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Gordon: Valdez can redeem reputation against Stevenson

Updated April 29, 2022 - 12:12 pm

There’s something far more important than the WBO junior lightweight title that Shakur Stevenson can offer WBC champion Oscar Valdez on Saturday night at MGM Grand Garden.

Redemption.

“That’s why I wanted this fight,” Valdez said Tuesday afternoon from a studio inside the historic venue. “What fight would I need to get my recognition back? This fight has to be the fight.”

That much Valdez (30-0, 23 knockouts) knows as he prepares to fight a fellow unbeaten champion and potential pound-for-pound great in Stevenson (17-0, nine KOs). Because he marred his last outing Sept. 10 against Robson Conceicao with a subpar performance — and a preceding positive test for a banned substance, phentermine.

Gone was the credibility Valdez had built as a former Olympian and featherweight champion. Gone, too, was the glory he’d claimed Feb. 20, 2021, from Miguel Berchelt with the stunning knockout that netted him his 130-pound title.

He’d have a new title to pair with his WBC crown. The taboo title that no boxer wants and that he’s determined to shed Saturday: cheater.

“I’d been working hard ever since I was 8 years old. I think it’s been a beautiful career. And to be marked as a cheater, it really brought me down,” said Valdez, 31 of Sonora, Mexico. “This is another chance to try to achieve everything back and to win this fight would mean the world to me. … We don’t care what the odds are. We don’t care what the people say.”

Winning back respect

Positive tests are especially egregious because boxing already carries so many inherent physical risks. Ask Berchelt, the rugged brawler whom Valdez knocked unconscious inside MGM Grand’s conference center to claim the title he’ll defend Saturday.

It was the most gratifying moment of Valdez’s career and one he’d juxtapose Tuesday with the positive test that doubled as his most unpleasant.

“You can’t believe everything when you’re at your highest and you can’t pay attention to everything when you’re at your lowest,” he says. “I don’t care what anybody says right now. My team believes in me and my family believes in me.”

Valdez insists he was clean against Conceicao and that an herbal tea may have prompted the positive test. Phentermine triggers weight loss and wouldn’t have helped him hit harder or punch faster, he says.

That much was obvious during a lackluster decision victory.

He said the weight of that week affected his performance, one he’d acknowledge as perhaps his worst to date. He’d spend the ensuing month reflecting and wondering.

“Why is this happening to me?” he’d ask rhetorically. “I truly can’t explain to everybody where this positive substance came out of. And my biggest mistake was trying to force everybody to believe.”

‘Losing not an option’

He knows now that he can’t do that, opting to disregard the static on social media as he prepares for Stevenson. That same static prompted Valdez to finalize the fight with Stevenson, a burgeoning 24-year-old southpaw superstar from Newark, New Jersey, with uncanny skill and a signature smile.

A victory would subdue the static for good.

Stevenson is the more fundamentally sound fighter, armed with prodigious defensive prowess that begets comparisons to some of the greatest technicians in boxing history. But Valdez, an orthodox brawler refined by famed trainer Eddy Reynoso, contends he has something that gives him the advantage Saturday night.

“My heart,” Valdez says stoically.

“Losing for me is not an option. I will always give 100 percent inside a ring,” Valdez said. “I’ve been tested before. I’ve fought with a broken hand. Injured ribs. Been sent to the canvas. Jaw broken. Every time I’ve always given my 100 percent. … I can’t go home losing. I’ve got to continue winning.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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