Puerto Rican Boxing: The Fighters To Watch
It is a period of transition for Puerto Rican boxing. There is no Tito Trinidad or Miguel Cotto campaigning. It is Puerto Rican Day Weekend in New York, though, so that means Top Rank has a card with their PR aces on it. Edgar Berlanga tops the June 11 bill at the Madison Square Garden Hulu Theater, but ‘The Chosen One' has a cloud of questions hanging over him as he seeks to defeat foe Alexis Angulo. Berlanga started strong, building mad buzz, but has leveled off, which has made people wonder if he's all that, or destined to under-deliver after getting peoples' hopes up.
Here is a list of fighters from Puerto Rico, as well as those of Puerto Rican descent, who have a chance to put their stamp on the sport, and the hearts and minds of Boricuas.
Subriel Matias: junior welterweight, 18-1, 18 KOs; from Fajardo, Puerto Rico
No one from Puerto Rico is as feared as the 30 year old Matias, and I am not sure that will change for some time. Matias offers a style that isn't pretty, but is highly effective. He looks to drown his opponent with an onslaught of punches, and breaks down opponents mentally as much as he does physically.
Most hardcores who live in Puerto Rican view him as the best current Puerto Rican boxer, even over Jose Pedraza, who I am somewhat assuming probably doesn't box again, unless it is a homecoming bout.
Matias wears flashy jewelry like Macho Camacho, has folklore on the internet about why he has various colors in his hair, and will forever be a part of boxing infamy because of the sad match between himself and Maxim Dadashev on July 19, 2019 in Maryland. Both were 13-0. The Russian Dadashev tried hard to answer Matias, but he got battered through 11 rounds. On July 23, Dadashev passed away from injuries sustained during the 140 pound clash.
Matias is a fighter more than a boxer, and his lone loss came via UD10 to Petros Ananyan on Feb. 2, 2020. Matias got back on the horse on Nov. 30, 2019, stopping Jonathan Jose Enid in PR. Matias would brutally avenge the loss in January of this year, stopping Ananyan after nine rounds.
Boog Williams said it best, “Matias is like Zombie film!” That is exactly right. The word that best describes Matias to me is “relentless.”
I think he is the best young(ish) fighter from Puerto Rico currently.
Accomplishments: Matias got wins over prospects such as Malik Hawkins and Batyrzhan Jukembayev, who were both 18-0 entering. Dadashev came in unbeaten as well, at 13-0.
Matias has seen all eighteen of his wins come by way of knockout and is currently set to face Jeremias Ponce in an IBF eliminator bout at 140 pounds. Winner is the mandatory to face IBF champ Josh Taylor.
Hopes: The hope would be for Matias to be a long-reigning world champion. This guy could have some great fights with the likes of Regis Prograis, Gary Antuanne Russell, and a slew of other faces in the division. Matias looks to be a guy who has a style to be in great, dramatic fights, someone who has a compelling backstory. I want to see him more and learn more about him.
Xander Zayas: Junior middleweight, 13-0, 9 KOs; born in San Juan, Puerto, lives in Florida
The Lowdown: Zayas=talent, plus saying all the right things.
Rarely do you see or meet a 19-year-old who feels a decade older than he is in terms of maturity. You have to credit Xanders’ parents, coach Javiel Centeno, and manager Peter Kahn for helping him become such a well-rounded person.
Zayas is one of the most exciting offensively-orientated fighters in the new generation and reminds me of a young Vergil Ortiz Jr., how he’s able to overwhelm his opponents with his physical gifts.
Zayas is the closest thing to a boxing child star, and has handled each step forward with class and dignity. Most are looking at Zayas to be the next Puerto Rican star after Miguel Cotto, and Felix Trinidad, as his connection with the New York crowd already is evident as seen in his last fight against Quincy Lavallais in March.
With Brad Goodman and Bruce Trampler, two hall-of-fame matchmakers, guiding his career, along with an expert manager in Peter Kahn, it seems that as long as Zayas stays the course he is on, he’ll be a centerpiece of Top Rank main events for the next decade, and notable name in the sport for years to come. You would be able to assess for yourself, but Zayas got ill, and was pulled from the Top Rank Theater card.
Accomplishments: Holds wins over solid regional fighters such as Jose Sanchez from New Mexico and Louisiana’s Quincy Lavallais. Zayas fought six times in 2021, showing he’s ambitious and dedicated.
