No Longer ‘Ashamed’ and ‘Embarrassed,’ Valdez Is Back to Positivity

Oscar Valdez exited the ring last August 12 with a loss on his record, a right eye so discolored and swollen it conjured memories of Carmen Basilio after his rematch with Sugar Ray Robinson, and a sense of self-worth every bit as battered as that eye.

For the first two weeks after his unanimous decision defeat to Emanuel Navarrete – his second loss in 16 months, after starting his career unbeaten over nearly a full decade – Valdez wouldn’t go out in public.

He didn’t want to be seen. He didn’t want to bump into friends, neighbors, strangers, and have to strike up a conversation. The swelling around his eye was going away, but the other bruises – the deeper scarring, the feeling after being outfought, the sense that he was somehow something less than he had previously believed himself to be – weren’t as easy to get past.

“It was a rough two weeks for me,” Valdez said. “I felt ashamed of myself. I felt embarrassed to walk out the street, to go to the grocery store, because I didn’t want people to see me. I was very hard on myself.

“But then when I started going out a little bit more, stepping out, people would come up to me, and would actually thank me. ‘Thank you, for giving us that fight.’ I said, ‘But I lost.’ They didn’t care. They said, ‘Thank you for giving your effort. We saw your passion.’ Several people said that to me.

“It definitely made me pick up my head, because I had my head down,” Valdez said. “When they said that, it made me feel a little more OK. It was like, well, alright, they see what happened a lot different – a lot better than the way I was feeling inside.”

Valdez, 31-2 (23 KOs), is clearly one of those “my own harshest critic” types. No reasonable person could be terribly disappointed in his performance against Navarrete.

Yes, Valdez was the betting favorite coming in – at DraftKings Sportsbook, for example, he was listed at -165 the week of the fight, implying a 62 percent chance that he would prevail. But those odds had some serious recency bias baked in. Navarrete was fresh off a life-and-death struggle with unheralded Liam Wilson, in which “Vaquero” appeared not to carry the weight well in his official move up from 126 to 130 pounds and had to get off the deck in the fourth round to win by TKO in the ninth. If not for that extremely shaky showing, the Navarrete-Valdez odds would likely have been around even money.

It was evident from the opening bell that Navarrete was more focused for Valdez than he had been for Wilson, and it also quickly became clear that he presented a stylistic nightmare for the Tucson, Arizona-based two-division former titlist.

Navarrete’s length, awkwardness and ability to churn nonstop caused immediate issues for his opponent. He was able to land punches from distances where Valdez figured he was out of range, until suddenly there was a glove crashing into his cheekbone, or his jawbone, or his orbital bone.

Valdez’s effort couldn’t be questioned. Through all 12 rounds, he never stopped winging left hooks – as leads, as counters, from in close, from a little distance, to the chin, to the body.

Not a soul in attendance at Desert Diamond Arena or watching on ESPN could have been disappointed in the pace or action. “That’s what fights should be,” promoter Bob Arum said from ringside right after it ended. “Crowd-pleasing guys fighting their asses off.”

And it was a much closer fight than two of the three official scorecards suggested. Chris Wilson had it 118-110 and Lisa Giampa 119-109, but Zachary Young’s 116-112 was more in line with reality. As Navarrete’s cornermen were standing around waiting for the scores to be read, microphones picked up one of them expressing confidence that their man had won – but not by much, the guess being that Valdez had won four or five rounds.

So between the stylistic challenges and the competitiveness of the bout, the loss to Navarrete is in no way proof that Valdez, now 33, is over the hill.

But a loss to Wilson on March 29 could be.

That’s the comeback fight Valdez has signed up for. He had already long since turned the corner on the self-doubt and negativity that threatened to swallow him up in the wake of the Navarrete loss. But having the next in-ring challenge to look forward to seems to have provided the final step in that mental recovery process.

“I’ve always considered myself a very optimistic person, a very positive person,” Valdez said. “Every day, I thank the lord for my family that I feel healthy, I got my house, I got my animals, I got this, I got that. I’m blessed. I’m very positive. And I’m feeling positive to be given another chance to fight in front of my people. I feel blessed to have another opportunity. I’m going to make it work. I’m going to take advantage of it.”

