For a kid who says he was supposed to be a baseball player, 21-year-old lightweight sensation Felix Verdejo is one helluva boxer.
When Verdejo, viewed by many as the next great fighter from the boxing-mad island of Puerto Rico, was 9 years old, he loved baseball, much like many of the kids he grew up with. One day, under the watchful eye of close family friend Angel Rivera, whom Verdejo considers an uncle, he was practicing with best friend Jean Rivera, Angel's son.
When practice turned a bit chippy and Jean began throwing rocks at Verdejo, things got a little out of hand and they started fighting. Angel broke the boys up, telling them that if they wanted to fight for real, they should put on boxing gloves, and they did.
"That was my first fight," Verdejo said through translator Gardy Lopez of Top Rank, Verdejo's promoter.
Angel thought Verdejo showed promise and took him to a nearby gym, where he met trainer Ricky Marquez. That was the end of Verdejo's baseball path. But a dozen years later, Marquez still trains (and manages) Verdejo, who has emerged as a possible future star in boxing.
"I loved boxing from the first day I tried it," Verdejo said. "I was always getting into fights in the streets, so I used boxing for discipline instead of fighting in the streets.
"As a professional boxer, I want to be a world champion. I want to unite my country and bring happiness to my people."
Verdejo went 106-17 as an amateur and represented Puerto Rico in the 2012 Olympics, after which he signed with Top Rank and came into the pro ranks with a lot of hype. So far, Verdejo (16-0, 12 KOs), the 2014 ESPN.com prospect so the year, has lived up to all of it.
"We think he has the kind of talent to win world titles in multiple divisions -- 135, 140, 147 when it's all said and done," said Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti. "A lot has to happen but I think the talent is there. He works as hard as anybody. He cares about always being in shape, how he performs. He loves the fans, he loves his island and it's important to him to be respectful of everyone."
He has shown consistent improvement in the ring, including going 7-0 with 6 knockouts (one of which was a huge third-round KO of the year candidate against Sergio Villanueva in October) in 2014, a fan-friendly style and is already a gate attraction, having drawn crowds for fights in Puerto Rico, New York, Philadelphia and Orlando, Fla. Many believe Verdejo is the heir apparent to recent Puerto Rican stars Felix "Tito" Trinidad and Miguel Cotto and will eventually be a pay-per-view headliner.
Those are big names to be compared to, but Verdejo said he does not feel any pressure to live up to their great legacies. Trinidad won titles in three weight classes and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June. Cotto, a lock Hall of Famer, is the reigning middleweight champion and the first Puerto Rican to win world titles in four weight classes.
"It's an honor for me to be compared to those big stars from my island," said Verdejo, who has appeared on Cotto undercards. "They did their job. I will do mine and keep developing. Tito is my friend. Every time he sees me he is giving me advice and I appreciate it. He tells me to keep training hard and that after I accomplish what I want in boxing there is time for everything else.
"I respect Miguel a lot. He's a good guy but my relationship with Cotto is not the same as with Tito. Cotto is more focused on his career so we haven't had a chance to talk a lot."
Verdejo has a close relationship with Trinidad, whom he has known since his amateur days, meeting because Verdejo's mother worked with Trinidad's cousin. Like Trinidad, Verdejo has a million-dollar smile, an outgoing personality and loves to be around his fans.
"I enjoy what I am doing and I enjoy being with the fans. It's the way I have always been," Verdejo said. "Even now everywhere Tito goes people are all over him. I would love that to happen to me. I will keep working hard and as long as I keep doing what I am doing it will come little by little and the love from the fans will keep growing."
Despite the intense boxing rivalry between Puerto Rico and Mexico, Verdejo also counts himself as a big Juan Manuel Marquez fan.
"Tito is my favorite boxer. I grew up watching him but one of my others is Marquez," Verdejo said. "I admire everything he has done."
Verdejo is expected to make his 2015 debut in February headlining a UniMas-televised card, but Moretti said he'll likely be on HBO before the end of the year. Eventually, he is expected to headline big cards at Madison Square Garden on Puerto Rican parade weekend in June, a date on which Cotto had many of his biggest fights. But Top Rank does not want to rush Verdejo.
"He's very easy to market and the fans already give him a big reception wherever he goes. But we want him to mature physically. He's still only 21. There is no rush on anyone's part," Moretti said. "We just want him to progress as a fighter. We want him to take his time and let him get experience. It might take 25 fights. It's a costly venture but that's the way you should do it if you can.
"This is a marathon with him, not a sprint, and he and his team are with us on this. We are not slow in his development but we are not rushing him. That said, he is ready for the next step, there's no question. I think he's ready for some better guys."
