I only met Edwin Valero once.
More accurately, I met him several times in the same hotel lobby during the same fight week. He didn’t speak English, and I still don’t speak Spanish, but by week’s end he and I were greeting each other with a smile; on our final encounter, before he set off for the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, to destroy Antonio Pitalua in two rounds and run his record to 25-0 (25 KOs), he wrapped me up in a bear hug.
As he did so, I glanced over his shoulder and saw his wife, Jennifer, and their two young children, standing close together as if in a protective huddle, looking at us with what seemed to me to be uncertainty or even anxiety. At the time, I chalked it up to feeling out of place, to not speaking the language, perhaps even shyness. In hindsight, I can’t help but wonder if it was fear, not of the stranger Valero was hugging but of the man himself.
Valero would not fight in the United States again. He had two more fights and scored two more knockouts; two months after his final victory, he stabbed Jennifer to death in a hotel room and the next day, hanged himself in his jail cell.
By both necessity and design, boxing populates itself with the dregs of society and then pretends to be mortified when confronted with the inevitable consequences. The sport and the business that surrounds it are riddled with the unsavory: Frankie Carbo, who once controlled much of the sport in the United States, avoided the multiple murder raps against him largely because witnesses had a habit of falling out of hotel room windows. Don King, one of the most celebrated promoters in history and an inductee in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, stomped a man to death. Mike Tyson, Hall of Famer, is a convicted rapist. Floyd Mayweather, Jr, Hall of Famer, is a serial domestic abuser. Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury is an apparent homophobe. Ike Ikeabuchi is apparently completely insane. Felix Verdejo is a murderer of the most cold-blooded type. And let’s not even mention the truly repugnant Davey Hilton and his almost equally foul family.
To write about those men without mentioning their foul deeds is to surrender moral responsibility, and yet we all do it. (I once spent a large part of a televised interview with Tyson discussing his love of pigeons.) Writing about Valero poses the same quandary, so allow us to be unambiguous at the start: Edwin Valero was a murderer, and it is as the killer of his wife that he should be remembered above all.
But before he was a murderer, he was a boxer; thirteen years after his death, he continues to send shivers down the spine of those who faced him in the ring, even in sparring. And, despite its best efforts, boxing continues to attract new fans and even fans who may not have been born when Valero was rampaging through the professional ranks, and who may not know his story. When even the likes of Oscar de la Hoya continue to reflect on the almost traumatic experience of sparring Valero, it is perhaps worth spending time to reflect on why, despite the way in which he ended his and Jennifer’s lives, many in the industry continue to reflect on his 27 career fights, his 27 career KO wins, and just how great he might have been. In hindsight, perhaps the very nature of Valero the boxer makes his emergence as Valero the murderer that tiny bit less surprising.
Because even by the standards of professional prizefighters, even as a participant in a sport that glorifies one competitor relieving the other of consciousness, Valero stood out from the start for his sheer, unadulterated violence. After he defeated Francisco Bojado in the amateur ranks, Bojado’s trainer, Joe Hernandez, called him a “monster.”
He turned pro in July 2002 in his native Venezuela. The opponent was Eduardo Hernandez. Valero knocked him out in the first round. Hernandez would not fight again.
His second fight ended the same: KO 1. And his third. And his fourth. After racking up eight first-round KO wins, he began training and fighting in the United States, out of Hernandez’s gym in California. With fewer than eight total rounds under his belt, he sparred future lightweight titlist Juan Lazcano. Lazcano promptly left the gym and didn’t come back.
“What do you feed this guy?” Mike Anchondo, another future titlist, asked Hernandez. “Nails?”
He sparred how he fought, at 100 miles an hour and with terrifying and irresistible ferocity. Watching him train – not fight or even spar, but train – became a hot ticket in SoCal. Not until his nineteenth fight was Valero extended past the first round, when Genaro Trazancos made it all the way into the second. Prior to facing Valero, Trazancos was an unremarkable but respectable 21-7-1. Afterward, he went 1-8.
The Trazancos fight, in March 2006, was in Kobe, Japan, where Valero was by then based – denied a license in the United States when a routine prefight scan revealed a small spot on his brain. Valero insisted it was nothing, the result of a motorcycle accident before he turned pro that had never bothered him; but when it caused him to be denied what he believed he was on the cusp of achieving – big fights in America, an HBO contract – Valero became, according to those who knew him, moodier and angrier than before.
Even when, in his next fight after Trazancos, he won a world title, dropping and stopping Vicente Mosquera to claim a 130-pound belt, he remained a volatile mixture of personalities: expansive and outgoing one moment, sullen and withdrawn the next. In hindsight, all the ingredients were in place for a combustible brew: a troubled upbringing, a youthful brain injury, a profession that embraced violence and required him to ship punches to the head. To make matters worse, Valero was now adding alcohol and cocaine to the mix.
Increasingly, the focus of his demons was Jennifer. Although it was not immediately obvious that he was abusing her physically, her demeanor became increasingly unhappy and his behavior progressively more possessive.
Eventually, Bob Arum found a willing American commission in the form of Texas to enable a Valero return to the States. But after dispatching Pitalua, he was charged with driving under the influence and denied re-entry to the USA. (The tattoo of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez that he now displayed on his chest probably didn’t help.)
That seemed to send Valero’s demons into another level of rage. One month after his final fight, Jennifer was admitted into hospital for injuries including a punctured lung and broken ribs. She claimed she had fallen. Valero was arrested after threatening doctors and nurses at the hospital; even as he was being placed under arrest, he forbade his wife from talking to police.
By now, the Venezuelan government was becoming concerned by the increasingly erratic behavior of one of the country’s most popular sports stars and arranged for him to enter rehab in Cuba; on his way to the airport, a drunk Valero crashed his car and missed his flight. A little more than a week later, on April 17, 2010, he rented a van and drove with his wife to the city of Valencia, where that night the two of them checked into a room at the Hotel Intercontinental.
At 5.30 the following morning, Valero walked barefoot to the front desk and calmly announced that he had killed his wife. She had been stabbed to death.
Concerned that he may be a suicide risk, police removed his jacket and shoelaces before leaving him in his cell. But he was allowed to keep his sweatpants, and they were what he used to hang himself in the early hours of April 19, 2010. He was 28 years old.
Reflecting on Edwin Valero the boxer, the tendency is to speculate on how good he really was and how much he could have achieved. Understandably so.
But the same question could equally be asked of Jennifer. Of what she might have been and might have done, of whom she may have loved and what life she could have lived had she never met Edwin Valero, of how she deserved so much better than to be found on the floor of a hotel room in Venezuela in a pool of her own blood.