny Tapia.
“Just tune in. This fight will probably not go the distance,” Leo said. “It’s going to be a good fight and there’s going to be fireworks.”