Verdejo said his career is moving just the way he hoped it would.
"I like the pace my career is going," he said. "I'm very happy with the way things are going. I know this is the stage of his career where I am learning and developing and I understand that. I know there are a lot of people with a lot of expectations but that motivates me to train harder and reach my goals and develop. I don't feel the pressure, but I'm up for the challenge."
More rising stars (in alphabetical order)
Artur Beterbiev (29, Montreal, light heavyweight, 7-0, 7 KOs):
Beterbiev was a 2008 and 2012 Russian Olympian who beat unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev in the amateurs. Beterbiev moved to Quebec a year ago with his wife, three children and mother to pursue his professional career and has been impressive. In just his sixth fight, he took a massive step up in competition against former world titleholder Tavoris Cloud and thrashed him by violent second-round knockout. Although Beterbiev, an aggressive, seek-and-destroy fighter, suffered a flash knockdown in the first round of his most recent fight against unbeaten Jeff Page Jr. on Dec. 19, he rebounded to score three knockdowns in a second-round knockout win. Promoter Yvon Michel expects him to fight five times in 2015. Beterbiev is not far away from a major fight.
Marcus Browne (24, Staten Island, New York, light heavyweight, 13-0, 10 KOs):
The 2012 U.S. Olympian, a southpaw, was a decorated amateur, winning numerous national tournaments and three New York Golden Gloves championships. As a pro, the likable Browne has good skills, size and a fan-friendly personality. He continued to improve in an active year in which he won all five of his fights, including against experienced journeymen Otis Griffin (W8) and George Blades (KO1). Besides his fights, he has gained good experience sparring with former world champion Jean Pascal and contender Edwin Rodriguez.
Frankie Gomez (22, East Los Angeles, junior welterweight, 18-0, 13 KOs):
Gomez, a 2009 U.S. national amateur champion and silver medalist in the 2009 world amateur tournament, was one of the most-sought after amateurs in the United States when he decided to turn pro rather than pursue a 2012 Olympic berth. The "Pitbull" eventually signed with Golden Boy and it looked like he might be a bust after a drug arrest, poor training habits and a lack of dedication. At one point his issues led to an 11-month layoff. But now that he is training with Freddie Roach, Gomez is said to have a renewed dedication and seems poised to live up to his immense promise. He fought only twice in 2014, but looked very impressive in July against talented Vernon Paris, whom he dropped and beat by shutout decision. That performance was a glimpse of what Gomez is capable of.
Tony Harrison (24, Detroit, junior middleweight, 19-0, 16 KOs):
The aggressive Harrison, called the face of boxing in Detroit by some, went 75-12 as an amateur and won the Michigan Golden Gloves before getting the ultimate stamp of approval as an up-and-comer when the late, great Emanuel Steward took him under his wing to train him until his death in 2012, which Harrison took very hard. Harrison, a pinpoint puncher who has gained experience sparring with Gennady Golovkin, had only three fights in 2014 and won each by knockout inside two rounds as he dusted experienced opponents Grady Brewer, Bronco McKart and Tyrone Brunson. Harrison had to pull out of an August fight because of a broken jaw, but it was only a temporary setback.
Jesse Hart (25, Philadelphia, super middleweight, 16-0, 13 KOs):
Hart, with good size (6-foot-2) and speed, long arms and an engaging personality, has boxing in his genes as he is the son of 1970s middleweight contender Eugene "Cyclone" Hart. He was a standout amateur, going 85-11 and winning the 2011 National Golden Gloves and USA Nationals, and just missed a 2012 U.S. Olympic berth on a double-tiebreaker. In 2014, he went 5-0 and did well against some experienced opponents, including Derrick Findley (W6) and Samuel Miller (TKO2).
Amir Imam (24, Pompano Beach, Florida, junior welterweight, 15-0, 13 KOs):
Imam is a dynamic fighter with a strong blend of speed and power. His biggest problem is simply that promoter Don King, who does very few shows these days, has not gotten him enough fights. Imam only fought three times in 2014, not nearly enough for a young talent. But he did take a big step up in competition in May when he faced Yordenis Ugas, a standout on the powerhouse Cuban amateur national team and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist. Imam outpointed Ugas over eight rounds in a good performance as he went past the fourth round for the first time. Imam's key to success is activity. He is scheduled to appear on the Bermane Stiverne-Deontay Wilder undercard on Jan. 17.
