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Felix Verdejo yearning for career revival after motorcycle crash

Juan Martinez, Felix Verdejo
Felix Verdejo, right, battles Juan Jose Martinez during the fifth round of a WBO lightweight title bout in June 2016.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Before unbeaten prospects Teofimo Lopez and Shakur Stevenson enter the Madison Square Garden ring Saturday night, Puerto Rico’s former elite prospect Felix Verdejo will be in there, desperate for a revival.

Verdejo (24-1, 16 knockouts) was viewed as a possible successor to Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto, Puerto Ricans who captured a widespread audience in the U.S.

In the 2012 OIympics, Verdejo backed up current three-division world champion and repeat gold medalist Vasiliy Lomachenko with a second-round punch before succumbing to the Ukrainian by a 14-9 score in a quarterfinal.

Lomachenko later said it was Verdejo, more than current 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez and active featherweight champion Oscar Valdez, who gave him his most difficult amateur bout.

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But on Aug. 7, 2016, Verdejo’s youthful transgression of riding a motorcycle in Puerto Rico had powerful consequences. He crashed, suffering a head injury, hand, leg and rear-end wounds that restricted him to one bout until March 2018.

Then, he lost to Ines Antonio Lozada Torres by 10th-round technical knockout at the Garden. The promise had vanished, another dynamic young fighter exposed, only by himself.

“The mistake I made made me understand, and make the changes I needed to do what I’m doing now,” Verdejo told the Los Angeles Times at Thursday’s undercard news conference for Saturday’s Terence Crawford World Boxing Organization welterweight title defense against England’s Amir Khan.

“This fight,” he said, “defines my boxing career.”

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Verdejo promoter Bob Arum has implied that if the 25-year-old new father to a baby girl doesn’t display significant strides Saturday in his lightweight bout against Costa Rica’s Bryan Vasquez (37-3, 20 KOs) that he’ll likely be relegated to a level below his current exposure.

“That simply motivates me to do the things I’ll do Saturday night. The way I am now, I’m more mature. I’m doing the right things for my mind and body, working hard,” Verdejo assured. “I learned from my faults, and I’m ready to move on and perform well.”

The Garden is expected to draw a fervent crowd in excess of 12,000, Arum said, with many of those fans yearning for Verdejo to fulfill the potential that once seemed limitless.

He remains in the same weight class with Lomachenko, a rematch that would be of note if Verdejo raises his game.

“It’d still be an honor for me to be the next one who fills the Garden with Puerto Ricans. That’s why I’m working so hard, to be able to do that,” Verdejo said. “It depends on what I do from this point up for me to reach the top again.

“I still have my [71½-inch] reach. I’ve built back my strength and I’m showing the skills God gave me to beat any opponent and any style.”

STEVENSON ADDRESSES LEGAL CASE: Stevenson, the 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist who’ll meet recent super-featherweight title Christopher Diaz on Saturday, confronts a misdemeanor battery legal case in Miami after video emerged this month appearing to show him striking a woman in the back of the head and repeatedly punching a man inside a parking garage last summer.

“In life, you get a lot of people who want to be around you just because you’re famous. You’ve got to make sure you pick the right people to be around and, when you get in a certain situation, be sure you have the right people around you,” Stevenson, 21, told The Times Thursday. “That’s the main thing I’ve learned. I’m not too worried about all that extra stuff. I’m worried about Saturday. Me and Christopher Diaz, and down goes Christopher Diaz.

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“Nothing’s bothering me. I’m focused. I’m locked in. It’s work time.”

Stevenson has a close bond with welterweight champion Terence Crawford, who has advised Stevenson following the Miami incident.

“You can judge those around you by their actions,” Crawford said. “Me, personally, I can sense if you’re real or not. Some people just want to be around you for the fame and the ride, but at the same time you’ve got others who are just friends, who want nothing more than to help you with what you need help with.

“I’ve talked to Shakur numerous times about the people he surrounds himself with, because a true friend won’t let you do certain things, and that’s another way of figuring out, ‘Is this really a friend or not?’”

Stevenson listened to that and said, “I agree with that, and I agree you are who you hang around with. If you hang around someone like [Crawford], someone who’s competitive and wants to be great in the sport, then I’m going to also have the attitude to be great. I try to make sure I keep somebody with a good head around me, for sure.”

THE SPORT’S DIVIDE: This week’s news that three-belt champion Anthony Joshua’s scheduled June 1 heavyweight title opponent Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance and had his license application denied by the New York State Athletic Commission revealed the difficulty in crossing promotional lines.

One of the opponents who would make the most sense for Matchroom Boxing’s Joshua would be Cuba’s Luis Ortiz, who fights for Premier Boxing Champions.

Ortiz (31-1, 26 KOs) is 40, and since Miller was due to earn $4.875 million, wouldn’t it be responsible for PBC head Al Haymon to allow his fighter to cross over and fight Joshua on DAZN at Madison Square Garden?

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Yet, Ortiz told The Times he’s awaiting direction from his manager — that’s likely code meaning the fight will not happen. Two officials connected to PBC assured that Ortiz still has the chance to match the money he might be losing from a Joshua fight.

That’s distressing for those who want PBC’s heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder and his World Boxing Council belt to fight either Tyson Fury in a rematch or Joshua following his May 18 defense against Dominic Breazeale.

Because if Ortiz is in position to match Joshua, it likely instead means he’s next or third in line to fight Wilder in 2020.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire


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