Felix Verdejo: From talented contender to cold-blooded murderer

It seemed, on the face of it, a simple enough assignment. Sum up the rise and fall of Felix Verdejo, the prospect who appeared to have it all who became the contender seemingly destined never to meet his full potential, and who ultimately descended into the realm of the sub-human as he brutally and cold-bloodedly murdered a young woman for daring to carry his baby.

But as I sit here, staring at my keyboard and screen, it doesn’t seem so simple at all. There is an inherent desire, almost a need, among writers, reporters and columnists to find meaning, to connect the dots, to place a story into a larger context, to paint a bigger picture. What is the context here? What is the story? How to address a crime filled with such venality as to beggar belief?

Boxing, it is safe to say, has a serious problem when it comes to violence against women. Mike Tyson, beloved as an elder statesman of the game, is a convicted rapist. Floyd Mayweather spent 60 days in jail for domestic assault; before entering prison but after striking a plea deal in which he pled guilty to misdemeanor battery, he headlined an HBO pay-per-view against Miguel Cotto, and upon his release he secured a multi-multi-million deal from Showtime. Similarly, Mayweather protégé Gervonta Davis fought Ryan Garcia on pay-per-view even as he also prepared to go to jail for domestic assault. Tony Ayala Jr., a hugely promising junior middleweight in the early 1980s, burglarized and sexually assaulted his neighbor and was imprisoned; upon his release in 1999, he resumed boxing to much fanfare until he was shot in the shoulder after breaking into another young woman’s house. Carlos Monzon threw his wife off a balcony and to her death and admitted he had hit every woman he had ever dated; to this day, a statue honoring him stands in his birth town of Santa Fe. Fans still discuss how great Edwin Valero might have been, as if his career had been cut short by a series of unfortunate events and not because he slaughtered his wife, leaving her bleeding and almost decapitated on a hotel room floor, before hanging himself in jail.

In that regard, at least, Felix Verdejo’s fate will be different. There are unlikely to be too many tears shed over him. Few will miss or eulogize him. Justice has delivered its verdict, with Verdejo sentenced on Friday to two consecutive life sentences. Hundreds of people gathered outside the funeral home when Rodriguez was laid to rest, mourning her loss. And while Puerto Rico grieved for one of their own and saw Rodriguez as the latest victim in an epidemic of femicide on the island, it is difficult not to wonder whether the shrug of the shoulders from the outside world might have been different had Verdejo become all that it was once thought he might be, and had he not already thrown away his boxing career before he disposed of Keishla.

A competitor at the 2012 Olympics, Verdejo failed to medal after losing in the quarter-final round to Vasyl Lomachenko. There was certainly no shame in that, and upon turning professional, he was quickly earmarked for great things. I remember being ringside at Madison Square Garden in June 2014, when he dispatched Engelberto Valenzuela inside a round and climbed ono the turnbuckle to bathe in the adulation of the fans; the main event that evening saw Miguel Cotto take the middleweight crown from Sergio Martinez, and the heavily Boricua crowd seemed ready to anoint Verdejo as Cotto’s successor as the island’s champion. 

The wins continued and Verdejo’s ranking rose, but within a couple of years the doubts had begun to creep in. Verdejo succumbed with increasing regularity to injuries, and a 2016 motorcycle accident brought into stark relief the growing rumors that he was not living a lifestyle conducive to athletic greatness. He fought just once in 2017, and in his debut outing of 2018 he suffered his first professional loss, to Antonio Lozada. After four comeback wins, he lost again, knocked out in nine by Masayoshi Nakatani in December 2020. 

Four months later came the events that cost Verdejo his freedom and, more importantly, ended Keishla Rodriguez’s young life. Rodriguez had just found out that she was pregnant with Verdejo’s child; Verdejo wanted her to terminate the pregnancy. Working with an accomplice, Verdejo lured Rodriguez to his car, where he punched her and injected her with drugs he had procured from a nearby housing project and which tests later identified as a mixture of fentanyl and xylasine, an animal sedative. Then he and the accomplice tied her to a cinder block and threw her off a bridge into a lagoon. Presumably feeling his work was incomplete, Verdejo fired shots at her still-living body in an attempt to finish her off.

Rodriguez’s body was found the next day, and Verdejo surrendered to authorities a few days after that. In July, he was found guilty of kidnapping that leads to a death and of causing the death of an unborn child – a legally dispassionate phrasing that does not even begin to describe the horror of what he did. 

And now Verdejo is locked up for the rest of his life, while Rodriguez has no life left to live. And I sit here still, still looking at my computer – specifically at a picture of a smiling Rodriguez – and wondering whether I succeeded in my assignment or not. Is there a bigger picture here? Are there any lessons to be learned? Or does the cold, calculating manner of Verdejo’s actions, horrifically cruel act piled on horrifically cruel act, show that, simply, Verdejo is a demon, possessed of a soul so self-serving and black that he thought his actions on that April day were a perfectly rational way of dealing with what he considered to be a problem to be erased and which Rodriguez rightly regarded as their unborn child?

I know this much. I don’t feel the need to write about Felix Verdejo, or mention his name, ever again. He made his choices and will spend the rest of his years paying for them.

Rodriguez paid for her choices, too. But if the consequences Verdejo is facing for his actions are just, the same cannot possibly be said of his victim. The only mistake Rodriguez made was falling in love and daring to dream of life as a mother. And for that, Verdejo killed her.