Anthony Joshua (25, England, heavyweight, 10-0, 10 KOs):
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Joshua won the 2012 Olympic super heavyweight gold medal at home in London and appears well on his way to stardom. No less an expert than heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, who had Joshua in one of his training camps and sparred about 15 rounds with him, thinks he's the future heavyweight champion. "If he is going to keep doing what he is doing he will be champion for sure," Klitschko told ESPN.com. "I think he has amazing potential. He needs to learn but that will come. I think he has the size and the weight. He's built like a modern professional warrior and athlete." Joshua, who has great size, power and a tireless work ethic, went 7-0 in 2014 and beat experienced opponents such as former title challenger Matt Skelton, Konstantin Airich, Denis Bakhtov and Michael Sprott, all inside three rounds. He has fights scheduled for Jan. 31 and April 4.
Ievgen Khytrov (26, Ukraine/Brooklyn, New York, middleweight, 7-0, 7 KOs):
Khytrov had a huge amateur career, including representing Ukraine in the 2012 Olympics and winning a gold medal at the 2011 world championships. He turned pro last December and has looked superb as he has blasted out one opponent after another, and he's not fighting stiffs. He knocked out competent opponents Louis Rose and Willie Fortune in the first round (and neither had ever been stopped before) as well as Chris Chatman. Offensively, Khytrov is scary. Co-promoter Lou DiBella believes he will develop quickly and that one day he will face Gennady Golovkin. Khytrov will kick off the year Jan. 9 on a "ShoBox" card.
Dmitry Kudryashov (29, Russia, cruiserweight, 16-0, 16 KOs):
Kudryashov doesn't have the name recognition of some top prospects but he could turn out to be a hidden gem. His nickname is "The Russian Hammer" and for good reason. He has frightening power in both hands and has put away all of his opponents, often with a single crushing blow. He has scored 11 of his knockouts inside three rounds. Kudryashov turned pro in 2011 and slowly stepped up his opposition in 2014, winning his four bouts. His biggest win came on Nov. 28 when he obliterated former world titleholder Juan Carlos Gomez in 22 seconds. He could be a cruiserweight version of Sergey Kovalev.
Erickson Lubin (19, Orlando, Florida, junior middleweight, 8-0, 6 KOs):
The lanky Lubin, known as "The Hammer," went 143-7 as an amateur and was considered a slam-dunk to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. But he surprised many by signing a pro contract with Mike Tyson's Iron Mike Productions on his 18th birthday, causing USA Boxing to unleash its anger toward Tyson for signing away such a great medal hope. Lubin turned pro 13 months ago and has shown good speed and power in both hands. He stepped up in competition for his last fight on Nov. 14 against experienced Norberto Gonzalez, who dropped him in the opening round. But Lubin shook it off, dropped him in the fourth round and cruised to a unanimous eight-round decision. Lubin could go a long way, but he is very young. He needs experience and his handlers will need to show patience and allow him to develop. They should not rush him.
Jessie Magdaleno (23, Las Vegas, junior featherweight, 19-0, 15 KOs):
Magdaleno, the younger brother of former junior lightweight title challenger Diego Magdaleno, is an exciting fighter, although he has not developed quite as quickly as many thought he would. He was limited two only two fights in 2014, mainly due to injury and illness, but he knocked out a pair of experienced opponents. He had a strong amateur background, going 120-16 and winning six major titles and would have been favored to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team had he not turned pro instead in late 2010. Magdaleno, who is trained by Joel Diaz, will kick off the year by headlining a Jan. 10 UniMas-televised card against Erik Ruiz (13-1, 6 KOs).
Joseph Parker (22, New Zealand, heavyweight, 12-0, 10 KOs):
The heavyweight division is in desperate need of new blood and Parker is one of the guys seemingly ready to deliver it. Already a popular attraction in his country, Parker (who has had two fights in the United States) looks like the total package so far with good size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), big power and a good team behind him, including noted trainer Kevin Barry. In 2014, Parker was 5-0 with 4 KOs, including wins against veterans Brian Minto (TKO7) and Sherman Williams (W10). His fourth-round destruction of Irineu Beato Costa Jr. on Dec. 6 was as brutal a knockout as you'll ever see. He has also gained valuable experience sparring with titleholder Bermane Stiverne and he's supposed to work with world champion Wladimir Klitschko in his upcoming training camp.
Jose Pedraza (25, Puerto Rico, junior lightweight, 19-0, 12 KOs):
Nicknamed "Sniper," Pedraza, a 2008 Olympian and 2009 silver medalist at the world amateur championships, is a versatile performer who can be a slick boxer and show opponents angles or he can attack, especially to the body. He went 4-0 with 2 KOs in 2014 and pushed himself to the verge of a world title bout with his most impressive win, a clear decision in a Nov. 14 title eliminator against Michael Farenas, whose only previous loss was to Yuriorkis Gamboa in a 2012 interim title bout.
