No fighter could ever replace Felix "Tito" Trinidad in the hearts of the Puerto Rican people, but when he retired in 2008, Miguel Cotto was waiting in the wings, ready to assume the role as the island nation's leading boxer.
Cotto has served long and well in that capacity, winning world titles in four different weight classes and representing his country with great pride and dignity throughout his 16-year pro career. But Cotto has said 2017 would be his final year between the ropes, which means La Isla del Encanto will need a new hero to carry on the great tradition established by Trinidad, Cotto and their predecessors.
One of the top candidates has been training alongside Cotto at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym in Hollywood. Cotto is preparing for his Aug. 26 match with Yoshihiro Kamegai, while his 26-year-old protégé, Alberto "El Explosivo" Machado, is getting ready to take on Mexico's Carlos "The Solution" Morales this Friday in Ponce, Puerto Rico (ESPN Deportes, 10 p.m. ET, tape delay on ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET).
Junior lightweight Machado turned pro on Nov. 17, 2012, stopping Alex Nazario in the third round. It was the first of 15 knockouts he has tallied to date while compiling an overall record of 17-0.
"I think I am a technician who likes to put pressure on," said Machado of his fighting styles.
Others call him a knockout artist. Eight of his wins have come in the first round.
Machado is right-handed but fights out of a southpaw stance, which puts him in the perfect position to land his right hook, a lights-out punch that has accounted for most of his knockout victories.
Although Machado has fought three times in the United States, the majority of his pro bouts have been in Puerto Rico, where his exciting style is rapidly building an enthusiastic fan base. He is co-promoted by his patron's MC Promotions and Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions.
The 27-year-old Morales is the most accomplished opponent Machado has fought as a pro. The Mexican-born boxer, who now resides in Highland Park, California, has compiled a 16-1-3 record since making his pro debut in January 2012. He is currently riding a 16-bout unbeaten streak, which includes wins over Cesar Allen Valenzuela, Luis Franco and Charles Huerta.
Morales isn't as hard of a puncher as Machado, having scored only six knockouts. But he has no intention of standing toe-to-toe and swapping haymakers.
"We already know that Alberto Machado is a really powerful guy, so we're not going to compete power with power," said Morales. "We're going to be smart. We're going to use our IQ in the ring and beat him like that. He's strong, but I don't have to be stronger. I just have to be smarter than him."
Machado is not the only Puerto Rican prospect on Friday's telecast. Bantamweight Emanuel "Bebo" Rivera (17-1, 11 KOs) will be facing Nate "The Great One" Green (8-0, 2 KOs) in a scheduled eight-rounder.
Rivera, 27, turned pro in March 2010, but was inactive from July 2012 until February 2015.
"I was in jail for three years," said Rivera. "I couldn't fight, I couldn't do anything, so I just tried to maintain myself, working hard on my conditioning so I would be ready for any challenge."
Southpaw Rivera made up for lost time in 2016, going undefeated in five bouts, winning three by knockout. The Green fight will be his first in 2017.
"Green is undefeated, so that's a great challenge for me," said Rivera. "I'm looking forward to the fight, and I just hope my opponent comes in great condition so we can give a great show and no one gets hurt."
The 28-year-old Green, who was born in Brooklyn but lives in West Haven, Connecticut, has plans of his own and isn't worried about fighting a left-handed opponent.
"When I was 4-0, I had to fight somebody 16-1 and a southpaw, Thomas Snow," said Green, who came off the floor to score two knockdowns of his own to win a unanimous decision over his more experienced adversary.
It's way too soon to proclaim that Machado or Rivera is Cotto's heir apparent. They are, however, in the running and proof that Puerto Rico's love affair with boxing is as strong as ever.