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Inspired by epic Morales-Barrera fights, Oscar Valdez is out for legendary status

·Combat columnist
CARSON, CA - APRIL 22:  Oscar Valdez of Mexico celebrates his unanimous 12 round decision over Miguel Marriaga of Colombia during the WBO Featherweight World Championship at StubHub Center on April 22, 2017 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Oscar Valdez celebrates his unanimous 12 round decision over Miguel Marriaga of Colombia during the WBO featherweight championship at StubHub Center on April 22, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Oscar Valdez has dreams, big dreams. He wants to rack up wins and knockouts, capture titles, thrill the fans and do all of those things that turn a boxer into a legend.

He was not 10 years old when he first knew that this was what he wanted, when on Feb. 19, 2000, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera met in a fight for the ages.

It was a breathtakingly brutal affair in which the then-bitter rivals tore into each other with an almost frightening savagery from the first bell. They instantly became heroes among the citizens of their boxing-mad homeland, Mexico, and well beyond.

“If you love boxing, how could you not love those fights,” Valdez said, the excitement evident even now, nearly two decades after first they met.

What Valdez loved as much as the action was the reaction to it. The brutal battle — and their two equally brutal bouts which followed it — left fans in awe of them. There was a respect given for what they were willing to endure in the ring in search of victory.

In his formative years, Valdez set a goal to generate that kind of reaction and earn that sort of respect for himself when he eventually became a pro.

Valdez is now 28, and a former featherweight champion with a 26-0 record and 20 knockouts. He’s well down the path of a Morales, a Barrera and a Juan Manuel Marquez, Mexican superstars of the late 20th and early 21st century who had such a huge impact on him.

He gave up his WBO featherweight title after his last bout, a runaway unanimous win over Jason Sanchez in June in Reno, no longer able to safely cut to 126 pounds. He’ll debut at super featherweight on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at the Cosmopolitan when he meets Adam Lopez in the co-feature bout of the night. Valdez was originally slated to face Andres Gutierrez, but Gutierrez weighed in Friday at a whopping 11 pounds overweight and was suspended by the WBC.

Around the time that Valdez announced he would abandon his belt, Shakur Stevenson became the top contender. The 2016 U.S. Olympian is one of the game’s most talented young fighters, and seemed a certain future champion.

When Valdez departed the division, he was criticized roundly in some quarters. And while he understands that’s the way of social media and tries to avoid it, the zingers that were directed his way hit their mark.

Valdez was, and remains, angered by it. Mostly, though, it’s those who come up to him in person and suggest he left the division because he was afraid of another man.

“I was having a lot of trouble making that weight and it was getting to the point where I had to move up,” Valdez said. “People were asking me that, and saying this and that, wondering if I’d gone up a weight because someone new came into my division.

“I’ve fought my whole life, since I was 8 years old, and I was never scared and I always tried to get the toughest fights. And that’s what I’m doing in this class. I’m taking this fight and then I want to fight [Miguel] ‘Alarcon’ Berchelt in my next fight for the title. I want to build my legacy and I know how that is done.

“You have to beat the top guys and you have to be in these great wars that people talk about forever. I look at what guys like Morales and Barrera and Marquez did and that’s what I have always wanted to do and that’s what I will do. I ain’t scared of nobody. I think some people are trying to give me a bad name.”

Valdez raved about Morales’ talent and his ability to stay cool under pressure. One of the things that he struggles with in his own career is veering from the game plan when he gets hit.

He is a slow starter, and it sometimes takes getting clocked to get himself into the fight. But he often abandons the strategy he developed over a months long camp when that occurs.

“When a fighter gets hit, sometimes it feels good,” Valdez said. “I know it sounds weird, but it kind of feels good and wakes you up and gets your adrenaline going and gets you into the fight. ...

“It’s like what Mike Tyson used to say. Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face. But there have been a lot of fights where my plan has been to go in there and box for 12 rounds and I get caught early with a right hand or a clean left hook and the plan goes out the window and I’m there going toe-to-toe and brawling.”

It’s why, despite the occasional critic, few are complaining when Valdez fights. He’s trying to build the legend one punch at a time.

“You know, if I heard someone say that I am their idol and that they grew up watching me and I motivated them, that would be a dream come true,” he said. “We fight these fights for the fans and if I can give them what they want, I feel like I’ve really done my job the best I can.”

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