NEW YORK – Madison Square Garden has long been a proving ground for Puerto Rican boxers. Puerto Rican fans from all over New York City have converged on The Garden since the days of Sixto Escobar, the island’s first world champion, who defended the bantamweight championship there when it was still located on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th.
From Carlos Ortiz to Wilfredo Gomez to Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto, The Garden has been the place where Puerto Rican boxers made the case that they were worthy of the adulation that comes with becoming a national fighting icon.
Whether Alberto Machado signed up for that test or not, that’s effectively what he has in front of him this Saturday when he faces Yuandale Evans in defense of his WBA “regular” junior lightweight title at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in the co-feature of HBO World Championship Boxing.
It’s Machado’s second fight at MSG, with his first coming in his sixth pro bout in 2014. This will be his first time as a featured fighter there, and an opportunity to build his notoriety in the sport.
“When I was a young kid I watched Miguel Cotto and Felix Trinidad, and now I’m a fighter for HBO and Miguel Cotto (who co-promotes him with Golden Boy Promotions) is here supporting me. It’s a dream come true,” said Machado (20-0, 16 knockouts), a converted southpaw from San Juan.
Aside from having Cotto as his promoter, he also has his last trainer, Freddie Roach. Roach has been in the corner for Machado’s last few fights, and has helped the 28-year-old iron out his technique. The legendary trainer has had more attention to focus on Machado with Cotto retired and Manny Pacquiao now working exclusively with Buboy Fernandez, and has worked to focus his aggression, while giving him the mental boost to be a top fighter.
“Adding Freddie to my team is good because he has a lot of experience with world champions. Freddie gave me the confidence for…this level,” said Machado, who rose to prominence in exciting fashion a year ago, climbing off the canvas against an overweight Jezreel Corrales to score an eighth round knockout in his HBO debut.
Co-manager Juan De Leon, who turned Machado pro with his partner Jason Bauman in 2012, says the toughest part early on was communicating with Roach. Machado has steadily improved his English – enough to conduct this interview in his second language – which has helped the team gel in the gym and in the corner.
De Leon, the brother of four-time cruiserweight champion Carlos “Sugar” De Leon, was first introduced to Machado during his amateur days, when his amateur coach asked the Buffalo-based trainer to come down to take a look at him.
De Leon says Machado lived in a rough neighborhood in San Juan, with people from the projects he lived in shooting back and forth with people from other project buildings. He says he signed Machado with the agreement not to take a percentage of his purses until he got to bigger fights under the condition that he puts a percentage of his purses in the bank, gave $100 to his mother each fight, and took his family out to eat once in awhile.
Those hard times are part of what drove Machado towards boxing. He followed his older brother Leslie, a former Puerto Rican amateur champion, into the gym as a kid. Leslie Machado was gunned down in a 2007 shooting, and the younger brother continues to wear his first name on the front of trunks in tribute.
Like many others in his home island, Machado idolized Trinidad in his younger days. He cheered along in 1999 when Trinidad squeaked by Oscar de la Hoya, his current co-promoter, in their pay-per-view summit fight, and cried when de la Hoya’s business partner Bernard Hopkins stopped Trinidad two years later in 2001.
The 130-pound division Machado currently fights in doesn’t have the same star power that Trinidad’s weight classes did in his day, but there’s still lots of business to get done if the promotional willpower exists. Chief among the names there is Gervonta Davis, the undefeated holder of the WBA “super” title, which has led to bitter dispute with Machado.
Both won their belts when they were vacant, but Machado believes his path to his belt against Corrales was stiffer than the one Davis took when he beat Jesus Cuellar, a featherweight coming off a defeat who hadn’t fought in two years.
“Gervonta Davis is a good fighter but he doesn’t have my respect. He got the title against a fighter who had two years no fights,” said Machado.
“I am the real champion. The people know that. I feel the people recognize me as the champion.”
There’s also Miguel Berchelt, the WBC titleholder, which Machado describes as a “special fight for me” given the long-standing Puerto Rico vs. Mexico rivalry in boxing. The other titleholders in the division are Tevin Farmer (IBF) and Masayuki Ito (WBO), but Machado says he’s focused on Saturday night first.
Evans (20-1, 14 KOs) of Cleveland, Ohio is a year older and has scored a pair of respectable wins in his last two fights over Billel Dib and Luis Rosa. He’s a fast-handed righty who didn’t fight for three years after his first round knockout loss to Javier Fortuna in 2012 but has looked more formidable in recent fights.
“He’s hungry because he has two great victories in his last two fights. But I’m motivated because I want to put on a great show for all my Puerto Rican people. I want to come back to Puerto Rico as champion,” said Machado.
“He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s got a lot of movement but I believe he makes mistakes and sometimes likes to fight. When he comes to try to fight Machado he’s gonna have a real problem because Machado is strong,” said De Leon.
Beating Evans would be one step along the way for Machado to become a beloved Puerto Rican star. Machado would probably have to do a better job of finishing than he did in his last fight in July, when he dropped the outclassed Rafael Mensah in round one before settling in for a shutout unanimous decision. De Leon thinks they have the right guy to get that done.
There are several other exciting fighters from Puerto Rico who also have the potential to fill the void left by Cotto’s retirement. Emmanuel Rodriguez, the IBF bantamweight titleholder, can make a statement that he’s one of the best fighters in the world when he faces Naoya Inoue next year in the World Boxing Super Series semis. Then there’s WBO lightweight titleholder Jose Pedraza, who is in against WBC lightweight titleholder and pound-for-pound candidate Vasyl Lomachenko on December 8.
Rodriguez and Pedraza are boxers; Machado, with his heavy right hook, is somewhere in the middle of their styles and two-fisted KO puncher Angel “Tito” Acosta, the WBO junior flyweight titleholder whose primary handicap is that he fights in the sport’s second lightest division.
“Puerto Rico, we know boxing and we just ask too much from the fighters. What Tito Trinidad did, what Miguel Cotto did, it’s hard to do the same. But I believe Machado has the talent. Puerto Rico could fall in love with him because he’s a nice kid,” says De Leon, when asked if he thinks Machado can become a big star in Puerto Rico.
It’s a big spot to fill, but Machado believes he’s ready.
“I want to write my history in Puerto Rico boxing,” said Machado.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at email@example.com.
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