Hopes: To be the next fighter Top Rank Inc. trusts to headline Madison Square Garden, the big room, and that Zayas' fights start to become marquee events in the sport of boxing with more and more Puerto Rican fights fans getting behind him along the way.
Najee Lopez: cruiserweight, 4-0, 4 KOs dad Tito Lopez Sr born in Puerto Rico, lives in Georgia
Why: The guy is freakin' good, and is fighting in the under-radar cruiserweight division. When I first saw him in 2019 at the Oxnard Last Chance Qualifiers, I was blown away, and what Tim VanNewhouse has done with his career so far has lived up to Lopez's talent.
Fighting under the ProBox Promotions flag, Lopez is being fast-tracked, in just four fights, he is 4-0 with 4 KOs, and is already in six-round fights. Of all the prospects ProBox has, Lopez seems to be the true blue-est chip guy.
For the record, Najee’s dad Tito Lopez Sr was born in Puerto Rico. He was a local legend in Ellenwood, Georgia, intent on bringing boxing back to Atlanta. He passed away in December 2020, and that was a gut shot to Najee, and brothers Hakim and Casey, who also campaign in the pro ranks. Najee absorbed the blow, and holds pop in his heart, knowing that dad would not want his focus to fall off because of the loss.
Add in the fact Evander Holyfield, the greatest cruiserweight from America, is a Georgia guy. So we add to the backstory narrative.
Lopez is a Capital G “Guy” in cruiserweight already and should be a world champion before the end of 2023 if given the chance.
Mark this down—We're looking at potentially a two-weight world champion, and one of the most exciting fighters in the higher weights.
Accomplishments: In his third pro bout, Najee stopped experienced veteran Alex Theran, who fought world champions, in round two.
You can see for yourself how good Najee is on June 24. The 6-2 prospect plus is booked for a six rounder against TBA atop a ProBox card in Kissimmee, Fla. In the main event, Jonathan Gonzalez defends his WBO light flyweight title against super-slick Filipino Mark Barriga…but Najee is a heavy threat to steal the show, so you know. Watch on ProBoxTV.com.
Hopes: To be a fighter who gets people interested in the cruiserweight division, which tends to see brutes in Europe slug it out with one and another, until they run into the great fighters in the division such as Oleksandr Usyk or Mairis Briedis. Cruiserweight has left the U.S. airwaves, sadly, and hopefully Lopez can get some interest back into the division. Then, he’ll do what all good cruiserweights do, leave the division once famous to go to heavyweight and become a legend.
Christian Tapia, super featherweight, 14-0, 12 KOs; from Coamo, Puerto Rico
Why: Tapia is a big puncher coming up on the regional Philly scene who is making a name for himself by beating undefeated fighters and fighters who’ve fought superstar boxers. His UD10 win over Luis Lebron on March 12 showed he could win a fight against a bigger man, and by boxing off his back foot.
Holding the WBC Continental Americas super featherweight title means he should get some form of a contender fight in the near future.
Often when making these lists we exclude guys going the grassroots build-up route, but Tapia is making a lot of noise. He should be introduced to the wider world by the end of the year.
Accomplishments: Has wins over 18-2-1 entering Luis Lebron, as well as KO wins over Iron Alvarez (14-0 entering) and Mason Menard, who fought Teofimo Lopez and Devin Haney.
Hopes: To be a world-class fighter at 130 and 135 pounds. I could see Tapia having the type of career in which he faces a lot of the great young fighters who are emerging in his era, and his legacy will be based on how he steps up in competition. He doesn't fight like Jamaine Ortiz, but could have a similar trajectory if things play out right.
Angel “Tito” Acosta: Flyweight, 23-3, 22 KOs, has been stopped twice; from San Juan, Puerto Rico
Why: More than likely the best active Puerto Rican fighter. Acosta has trouble with the best of his era, such as Junto Nakatani (24-0 WBO flyweight champ), Elwin Soto, and Kosei Tanaka, but has greatly separated against the fighters who I didn't mention.
Acosta has shown moments of greatness, and his first-round KO of Janiel Rivera on May 12 was another step in the right direction. Acosta has a chance to be a two-weight world champion, he held the WBO light fly crown 2017-2019 before dropping it to Soto in a KO12 defeat.
It is just about timing for him, as he’s actively looking to win a belt at flyweight currently after falling short to Nakatani via TKO4.
I haven't followed Acosta's career as closely as Abraham Gonzalez of NYFights.com, but those who love the lower weights tend to speak in reverence to Acosta.
Accomplishments: Won the WBO light flyweight title, defended it three times.
