Ray Beltran’s motivation for battling through the struggles of a boxing career is illustrated by a moment he recalls during a banquet a year ago.
Accepting the North American Boxing Federation’s Fighter of the Year award, Beltran was accompanied on stage by his 11-year-old son, Edgar.
As Beltran reflected on the trials he had endured to reach the milestone, his son peered at him with an adoring expression. And when the speech was over, the boy poured his head into his father’s chest for a sobbing embrace.
“I had to be a good example to them, show them that everything is going to be OK,” Beltran said of Edgar and his other two children. “If I brought them that negativity, that’s the father I was going to be. No, I wanted them to feel confident that their father was going to take care of them no matter what.
“They’re my motivation, the reason I keep fighting, and I’ve always told them, ‘I want to be your example that no matter what, you don’t lose hope.’ I couldn’t just say it. I had to prove it.”
Beltran (35-7-1, 21 knockouts) in February claimed the World Boxing Organization lightweight championship with a unanimous decision over Paulus Moses. His first title defense is Saturday night at Glendale, Ariz., in an ESPN-televised main event against Puerto Rico’s Jose Pedraza (24-1, 12 KOs). The bout, staged at the home arena of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, is a sharp upgrade from the first venue Beltran fought near his Phoenix home back in 1999.
That place, Beltran recalled, was a tent in the parking lot behind a seedy nightclub.
“Every stage of a boxing career, every step, is important,” Beltran said, reflecting on those early days. “Winning is critical. It’s like when you build a house: Every piece has to be strong and you have to make sure it’s going right each step of the way.”
For Beltran, 37, there have been many steps — some of them backward.
“I watched many fighters in my time who didn’t have the talent I had, but they had the promoter and they were getting the right fights,” Beltran said. “I didn’t understand that, and I still don’t understand how it works.”
Through narrow losses — and a not-so-close one to 140-pound champion Terence Crawford in 2014, Beltran clung to encouragement offered by Manny Pacquiao, with whom he had sparred at trainer Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood.
“I worked with Manny for all of the best fights he had — [Ricky] Hatton, [Marco Antonio] Barrera, [Juan Manuel] Marquez — and he’d always say, ‘You’re a great worker, you should keep doing it,’ ” Beltran said.
After being dominated by Crawford a little less than four years ago, Beltran was informed that unless he could establish himself as an elite athlete by U.S. immigration standards, his work visa would expire and he would need to return to his native Mexico.
Since then, he’s won six consecutive fights, including the title victory over Moses in Reno, and is in the process of seeking to remain in the U.S.
“The greatness he’s achieved now is a result of a lot of hard work,” Roach said. “He’s gone through every avenue he could to find a way, and I’m so pleased that I get to sit down Saturday night and watch him fight as a world champion.”
Should he win, Beltran is expected to earn his largest purse by meeting three-division champion Vasiliy Lomachenko in a title-unification bout Dec. 1 at the Forum.
“It comes down to always having faith, always believing in myself,” Beltran said. “That was the only way I could deal with it.
“Everything I’ve worked for and wanted all these years is coming true. Many times I just wanted to quit, but something inside me told me I’d regret it, that boxing was my only hope, my best chance to give my family something, a better chance.”
Main Event: Ray Beltran (35-7-1, 21 KOs) vs. Jose Pedraza (24-1, 12 KOs) for Beltran’s WBO lightweight belt
Where: Gila River Casino Arena, Glendale, Ariz.
Television: ESPN; televised portion begins at 7:30 p.m. PDT