- Sebastian Contursi
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A little more than a year ago, Edwin Valero was considered one of the brightest prospects in pro boxing.
After 12 consecutive first-round knockout victories, he signed a contract with Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions company and his future appeared bright.
But the emerging super featherweight star's career was put in limbo just days before his scheduled HBO-televised fight against Francisco Lorenzo in New York. In late January 2004, Valero failed a prefight physical. The examination by the New York State Athletic Commission revealed Valero had suffered some brain trauma.
The commission's medical policy in these cases recommends the denial of a boxing license in the state and an indefinite medical suspension. The suspension was backed by the Association of Boxing Commissions, barring Valero from fighting in the United States.
However, after being cleared by doctors in Argentina, Valero has resumed his career in the ring. Although he is no longer part of Golden Boy's talent pool, Valero is 2-0 in his comeback attempt and confident that one day he will become a world champion -- even if he never fights in America.
Valero's zigzag route to a 14-0 record with 14 first-round KOs -- a distinction believed to be a world record for starting a pro career -- began years before he flunked his prefight physical.
An MRI in 2004 performed by the NYSAC doctors revealed a trauma in Valero's head, a result of a motorcycle accident in 2001 in his native Venezuela.
"The accident was on Feb. 5, 2001, when I crashed my motorcycle against the back windshield of a car. I was running fast and was not wearing a helmet," Valero said.
NYSAC would not disclose any information regarding the fighter's medical case. However, Venezuelan Boxing Federation medical records indicate that a small blood clot was detected in Valero's head at the time and was removed through a drainage procedure. He did not have to undergo surgery.
But according to Golden Boy Promotions' vice president and matchmaker Eric Gomez, "Valero hadn't told us about all this. We never knew about that injury before."
Doctor Barry D. Jordan, a recognized neurologist and chief medical officer of the NYSAC, recommended that Valero retire. Jordan is very concerned about boxing and brain trauma. Testifying before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on March 10, 1995, Jordan said, "The main medical problem confronting boxers is chronic brain injury."
Neither NYSAC chairman Ron Scott Stevens nor Jordan could be reached for comment on Valero's case. But NYSAC legal counsel Hugo Spindola told ESPNdeportes.com: "In reality, Dr. Jordan enforces what it is recommended by the NYSAC's Medical Advisory Board, formed by nine members. They suggested that Valero couldn't box again."
According to the NYSAC's official Web site, the medical advisory board "has the power and the duty to prepare and submit to the Commission for approval, regulations and standards for the physical examination of athletes licensed by the Commission."
Spindola said, "[The medical advisory board's] suggestions establish the medical standards to be followed by the commission. So far, we never denied one of their medical recommendations."
Asked whether there was any law that would prevent fighters who have suffered brain or head traumas in the past from fighting in the state of New York, Spindola said, "It's not a written law, but a medical policy, that it is very protective for the fighters."
Therefore, the NYSAC stood by its doctors. The NYSAC's suspension -- with the ABC's backing -- means Valero cannot fight anywhere in the United States.
"NYSAC's chairman, Ron Scott Stevens, personally explained to me at the time they have a rule, a bylaw by which any fighter [who has] suffered a head or brain injury in the past can never fight in New York. That's why this is a very sensitive case," Gomez said.
Yet Jordan and the medical board's opinion seems to conflict with other diagnoses.
Valero: 'I'm perfectly fit for boxing'
As Gomez and Valero say, other neurosurgeons have examined Valero and cleared him to fight. Their contention is Valero's risk is not greater than any other boxer's.
"Doctors in Venezuela performed a surgical drainage of a hematoma produced in one of the skull layers. That was all. I think there's a lot of politics involved in the NYSAC decision," Valero said.
"For instance, Marco Antonio Barrera suffered a major operation and has a titanium plate in his brain, but he is allowed to fight."
Barrera, ESPN.com's top-ranked junior lightweight in the world, had brain surgery in 1997 to treat a genetic disorder involving blood vessels. Small metal plates were inserted in his head.
Golden Boy Promotions appealed the New York commission's decision on Valero's case, but the suspension was not overturned.
"We submitted all the new medical evidence possible to NYSAC time after time, and they looked at the new results. Valero's attorneys appealed on their own, too. But the answer was always the same, no," Gomez said.
"I've heard hundreds of versions about my case. But the truth is that I never refused myself to take a medical exam. If there is any doctor that can prove that I cannot box, I'd sign my retirement right there," an angry Valero said. "Many specialists of different countries have checked me. They all say I'm perfectly fit for boxing."
Golden Boy Promotions also tried to obtain a license for Valero in California but failed.
Eventually, Valero tired of the situation, especially after suspecting what Spindola confirms: "The NYSAC decision is final, so it won't be changed. I cannot go into details about the case for legal reasons, but the suspension won't be overturned."
After living in Los Angeles for almost a year, Valero returned to Venezuela.
Determined to put an end to what he considers unfair treatment by U.S. boxing authorities, Valero took the first fight that came along, in Argentina.
After passing his medical test in Argentina, the Venezuelan finally came back to the ring May 21, after a 17-month hiatus, at the "KO Drugs" festival, a charity event sponsored by the World Boxing Association.
Valero showed no signs of rust, knocking out Argentinean Hernan Abraham Valenzuela in the first round.
Curiously, though, the day before the fight, Golden Boy Promotions tried to stop it via phone calls and a fax to the World Boxing Association's offices in Venezuela.