Hopes: To be one of the best lower weight fighters of his era, and keep adding to his legacy.
A Chance At Stardom
Jonathan Gonzalez: Light flyweight, 25-3-1, 14 KOs, has been stopped three times; born in Bronx, NY, grew up and lives in Caguas, Puerto Rico
Why: “Bomba” on Oct. 16, 2021 beat WBO light fly champ Elwin Soto, who had downed Angel Acosta, to grab the strap.
The lefty Gonzalez now holds a belt at light flyweight, and has earned everything he has gotten in the sport.
He has faced a slew of great fighters, most with deceptive records because the lower weight classes see people fight each other. That can’t be emphasized enough…In these lower weight classes, the best more so do fight the best, and that means they take Ls more often than in the upper weight classes, where guys are coddled more.
With a sustained run, Gonzalez could become a focal point of Puerto Rican boxing, but the key thing is activity. You can see for yourself on June 24, when Gonzalez fights Filipino stylist Mark Barriga, in defense of his WBO crown, on ProBox TV.
That’s an interesting style clash, Gonzalez saw the light in his battle with Tanaka, at 112 pounds. Bomba dropped down to 108, where he’s better suited, and truly, he could be peaking now, at 31.
Accomplishments: Current WBO light flyweight world champion
Hopes: To become a star at the lower weights you have to hold the belt for not just a year or two, but much longer, to truly get that name recognition. It’s that much harder to make noise at 104 on up to 126, or even 135, in the US and elsewhere. Call it “size-ism” if you wish, but there is a preference for heavier weight fighters in many pockets of the world. Frankly, that mindset should be attacked, and, in fact, ProBox is of that mindset. They prize effective aggression, volume, and abhor excessive clinching. At 108 pounds, where Gonzalez does his thing, you will find more action than at the sexier weight classes, very, very often.
Edgar Berlanga: Super middleweight, 19-0, 16 KOs; born, grew up in NYC
Why: No one really is using the nickname ‘The Chosen One.’ Berlanga, born and bred in NY, had a Bill Goldberg-like streak of 16 first-round KOs, so expectations grew heavily. Backers hoped he’d be the proper replacement for Miguel Cotto as THE MAN to build around for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade spotlight in New York City. The ceiling has fallen, not all the way in, but it’s precarious.
Berlanga had a very exciting fight with Demond Nicholson on April 24, 2021, that was a step up fight. And Nicholson, who’d been stopped twice, made it out of the first round, and went the distance. In his next fight, Berlanga met Marcelo Coceres, who knocked him down in round 9 of their ten rounder. More bloom was off this rose. It was thought that Berlanga, managed by Keith Connolly, trained by Andre Rozier, could restore some luster against Steve Rolls, a Canadian who’d been in with Gennadiy Golovkin. If Berlanga stopped him quicker than GGG did (round 4 of their 2019 bout) then the momentum train was back on track. He did not. Instead, Berlanga won a UD10 over Rolls in listless fashion, by margins of 4, 4 and 2 points.
Berlanga's power, and greatness got him to a certain place early, but now that he is here, he can't go backward. It’s a wait-and-see thing with him, as I still think Berlanga has the chance to be a legend in the sport. But he needs a stellar performance soon, as the expectations set for him by the public after that mythic start and those he set for himself are unreasonably high.
Despite having no losses to his record, people tend to talk about Berlanga, as though he lost a fight. It is important to keep in perspective that he is still undefeated. Will he still be after fighting Alexis Angulo the night of June 11, at Madison Square Garden Hulu Theater.
Accomplishments: 16 first-round knockouts to start his career
Hopes: To become a world champion, and fill up Madison Square Garden two times a year.
Jan Paul Rivera: Junior lightweight, 2-0, 2 KOs; born in Ponce, lives in Salinas, Puerto Rico
Why: JPR was an outstanding amateur who’s started his pro career 2-0, with 2 KOs. The 21 year old righty had a slew of international boxing wins as an amateur, so he’s pretty well seasoned for a newbie pro.
Accomplishments: Puerto Rican National Champion in 2018.
Hopes: Seeks to fight four to five times a year for two years, while getting a healthy amount of knockouts which gets the fans interested in seeing him fight.
Josue Vargas: Junior welterweight, 21-2, 9 KOs, has been stopped once; born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, lives in the Bronx, NY
Why: A great amateur with a superstar-level social media following. We are waiting to see his performances match his personality.
Vargas was humbled last year on Oct. 30, 2021 in a contest versus Jose Zepeda. After a week of hard trash talking by Josue, he got knocked out in round one by Zepeda at the Madison Square Garden Theater.
