The softball drifted high and far toward the outfield gap, and center fielder Oscar Valdez had played enough baseball growing up to know how to handle this.
He sprinted while eyeing the ball and raising his glove as he neared it, with no regard for the 180-pound corner outfielder rushing toward him.
About two months removed from having the wires removed from the fractured jaw he suffered after agreeing to fight overweight featherweight title challenger Scott Quigg, Valdez absorbed the outfielder’s crushing shoulder, directly to the jaw.
Downed on the outfield grass, Valdez reached for his jaw, and as concerned friends rushed toward him, fearing the worst, he smiled upward to them.
“You’re crazy. Why are you laughing?” one friend asked.
“Because I just got hit in the jaw, and I’m OK. I took that shot and I’m OK,” Valdez said.
Reflecting on the moment last week as he concluded training in San Diego for his Saturday night World Boxing Organization featherweight title defense against Italy’s Carmine Tommasone in Frisco, Texas, Valdez (24-0, 19 knockouts) pointed to it as the instant that eased the obvious mental anguish of a boxer’s jaw fracture.
“So when I first got punched in sparring, my mind was already clear,” Valdez said. “It was a great, great feeling, and it’s allowed me to keep very focused and concentrated on this fight, knowing I’m fully recovered from that injury.”
Valdez has taken full account of that rainy March night at the newly named Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, when he stubbornly agreed to keep his bout with Quigg despite Quigg missing weight by more than two pounds.
“Me being myself, I took the fight. I wanted to get in the ring, so I take the blame on that,” Valdez admitted after the heavy-punching Quigg penetrated his inattentive defense, breaking the jaw and badly bloodying the champion’s mouth, imperiling what became his fourth consecutive title defense.
“The injury opened my eyes in a lot of ways. I need to learn from my mistakes, and listen to the people who know. If I was somewhat disciplined before, I have to become more disciplined, because I know now that my next fight could be my last. It’s made me become more cautious, more disciplined, more prepared, so that doesn’t happen again.”
The Quigg bout was Valdez’s third consecutive harrowing event in a span of 11 months. He’d been knocked down by Genesis Servania before that and was involved in a difficult fight with Miguel Marriaga too.
Quigg’s punishment made for “the worst two months of my life,” Valdez said. “I had my mouth wired shut for two months, drinking liquids and walking around at the light weight I fought at.
“That’s when I struggled the most because when a boxer finishes his job after a strict diet, you want to eat everything. I couldn’t enjoy the victory with my family, eating the pizza I usually do after my fight or my grandma’s cooking back home in Mexico. I lost a lot of muscle weight. I tried to go to the gym, but since I wasn’t eating well, I’d get dizzy in the ring.”
The misery was accompanied by Valdez’s wife, father and grandmother urging him to quit boxing while his manager, Frank Espinoza, asked him to change trainers.
“Obviously, my answer was to start laughing and tell them I don’t see myself retiring because I love the sport so much,” said Valdez, who boxed for Mexico in the 2012 Olympics.
His concession was to switch trainers, parting with his close friend Manny Robles and replacing him with Canelo Alvarez’s cornerman Eddy Reynoso, who has emphasized defense and punching technique.
“The best is to come,” Reynoso said. “From the work we’ve done, I have no doubt that we will come out victorious. We’ve addressed past mistakes and he’ll be better.”
The 34-year-old Tommasone (19-0, five KOs), in his U.S. debut, was a carefully selected foe, said Top Rank executive Carl Moretti, who joked his Italian “motherland” was in play with the choice.
“Given what Oscar has been through in his last couple of fights, none of us felt it was necessary to make another fight-of-the-year candidate,” Moretti said. “That being the case, Tommasone is undefeated and has trained his whole life for a world-title shot.”
Valdez is aiming for a title unification. He’ll probably have to wait for new International Boxing Federation featherweight champion Josh Warrington to meet his unbeaten mandatory contender Kid Galahad early this year while fellow 126-pound champions Leo Santa Cruz and Gary Russell Jr. fight for rival promotion Premier Boxing Champions.
“Nothing personal against Santa Cruz, Warrington or Gary Russell, I just want belts and to fight the best,” Valdez said.