One of the paragraphs in that fax, dated May 20, reads as follows:
" Golden Boy Promotions has learned that Edwin Valero may be participating in a boxing match in Buenos Aires tomorrow. The purpose of this letter is to notify you of the medical suspension and the potential medical risk, as well to inform you that in no way does Golden Boy Promotions condone or endorse Mr. Valero's participation in the boxing match. It is Golden Boy Promotions' position that Mr. Valero should not box until it has been conclusively proven that he is at no greater risk of injury than any other typical boxer."
The fax is signed by Golden Boy Promotions' legal counsel, Stephen B. Espinoza.
Yet Gomez, Golden Boy's matchmaker, said he is not aware of such a fax. He said, "I do know that Valero had mentioned before that he would like fighting in other countries. But we told him that by doing so, while being suspended in the U.S., would mean that he wouldn't be able to fight in the U.S. ever again."
More important, Gomez says, "We released Valero about a month or so before the fight in Argentina. We love Valero. But as promoters, we had to release him. Even though we did a lot to get him a license, we couldn't [keep him].
"We had Valero examined by some of the best neurologists of New York, and they all say he is perfectly fit to fight. We think he is clear to fight. But they don't see it that way at NYSAC."
How valid is Valero's claim that he is the victim of politics?
"I'm not sure whether there is politics involved in this case. I don't know," Gomez said.
"Dr. Jordan has a very bad experience in the past after a fighter died a few days after a fight in which he was the ringside physician [George "Khalid" Jones vs. Beethaeven Scottland, June 26, 2001; Scottland later died]. It may have affected him. But I cannot be sure of that," Gomez said.
It seems certain there is no clear communication between Golden Boy Promotions' office and its legal counsel. Otherwise, how would Gomez not know about the fax trying to prevent Valero from fighting in Argentina?
If Golden Boy Promotions thinks Valero is fit to fight -- according to Gomez and the company's appeals -- why would it cite a "potential medical risk" when Valero fights outside the United States?
Valero's world boxing tour
Valero prefers to focus on the bright side of his comeback in May.
"It was quite a special night for me because being able to be in the ring again was like going back to life. People in Argentina treated me in a wonderful way, so I'll always have great memories from there," Valero said.
As for his former association with Golden Boy, Valero said: "I'm disappointed with the people [who surround] Oscar. Yet I know he is not responsible. If you ask any trainer or fighter, they wouldn't say a good thing about that company. They didn't do what they should with my case. I insist, Barrera suffered a much more serious injury than mine, but they paid all the attention to him, and that's why he's fighting.
"I'm upset about that, but the show must continue. There are many people interested in me. I have offers from Top Rank and Japanese promoter Akihiko Honda right now, for instance."
Valero said: "I've been called by Roberto Alcazar and Fernando Beltran [associates of] Bob Arum, and they want me to move back to the U.S. right now as they guarantee my license in the U.S. But I don't want to live in the U.S.
Valero offered no explanation as to how anyone could guarantee that he would be licensed to fight in America.
"Dinamita" (Dynamite) Valero, as he likes to be called, moved to Panama to prepare for his July 1 fight there against Esteban de Jesus Morales.
Morales is normally durable. He fought bravely against the likes of Panamanian Vicente Mosquera (the current WBA super featherweight champion), former WBO featherweight king Julio Pablo Chacon of Argentina and Britain's Colin Dunne.
But Morales was no match for Valero's power. The result was the same -- a knockout victory in the first round.
"De Jesus was really there to fight from the opening bell. He threw a lot of bombs, but I caught him with a good left hand and he ended up lying on the canvas for a long while," Valero said.
According to boxing historian Julio Ernesto Vila, a member of the World Boxing Council's rankings committee for more than 25 years, Valero has achieved a world record.
According to Vila, there is not another registered case in boxing history of a fighter winning his first 14 professional bouts, all in the first round.
"I'm happy to hear that I hold a world record. That means I'd have already achieved something big if I'd retire today. However, I'm not satisfied with that only. I'd like to be known as a world champion, an unbeaten one if possible," said Valero, a native of Bolero Alto, located about 435 miles southwest of Caracas.
Valero began boxing "by a chance" in a town called El Vigia, at a local gym named for Francisco "Morochito" Rodriguez, who won the only gold medal for Venezuelan boxing -- in the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.
"I started my amateur career in 1993. I don't know why. Boxing just attracted me somehow, and I decided to give it a try. One week later, I was living in the gym, where professor Oscar Ortega formed me as a fighter," Valero said.
"I was national champion of Venezuela three times and ended my amateur career with approximately 86 wins (57 knockouts) and only six losses."
He lives in Caracas with his wife, Jennifer, and their son and daughter.
Valero made his pro debut in July 2002, in Caracas.
"Jorge Serpa was my trainer at the time and he still is because he taught me many things. I always knew I had talent, but most importantly, an unstoppable will of making myself a name in boxing," Valero said.
Since that big name will not be made in the United States, Valero keeps planning his "world boxing tour."
"I'll fight again next Aug. 13 in Venezuela, against Colombian Jose Hernandez. And then I'll fight in Japan in September. I'd like to do a few more fights this year and then, next year, I'd love to fight for a world title. Mosquera would be a good fight," he said.
"Last year, Mosquera and I were supposed to fight, but it didn't come off. Back then, he said he would fight me for free, Now, I tell him that I'd not only fight him for free but also pay his purse if he beats me. I don't mean to offend him, but he has something that belongs to me: a world title.
"The day I become a champion, the nightmare I had to go through in the last few months will be buried forever."
It seems that no matter where he fights, Edwin Valero has come back to life.
Buenos Aires-based Sebastián Contursi is ESPNdeportes.com's boxing analyst. He has covered more than 80 championship fights for various publications in the U.S. and Argentina.