By Derek Bonnet: As we start 2009, the nation of Panama is amidst an impressive renaissance concerning its standing in the world boxing scene. The success of this country in the realm of professional prize-fighting is largely attributed to one man, the great Roberto Duran, who competed from lightweight to middleweight in a career spanning from 1968 to 2001. Duran certainly lead a Golden Age of Panamanian boxing in his time, but with the current quality of fighters being produced from this country, it’ll be interesting to see just how much this new crop of world class talent can enhance their nation’s already rich boxing history.
As of this writing, Guillermo Jones, Celestino Caballero, and Anselmo Moreno hold world championships in their respective divisions. Ricardo Cordoba holds the interim WBA super bantamweight title and this March he travels to Dublin, Ireland to meet Bernard Dunne.
So, what exactly do the Panamanian boxing fans expect of these world class competitors with the days of Duran dominance long past?
“Regarding Caballero, Cordoba, Moreno and Jones, there are a lot of expectations, due to the to fact that they are boxers of a high status level and very good technique,” stated Moreno and Cordoba’s manager, Dr. Roberto Grimaldo. “Moreno is considered one of the most technical boxers in Panama right now. You may say that this could be another golden era for Panamanian boxing because we have had some other golden moments with Duran, Hilario Zapata, and Eusebio Pedroza in the 1980’s.”
A Golden Age bright enough to take some of the glimmer off of the era of the great Duran?
“I’d have to say that it would be extremely difficult because Duran was a fighter with technique, power, and he fought at weights with a large audience and acceptance; he also faced boxers as great as him. Roberto Duran is still as much a hero here in Panama as in his best times.”
Grimaldo raises a valid point. Duran competed in three of the most prominent divisions throughout boxing history in lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight. Unfortunately, for Guillermo Jones, only boxing fans know what a cruiserweight is. Caballero, Moreno, and Cordoba all compete between 118 and 122 pounds, where the fan base and media coverage drops off considerably. Developing the same presence as Duran built in the sport of boxing will be a difficult task for these four men combined, but even if they cannot claim the attention of American audiences they still have the support of a nation far more close to their hearts.
Grimaldo has struggled greatly in the role of manager for Moreno and Cordoba to get his fighters to the status they have risen to in the sport.
“It is very hard because once they beat all the local boxers, we had to get boxers that want to come to Panama and that accept the bouts here,” Grimaldo expressed. “In Panama, these are problems I had with Ricardo Cordoba and Anselmo Moreno.”
In May 2008, Moreno, 23, was forced to travel to dangerous territory and meet then WBA bantamweight titlist Wladimir Sidorenko in Germany. Sidorenko had a history of hanging onto his belts regardless of how the action unfolded in the ring.
“At any moment before the fight, I got nervous [in spite of] the intensive training that I had, but it was my best moment in the end,” Moreno recalled. “ Regarding the judges, I knew that if I won in an impressive way, there was no chance for them to help Sidorenko. So, of course, the most proud moment I have had so far was when I became champion in Germany; I’m still happy.”
Moreno, 24-1-1 (8), lifted the title by unanimous decision, but Ricardo Cordoba, 24, wasn’t so lucky. He twice traveled to Germany to meet Sidorenko for the same title and settled for two dubious draws.
“I really have to say that the [decisions in the Sidorenko bouts were] very frustrating moments for me. It was the same feeling I had when I went to Thailand to fight Poonsawat [Kratingdaenggym],” Cordoba confessed.
Hopefully for Cordoba, 34-1-2 (21), he’ll make good on his next world title opportunity and move beyond just interim status. Something tells me, he won’t be looking to leave the outcome of the decision to the judges in enemy territory again. Having that belt should be enough to offer some peace of mind to any fighter, but that doesn’t mean the road ends there. As if being denied victory wasn’t bad enough, Cordoba also had to watch Celestino Caballero, a fighter he defeated decisively on points, rise past him in the rankings and eventually unify the WBA and IBF super bantamweight titles.
“Celestino and I are very good friends and I feel very happy for him because of the experiences that he is going through,” Cordoba admitted. “My manager has contacted him regarding a rematch, but they are asking for about five hundred thousand dollars and that is just impossible to pay here in Panama. His reason is that he is a super champion, but I get satisfaction [knowing] that I beat him at a hundred and twenty two pounds in my first fight on that weight.”
Anselmo Moreno has enjoyed the road to success and the joys a world championship can bring, but he knows great challenges like Hozumi Hasegawa and Gerry Penalosa still loom at that top of an ever improving bantamweight division. Right now, it looks as though a rematch with Sidorenko may be the next challenge of his title reign.
“To become a world champion has made me change my attitude toward my training,” Moreno stated, “because I know that from now on all my future opponents will want to do the same thing I did with Sidorenko to me. For me, everything has changed. I am willing to go anywhere to unify against anyone at any moment. The truth is that I think any of the actual champions are capable of beating me.”
The good news for all four of Panama’s current best fighters is that each of their divisions is replete with challenges. Guillermo Jones has the crowd pleasing Tomasz Adamek and the more technical Steve “USS” Cunningham right in front of him at cruiserweight. Celestino Caballero has already passed tests against Daniel Ponce De Leon and Steve Molitor, but still has his greatest challenges ahead of him in Israel Vazquez and Juan Manuel Lopez. Cordoba himself expressed his greatest interest is to meet Lopez and hand him his first defeat.
Welcome to another Golden Age of professional boxing in Panama. Let’s not leave it all for the Panamanians to enjoy though.
February 9, 2009