From 2016 until his loss to Shakur Stevenson in 2022, Valdez always had a title belt of some sort around his waist. It became part of his identity, and at the press conference announcing the Wilson fight, he vocalized how much he misses being a “world champion.” The fight with Wilson is a non-title 12-rounder, but it should position the winner for another crack at a belt.

So when Valdez referred to missing the feeling of holding a title, was he doing so from a perspective of experiencing an emptiness without one, or more as a man using that longing as fuel to propel him forward?

“A little bit of both,” he said. “It’s definitely my motivation. I wake up every single day, manifesting, I’m going to become the super featherweight champion of the world. That’s in my mind.

“But also, it did bring me down knowing I had been a champion and I lost the opportunity against “Vaquero” Navarrete. It just sucks. It sucked working hard and it not going the way I wanted it to go. But mostly, I do use it as motivation.”

Wilson will enter the Valdez fight from a similar vantage point, trying to make his case for another title shot after losing to Navarrete last year. The Aussie has since scored a pair of get-well 10-round decision wins in Sydney to bump his record to 13-2 (7 KOs), and at just 27 years old, looks like a dangerous 3-to-1 betting underdog if it turns out Valdez has lost a full step.

Valdez was attracted to a fight with Wilson mostly for stylistic reasons, believing he’ll win but preparing for a tough night at the office.

“He’s a guy who likes to stay in there and fight,” Valdez said of the Australian. “I like those fighters. I like those fighters that go in there and give it their best. But he does carry a punch. He does have a reach advantage on me. Guy has a good left hook. Digs well to the body. Changes southpaw. Throws a nice 1-2. So there’s a lot of good things that I see about him that I have to work on and be ready for.”

Call it versatility or inconsistency, but Valdez has long been one of those fighters with world-class boxing skills who may or may not employ them on any given night, or in any given round.

After the scare Wilson gave Navarrete, you’d think a boxing-heavy game plan would be Valdez’s best bet. But it doesn’t sound like that’s how he’s leaning.

“You can expect some brawling for sure,” he said, “but it all depends on what he brings to the table. I think he’s gonna want to brawl – and that’s what I like. That’s my style. You want to go toe to toe? Let’s go toe to toe. Let’s give the fans what they want. So, I just really can’t wait. I know it’s going to be a fan-friendly fight. I can’t wait to step in there. We’re talking about it right now and I’m starting to loosen up my arms – I can’t wait.”

It sounds like an ideal launching pad to get Valdez pointed back toward the top. Still, there’s a number that can’t be ignored: 33. It’s his age, but it’s also the number of professional fights on his record.

There was a time when 33 was ancient for a boxer of Valdez’s size, but that isn’t the case anymore. Still, there aren’t many guys in the featherweight/lightweight range who are better at 33 than they were at, say, 28.

As for 33 fights, that’s not a ton, even by modern standards. But Valdez rarely has a quick and easy one. His last 13 fights have added a total of 135 rounds to his ledger – an average of 10.4 per bout.

But to hear Valdez tell it, he isn’t feeling the years or the wars much at all.

“I still have the work ethic that I had in my 20s, I still work hard, I still go faster than anybody else,” he said. “I spar 20-year-olds, and I’ve still got the same reactions, same speed that I always had.

“I do feel some things different, like losing weight is harder. Maybe when I’m on the track, my 400s, I used to do a 1:05 lap, now I do 1:08 or 1:10. But I basically feel the same physically. If you take care of your body the way that you should as an athlete, when you make it a lifestyle, when you prioritize eating good food over bad food, being in the gym over going out at night, sleeping well over not getting sleep, then you maybe don’t age the way you’re supposed to in your 30s.

“I still feel like I can outlast any fighter out there.”

That’s a long way from how Valdez felt six months ago. The people he bumped into on the street got him to pick his head up. They inspired the “upward” – now it’s up to Valdez to deliver the “onward.”