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Oscar Valdez gets expected win, needs tougher opposition

Oscar Valdez, of Mexico, celebrates after defeating Hiroshige Osawa, of Japan, in their WBO featherweight title boxing match, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Oscar Valdez is filling Vasyl Lomachenko’s shoes and following in his footsteps. That’s good in some ways and frustrating in others.

Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the best pro boxers today, vacated his world title in the featherweight division earlier this year, moving up to the 130-pound weight class.

Valdez won that vacant world title in July and has elevated himself in 2016 from prospect to contender to beltholder, establishing his name at 126 pounds and putting himself in position to be featured prominently. His world title win came in an easy two-round stoppage of Matias Rueda on the undercard of the Terence Crawford-Viktor Postol pay-per-view in July. And this past Saturday, he defended that title with a seventh-round technical knockout of Hiroshige Osawa in the co-feature slot — the last fight before the pay-per-view main event, which was Manny Pacquiao vs. Jessie Vargas.

But the reason Lomachenko moved up is because there just weren’t enough opportunities for him at featherweight. There were notable names, but they weren’t necessarily available. Valdez may find himself in a similar position.

Too much of what happens or doesn’t happen in boxing is because of the way that boxing operates, with promoters who may not want to put their investments at risk just yet or who may not have working relationships with others in the business.

Lomachenko and Valdez are both signed with Top Rank, one of the main powerbrokers in the sport. Most of the other top 126-pounders in the world, however, are aligned with Al Haymon, the powerful adviser who has a huge stable of talent that is mostly featured on Showtime and on Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions series on several networks.

Top Rank and Haymon barely worked together in recent years, with the 2015 fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. (Haymon) and Manny Pacquiao (Top Rank) being the rare exception, and an understandable one given the hundreds of millions of dollars involved. Top Rank sued Haymon soon afterward, claiming the PBC was an illegal monopoly.

Lomachenko had fought a Haymon fighter once before, beating Gary Russell Jr. in mid-2014 for a world title. That fight happened because of something called a purse bid. The WBO ordered Lomachenko and Russell to fight for its vacant belt. When their teams couldn’t reach a deal on their own, the WBO allowed promoters to bid for the right to put on the fight, with the boxers then splitting the amount of the winning bid.

But otherwise, there was no way that we could see Lomachenko against the likes of Leo Santa Cruz, Jesus Cuellar, Lee Selby and Abner Mares, or in a rematch with Russell (Carl Frampton entered the division as Lomachenko was leaving it.) Instead, one of the most accomplished amateurs ever and one of the most talented pros around faced opponents whom too few had heard of and who stood too little a chance. Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo was easily shut out. Gamalier Rodriguez was taken out in nine rounds. Romulo Koasicha was put away in 10.

Top Rank and Haymon settled the lawsuit in May. They’re still not rushing to put all their fighters in against each other. The lone deal of note brought John Molina (Haymon) in to challenge junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford (Top Rank) this coming December. Molina isn’t a draw for Haymon. He isn’t someone the PBC is building up and pushing hard. Haymon doesn’t lose too much by working with Top Rank on this fight.

There’s sadly too little reason for the companies to work together at featherweight. Haymon’s stable means he can have his best 126-pounders face each other and keep their world titles and capitalize on the winner’s momentum.

It’s probably too soon for Valdez anyway. As talented as he appears, he’s still a young fighter who stands out among his peers but still needs time to develop before taking on the cream of the crop. Valdez turned pro only four years ago and is now 21-0 with 19 knockouts. He turns 26 years old this December.

The WBO’s top 15 rankings — the pool from which Valdez could choose to defend against — largely consists of other young, unproven contenders and unheralded opponents who don’t belong in against the upper level of competition.

The most notable names are Joseph Diaz Jr. and Miguel Marriaga. Diaz is an undefeated contender who is with Golden Boy Promotions, with which Top Rank does occasionally work. Marriaga’s lone loss came against Nicholas Walters in mid-2015. It’s a respectable defeat. Marriaga has won four straight since then and is the mandatory challenger to Valdez’s title. He has a fan-friendly style. So does Valdez. It would be a fun fight while it lasts.

That’s at least better than seeing Valdez in against someone who doesn’t have a shot. There’s a delicate dance for promoters and managers, who want to guide their fighters and wait until the right moment to put them in more difficult fights, but who also want to make those fighters into stars.

You can only take a fighter so far against lesser opposition. It takes putting him in against someone good to see how great he can be.

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