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Cotto On Pace For Title Shot; Oquendo Goes Against Byrd, Other Notes

By Gabrielle Paese

September 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Junior middleweight prospect Miguel Cotto moved one step closer to his goal last week with a seventh-round TKO victory over Panamanian Demetrio Ceballos on the undercard of the Shane Mosley-Oscar De la Hoya fight in Las Vegas.

Top Rank is still trying to fill out Cotto's record (he's now 17-0, 14 KO) to get him up to title contention and Ceballos was this month's supporting actor to lead man Cotto. Ceballos played the role perfectly, taking the instruction from his corner to stop at 2:28 of the seventh round after Cotto had spent the first six pummeling him bloody.

Manager Peter Rivera sees him fighting WBA champion Vivian Harris on the undercard of the Dec. 6 Klitschko fight at New York's Madison Square Garden. Harris has six months to make a title defense. By virtue of his victory over Ceballos, Cotto has now earned the right to challenge the WBA champ. Cotto won his last five fights by knockout, stopping Joel Perez in the fourth round in April of this year prior to his July 25 victory over Rocky Martinez in Bayamon. This was Cotto's fourth fight of 2003. He fought seven times in 2002, winning six by knockout. His only decision last year came against John Brown in Las Vegas.

Oquendo versus Byrd

While Cotto takes a well-deserved rest, IBF heavyweight contender Fres Oquendo puts the finishing touches on his training in preparation for Saturday night's title bout against IBF champion Chris Byrd at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

Oquendo (24-1, 15 KO) is getting his first stab at the title while Byrd (36-2, 20 KO) is defending this IBF belt for the first time since winning it in December of 2002 by decisioning Evander Holyfield.

Oquendo said he's out to make the best of the opportunity.

"I'm a realist. He's going to be a problem but I am great at solving problems. This is a very important fight because I'm out to make history," said Oquendo. "I'm going to be the first Puerto Rican-born heavyweight champion on the books."

The first Puerto Rican heavyweight champion was John Ruiz, who held the WBA title until losing it earlier this year to Roy Jones Jr. Ruiz is perhaps best remembered for the political debate he sparked, which can be summed up this way: If a Puerto Rican is born in Boston, is he still Puerto Rican?

While he has lived most of his life in Chicago, Oquendo was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and spent his early childhood in San Juan. He moved back to the island several years ago to train with Felix Trinidad Sr., who has since retired. Oquendo is now under the tutelage of Jose Bonilla and spent the summer preparing for this fight at the Carolina Sports School's boxing ring.

Apart from the debate over who is more Puerto Rican, Oquendo is also still struggling to earn respect among the heavyweights.

"This is Fres' chance to show off his boxing," said his manager, Jose "Pepe" Ramos, who works for Don King and took over Oquendo's career last year after Trinidad retired. "He's going to grow in this spotlight. His body has changed and he's hungry for this victory. That's going to make all the difference."

Byrd is aware of just how serious Oquendo is.

"Fres is hungry to win a title and he's going to come at me with everything he has. I'm going to have to work hard to beat him," Byrd said. "I don't have any set strategy. I take each fight differently. I try to make a guy miss. I try to frustrate him and hopefully my opponent will fall into the trap. I make them come at me and they have to try different styles. It's up to them to figure me out."

But Oquendo has already been studying. He spent the past month sparring with some hard-punching southpaws who Bonilla estimates are close to Byrd's style. Alex Gonzalez, Ezra Sellers, Jason Robinson and Pan Am Games bronze medalist Victor Bisbal were among those helping out Oquendo.

"They were some slick southpaws and they made me work double hard to hit the target," said Oquendo. "My plan is to go in there and work all the way. I always say there's a weak spot and I'm going to be trying very hard to hit it -- that's his chin.

"Sooner or later I'm going to hit the target and he's going to go down."

Byrd, 33, was the 1992 Olympic silver medalist at middleweight (168 pounds). He is the two-time heavyweight champion. He first won the WBO heavyweight belt by beating Vitali Klitschko in 2000 after Klitschko retired in the 10th round. He lost his WBO heavyweight title to Wladimir Klitschko via decision on Oct. 14, 2001 in Germany, then went on to beat Maurice Harrison in an IBF elimination bout to become the No. 1 challenger. He earned a shot at the title by defeating David Tua and then went on to beat Holyfield for the title. His only two career losses were against Ike Ibeabuchi (a fifth-round KO in 1999) and Wladimir Klitschko (a 12-round decision).

Oquendo, 30, made a name for himself under Trinidad Sr.when he upset Clifford Etienne in 2001 with an overhand right. In that fight, Oquendo sent Etienne to the canvas seven times before finishing him off in the eighth. He followed up that victory with an 11th-round TKO over journeyman Obed Sullivan. He also beat David Izon.

Oquendo's only career loss came last year to David Tua, who in a previous fight needed only 19 seconds to do away with Puerto Rico's other heavyweight, John Ruiz.

Trinidad Sr. Was widely criticized for matching Oquendo up with Tua at such an early point in Oquendo's career. At the time, Oquendo had beaten three top 10-ranked heavyweight boxers in succession in 2001 and had claimed the NABF belt when he TKOed Sullivan in February of 2001.

Brandi's star keeps rising

Puerto Rican tennis player Kristina Brandi continues her steady pace climbing up the women's tennis rankings. Last week, she defeated Allison Bradshaw, 6-0, 6-1, to win a third-tier USTA event, the Goody Products $25,000 USTA Women's Pro Championships in Peachtree City, Ga.

Brandi, the top seed, loast only one game in the semifinal, defeating Kristen Schlukebir, 6-0, 6-1. The win was Brandi's fourth USTA title of the year.

"I'm really very happy with my performance. I'm pleased with my game and the way everything is coming together," said Brandi. "I have a good feeling about tennis. I'm excited again and I feel like I have my game back."

The former WTA player has had a tough climb back after being sidelined with a wrist injury in 2001. She was ranked among the top 50 for six straight years, and hopes to be back in the tour soon.

"Hopefully with this win I'll break into the top 100 and that will definitely help me get into Australia [the Australian Open]," said Brandi, who just missed U.S. Open qualifying last month. "That is one of my goals this year."

At Peachtree City, Brandi lost only seven games in four straight two-set victories. She was ranked 112th going in. In August, Brandi won a doubles silver and singles bronze medal for Puerto Rico at the Pan Am Games.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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