When Miguel Cotto retired in December at Madison Square Garden, a void for the island’s next big star who would also make New York City his backyard was left.
And when Felix Verdejo (23-1, 15 KO’s), Cotto’s supposed heir to the throne, was stopped in the tenth and final round of his Saturday bout at the Hulu Theater at MSG against Antonio Lozada Jr., the hopes to fill the vacancy, like him, were dropped.
In recent years, Verdejo, 25, has battled a considerable number of setbacks.
He injured his hand twice in 2015, was hospitalized after a motorcycle accident in 2016, and suffered a training camp injury last September, reportedly falling in the shower, which pushed his in-ring return back to March 17.
Thirteen months out the ring, it was Verdejo’s longest layoff, and with him no longer in the limelight, his fight was the third of eight on the card and wasn’t even available beyond the ESPN app, the writing may have already been on the wall.
Enter Christopher “Pitufo” Diaz of Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, who passed his assignment with flying colors Saturday in the night’s second fight, TKO’ing his opponent, Braulio Rodriguez, in four rounds.
Diaz (23-0, 15 KO’s) turns 24 in October, and has fallen under the radar during his rise as a prospect, including nights when paired with Verdejo, with the latter serving as the main attraction.
“I wouldn’t blame it on ring rust, I never thought highly of him anyway,” Rasheim Jefferson, a former pro fighter who now helps train Diaz, said of Verdejo on Saturday night. “They were pushing him to be something that he wasn’t, it just showed tonight. He’s breakfast for anybody at the top.”
While Verdejo’s star has fallen dramatically, Diaz, the third-ranked super featherweight contender by the World Boxing Organization, has quietly handled his business in dominant fashion since debuting on September 26, 2013.
“I work hard for this,” Diaz told BQE Media moments after his pre-fight media workout at Mendez Boxing Gym in New York on Wednesday. “I want to be champion in different divisions. We’re doing great work in the gym and we’re always focused. I’ve got to make sure that my family’s eating good.”
A tradition really pushed to the mainstream in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s during the prime of Puerto Rican legend Felix Trinidad, New York City has always been a distant home for the Island’s biggest boxing stars, from Carlos Ortiz to Cotto.
Diaz, who is currently 5-0 with four knockouts, all at MSG Theater, wants to join the illustrious list and make the city a home away from Puerto Rico, where he currently resides in an apartment with his wife and a daughter. The couple also have twins on the way.
“It’s a blessing. Cotto and Tito Trinidad made it a second house. We’ve got to do a great job to put New York as our fans,” said Diaz. “I think in two years we’re going to fight, not in the Theatre, but in Madison Square Garden.”
Jefferson, who went 15-1-1 with six knockouts as a pro from 2004 to 2008, also unapologetically believes that Diaz has the makings of not only rising to stardom in New York, but in the sport of boxing as a whole.
“He’s strong, he’s got heart, he can take a punch and he can punch,” Jefferson said after the victory Saturday. “He’s ready to live up to those expectations because he carries himself in the gym like that. I think it’s going to follow him throughout his boxing career.
“They had Verdejo and everybody else who they think is going to be that top star, they’ve got him all over the place, billboards, buses, commercials,” he added. “We don’t get that, but I think it’s about to start.”
Regarding Diaz’s next move, Jefferson said with a smile that “Verdejo would be nice” before noting the difficulties of making a fight between two Puerto Rican fighters under the same umbrella of Top Rank Promotions.
And while the future for Verdejo is in tatters, Team Diaz, with conviction, sees promise on the horizon for their man. On opposite sides of the spectrum, Diaz is looking ahead, with the hopes of a title shot, and a New York City base, like the Puerto Rican greats before him.
He figures with that void, why not him?
“I know Top Rank believes in me, I believe in me, my team believes in me, and I know that they have a good plan for me,” he said.