Vargas was originally with Mayweather Promotions, but now is with Top Rank Inc. His biggest issue so far has been himself. Vargas seems like someone who could develop into a star, and has asked for the hard fights like the Zepeda fight. His return to the ring saw a shaky performance against Nicholas Demario (UD8 win in March).
These were far-crys from his wins over Salvador Briceno and then Kendo Castaneda in 2020, in which he showed his full arsenal.
I think the future is extremely bright for Vargas. However, it is now about how he wants to respond to such a crushing loss, and how he wishes to move forward. Because the talent is there – I think the world title will come with maturity.
Accomplishments: Wins over Willie Shaw, Kendo Castaneda and Salvador Briceno.
Hopes: To be part of the youth movement in Puerto Rican boxing along with Zayas and Berlanga in the Top Rank Inc stable. Vargas has a lot of the elements of Hector Camacho, and I am not ready to count him out, but he needs to have some performances that rewrite the past to help his future. See how he performs tonight, June 11, in NYC.
One Fight Away From A Big Moment
Henry LeBron, super featherweight, 15-0, 10 KOs; born in Moca, Puerto Rico, lives in Aguadilla, PR
Why: He has great record, but there’s not too much material out there to flesh out my knowledge base on Lebron. When searching for him, few stories exist about him, and despite fighting on Top Rank cards on national telecasts, Lebron is staying rather quiet on undercards.
I am looking for the 24 year old southpaw to try and break out this year, as he is in a division, 130, that has some very big fights that can be made. With a big promoter backing him, he must have something they see in him. See for yourself, he fights tonight (June 11) in NYC.
Accomplishments: Beating the typical developmental talent on undercards, hasn't had a true step-up fight yet.
Hopes: To be a hidden gem. A guy that went unnoticed and has a huge performance that gets people talking, and goes on to be a guy other great fighters face in the future.
Omar Rosario: Junior welterweight, 6-0, 2 KOs; from Caguas, Puerto Rico
Why: Fighting a slew of undefeated fighters early in his career, and stopping them. An aggressive big puncher who is not looking to get paid for overtime in the ring, the 24 year old Rosario has made statements early and often. Rosario is doing everything that is asked of him at this point in his career, and Split-T Management has put him in a good situation.
Accomplishments: Wins over good regional fighters like J.J. Mariano and Raekwon Butler
Hopes: To have a viral knockout at some point, and become a marquee undercard fighter that gets social media traction, which leads him into a main event spot in either late 2022 or early 2023.
Victor Padilla: Lightweight, 10-0, 9 KOs; from Vieques, PR, fights out of Philadelphia
Why: The big puncher Padilla, a 23 year old lefty, worked with Rashiem Jefferson Sr., for the biggest win of his career, a stoppage victory over Thomas Velasquez (10-0-1 entering) on ShoBox in March. The kid is all action. Padilla is not a fighter who will bore you, he comes forward and looks to press the action.
Accomplishments: A win over undefeated Thomas Velasquez, in an early crossroads battle.
Hopes: A tough guy who competes at the world-class level. I think he has a chance to be an overachiever.
Armani Almestica: Junior welterweight, 5-0, 5 KOs, mother and father from Puerto Rico, he lives in Orlando, Florida
Why: A great amateur with a TON of personality. Almestica has aspects of Adrien Broner and Hector Camacho in him which should bring big fan buzz the more he is on television.
Accomplishments: Solid amateur career, he won 21 national amateur titles. And that perfect KO rate as a pro.
Hopes: To be a fighter you tune in to the press conference to hear what he has to say, and to watch him win or lose on fight night. The 20 year old lefty Almestica at a young age has the “it” factor. He fights tonight (June 11) in NYC.
Jaycob Gomez, lightweight, 4-0, 4 KOs; from Caguas, Puerto Rico
Why: A big puncher fighting on the undercards of ProBox Promotions cards who literally has the internet profile of a hitman. Gomez has about as little written on him as any boxer I have ever looked up, and his social media is pretty bare bones, too. That being said, his power looks to be real at this level, and he has a tremendous upside, and is being brought along well. I just hope to see a bit more content on him in the near future.
Accomplishments: Decorated amateur, has the backing of ProBox Promotions.
Hopes: To be a big puncher from Puerto Rico with world title ambitions. It is too early to tell how he will pan out as a pro, but with 4 wins all by knockout at 130 pounds Gomez has a lot to like early on.