There are telltale signs in the life of a fighter that should not go unnoticed.
When lawsuits begin to accumulate as easily as knockout victories, when a fighter's headlines can be equally divided between the sports and police sections, when every fight is preceded by a laundry list of legal run-ins -- that's when things can take a turn for the worse, when the steering wheel starts to veer toward the curb and a crash is imminent.
Edwin Valero, who died Monday in a jail cell in Caracas, Venezuela, knew all this. He had hit that curb more than once, sometimes literally. The former Central and South American amateur champion had amassed an 11-0 record (all by first-round KO) when a routine MRI revealed a small blood clot on his brain, the result of a motorcycle accident that occurred years earlier -- a condition that initially kept him from being sanctioned to fight in the United States.) One of his last legal problems was a DUI charge that was still pending trial. Fast cars and lots of booze in the life of a boxer? Nothing new.
But Valero had other demons, as well.
The left-handed Venezuelan power puncher was driven by urges he seemed unable to control. His boxing style serves as an example: Valero couldn't settle for simply defeating his opponents. He had to overpower them, overwhelm them, attack them with blazing combinations loaded with explosive power from all angles, to the point of neglecting his own defense (arms low, mouth open, eyes popping out of their sockets, high-pitched screams with every punch). The fury in his expressions was the fuel for his successes -- but was also at the heart of his failures, including his tragic demise.
Valero's appetite for excess was prodigious, and his struggles with substance abuse (and depression) came to be common knowledge. His troubles ranged from denied visas and pending jail sentences to DUI charges and allegations of having punched or threatened to punch multiple family members. (Valero's mother and sister were among the victims of his rage, according to a report.) After being charged with harassing his wife, Jennifer Carolina Viera, last month, Valero was arrested Sunday when, local police said, she was found dead in a hotel room where the couple had been staying. On Monday, Valero hanged himself in his jail cell, according to police.
As tumultuous as Valero's personal life was, his career was equally vertiginous. After being denied a boxing license to fight in the States, Valero became a traveling act, and his services were rendered all over the world. He traveled to Panama, Japan, France, Mexico and Argentina, putting his all-out style to work toward one purpose only: the destruction of his rivals, with the intent of leaving an indelible mark in the minds of his growing number of fans.
Watching Valero fight was a task in itself. He quickly became boxing's first Internet legend, a cult hero among hard-core fight fans. The KO artist who was barred from fighting in Las Vegas and New York, the fighter with the power to crush his opponents with frightening ease, became the subject of countless forums and chat sessions. The underground peer-to-peer live broadcasting websites that thrive today overflowed with fans from all over the world. It wasn't unusual for 20,000 fans to connect to a single site to watch Valero fight.
His successes quickly mounted. Valero became the WBA champ in the 130-pound division with a TKO victory in the 10th round against Vicente Mosquera in his 20th fight. Before that, he had completed fewer than 20 rounds of action in his previous 19 fights. His 18 first-round KOs were a world record until Tyrone Brunson broke it in 2008, and Valero's 19th fight marked the first time he heard the bell more than once during a fight in his professional career. That's what the fighter known as "El Inca" brought to the ring -- an explosive style that would later earn him a more fitting moniker that needs no translation: Dinamita.
At this point, Valero's potential was huge, and everything suggested he would have an extraordinary career. His style was captivating: speed, numbing punching power and the controversial personal background that helps capture the attention of casual fans. The controversy was even stronger in Valero's own country, which was divided between admirers of his boxing achievements and those who dismissed him as a drunken, irresponsible wife-beater. And none of this took into account the fighter's inflammatory politics.
Valero was an ardent supporter of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, going so far as to get the face of "El Comandante" and the Venezuelan flag tattooed across his chest. Valero's politics follow him after his death. A few hours from the celebration of Venezuela's bicentennial, the news of Valero's suicide caused a huge national commotion -- a division between those who lamented the gifted fighter and those who used the tragedy to attack Chávez's self-styled "Bolivarian" project. The president has been accused of pampering Valero, putting him above justice by allowing (and even arranging) for his unlawful release from jail (on previous charges of assault and battery on his now deceased wife).
The fight on this front -- part of an ongoing battle between two completely opposed political ideologies -- has begun already. Both sides threaten to attack or defend the figure of the fallen fighter to unthinkable extremes. There are even rumors of an Elvis-like fake-death scheme that probably will feed the tabloids for years with bogus pictures of Valero pumping gas at an undisclosed location somewhere south of the Rio Grande.
One of the most serious controversies this episode should generate, though -- one that must be discussed in a far broader environment -- is the relationship between fighters and the women in their lives. Although there is no statistical evidence to confirm higher levels of domestic violence among boxers as compared with the rest of the population, recent incidents suggest a problem that deserves more detailed analysis.
Valero's case is just one of many instances in which an ambitious and talented athlete is drowned in a downpour of advice regarding how to improve his skills in the ring, how to become more violent and vicious, how to make (and spend) more money -- but finds himself left hung out to dry when in need of more profound life lessons. As a result, fighters often are left unassisted in finding ways to solve personal issues without using the same methods that brought them success in the ring.
Today, boxing fans struggle with the mixed emotions of an unexpected loss and the way in which it occurred. Without overlooking Valero's controversial and violent nature outside the ring, we can lament the loss of an extraordinary boxing specimen. As a top fighter in the most lucrative and attractive divisions of this era (lightweight and welterweight), he might have engaged in very attractive fights with such champions as Floyd Mayweather Jr., Shane Mosley, Antonio Margarito, Marcos Maidana, Miguel Cotto and even Manny Pacquiao (a fight that had legions of fight fans holding their breath), with chances to win many of those contests and earn much more than a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
Instead, Valero's name -- forever stained -- will always bear a question mark next to it. And as long as we refuse to acknowledge it and fail to make the effort to find answers and solutions, the possibility of a new and similar tragedy will continue to cast its shadow upon the world of boxing.
Diego Morilla is a contributor to ESPN Deportes.