Gilberto Ramirez (23, Mexico, super middleweight, 30-0, 24 KOs):
Ramirez, a powerful, 6-foot-2 right-hander who boxes southpaw, has the kind of exciting fighting style and charisma that could make him a big star in Mexico and the United States. But he can also fight, as evidenced by his impressive performances in 2014, when he was 4-0, all by knockout, against solid opponents Don Mouton (KO1, had never been stopped), former title challenger Giovanni Lorenzo (TKO5), Junior Talipeau (TKO1) and former title challenger Fulgencio Zuniga (TKO8). Promoter Top Rank and HBO think so highly of him he was handed the coveted opening TV slot to face Maxim Vlasov (30-1, 15 KOs) on Jan. 24 in the Mike Alvarado-Brandon Rios III co-feature. If Ramirez passes that test, he could be on his way to stardom.
Jose Ramirez (22, Avenal, California, junior welterweight, 13-0, 10 KOs):
Ramirez was a superb amateur, going 145-11, winning 11 national titles and making the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. He has shown good speed and power and is a good body puncher, but his most dangerous weapon is a tremendous, fight-altering left hook. He went 6-0 with 5 KOs in 2014 and as much as he improved in the ring he also showed he is a force to be reckoned with at the box office. He drew a crowd of nearly 10,000 to a fight in Fresno in October, a 50-second destruction of the experienced David Rodela.
Callum Smith (24, England, super middleweight, 15-0, 11 KOs): Smith has only been a pro for two years and already come a long way. He might turn out to be the best of the fighting Smith brothers, Paul (super middleweight contender), Stephen (former British junior lightweight champ) and Liam (British junior middleweight champ). Callum, who has excellent size at 6-foot-3, went 6-0 with 4 KOs in 2014 and scored his biggest win on Nov. 22, when he easily outpointed experienced former title challenger Nikola Sjekloca.
Errol Spence Jr. (24, Dallas, welterweight, 15-0, 12 KOs):
Spence, the best prospect from the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, is one of those up-and-comers who looks like a can't-miss future champion. He has a well-rounded arsenal, is above average in every facet and known to have a tremendous worth ethic. A southpaw, he has excellent speed and power, not to mention tenacity in the ring. He won three U.S. amateur national championships (2009-11) and was a two-time National Golden Gloves champion (2009-10). In 2014, he was 5-0 with 4 KOs against decent competition, including a shutout decision against fringe contender Ronald Cruz. He also has sparred with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Adrien Broner, and word on the street is that he gave both hell. While calling one of his fights, Showtime's Steve Farhood made a great analogy to the kind of talent Spence has, saying, "He's like a pitcher with a really good fastball and four other pitches."
Oleksandr Usyk (27, Ukraine, cruiserweight, 6-0, 6 KOs):
Usyk, a southpaw, is another in a long line of talented fighters coming out of Ukraine. He won the 2012 Olympic heavyweight gold medal and 2011 world amateur gold medal during his storied amateur career in which he won around 400 fights. Besides a ferocious fighting style, he is a showman and draws crowds. Backed by the Klitschko brothers' K2 Promotions East, Usyk has spent time in training camp with heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko is a regular at his fights. Vitali saw some excellent performances in 2014 as Usyk, who is advanced enough that he's already had fights scheduled for 10 and 12 rounds, won all four of his outings by knockout against opponents with a combined record of 79-28-3.
Oscar Valdez (24, Mexico, featherweight, 14-0, 13 KOs):
Valdez, a humble, hard worker, has great potential to not only win world titles but also to be involved in very fan friendly fights. He can box or brawl. He has speed and power, good defense and ring smarts. As an amateur, he was a two-time Mexican Olympian and is the only Mexican to medal at the amateur world championships, claiming bronze in 2009. In 2014, he cruised through all six of his fights, scoring five knockouts, including against former world title challenger Alberto Garza in November.
Julian Williams (24, Philadelphia, junior middleweight, 18-0-1, 11 KOs): Compared to your average prospect Williams, who is very physically strong, patient and can fight on the inside or outside, has been matched tough against very solid opponents in six of his last seven fights going back to 2013, when he beat former titleholder Joachim Alcine and Orlando Lora. He went 4-0 with 3 KOs in 2014, including wins against experienced former title challenger Freddy Hernandez (KO3), Michael Medina (KO8) and unbeaten Eliezer Gonzalez (W8). Williams and his team have embraced tough matchups and they have served "J-Rock" well as he continues to improve and climb the ladder in the kind of deliberate fashion that could lead to a title shot in 2015. Given his ties to adviser Al Haymon, you can be sure he will get an opportunity.