Viloria coping with tragedy, fight delay

In May, Brian Viloria thought about retiring after nearly killing a foe. Now fate has postponed "Hawaiian Punch's" quest for a world title and given him perspective.

Updated: August 7, 2005, 12:40 AM ET
By Thomas Gerbasi | MaxBoxing.com

According to Brian Viloria, the slate of activities on July 30 was going to consist of "the same old thing." For him, that means some time in the gym, some dinner and maybe hanging out with family or friends.

It should have been so much more.

If all went according to plan, Viloria should have been walking into the ring at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on that night, laced up and ready to fight for his first world championship against WBC junior flyweight champion Eric Ortiz. It should have been the culmination of four years of hard work in the professional ranks, and the start of a new chapter for the 24-year-old from Hawaii.

Brian Viloria
Four years into his pro career, former U.S. Olympian Viloria cannot wait for a chance at a world title.

But this is boxing, and things rarely go according to plan, so when Lucia Rijker ruptured her Achilles tendon July 20, scrapping her bout with Christy Martin, Viloria's long-awaited shot at the title was dumped. The rest of the July 30 pay-per-view card was discarded, too, and "The Hawaiian Punch" was thrust back into a familiar posture -- that of waiting.

"How much longer do I have to wait for this?" Viloria (17-0, 11 KOs) said when asked of his immediate reaction to the postponement of the Ortiz bout, which will now take place Sept. 10 at Staples Center in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles.

"That's what's going through my mind right now. I've been preparing so heavily for this coming fight, and I've been in the gym the past couple of months, just focusing on what I have to do for this title fight, and to have it put off like that, it's really frustrating."

This has been a year Viloria might want to forget about, unless he's able to beat Ortiz and become a world champion in September. Faced with the usual on again/off again struggles a lot of young contenders go through, Viloria took a fight in May against journeyman Ruben Contreras. It was your classic "stay busy" bout, one to keep him sharp in a live environment while waiting for his title opportunity.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck that night in Staples Center. After a fairly routine bout in which Viloria dominated, Contreras retired in the sixth round, complaining of a headache. Ten minutes later, the 32-year-old from Mexico had a seizure and was rushed into surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. He was then put into a medically induced coma.

For the affable young man from Waipahu, Hawaii, the blow from Contreras' injury was the hardest he's ever had to take. With it came a lot of sleepless nights, when Viloria wondered if he would ever put on boxing gloves again. Even today, his voice dips when speaking of his gallant foe -- who now is alert and recovering from his injuries. For Viloria, he never refers to his foe as "my opponent" or "Contreras," but as "Ruben," making it clear that this is a bond that formed in the most horrific of situations, and one that he will carry with him forever.

But Viloria's a fighter, too. With the help of family and friends, he's made it back.

Thank God that he made it through that way because if it went the other way, I don't think I would ever be in this sport again because I don't think I would be mentally fit to deal with it.
Brian Viloria on Ruben Contreras' recovery from a brain injury after their spring bout

"There's a lot of praying involved, a lot of just waiting involved in trying to see what his condition was," he said.

"But as soon as we got word that he was OK, that he was going to make it through, a lot of the weight came off my shoulders and I was able to say, 'OK, now I can breathe easy now,' and I don't have to go to sleep thinking about what's going to happen to Ruben. Thank God that he made it through that way because if it went the other way, I don't think I would ever be in this sport again because I don't think I would be mentally fit to deal with it."

As it stood, immediately after the fight, Viloria had to think not only about the fate of Contreras, but about the title fight looming just two months away. After a couple of days spent with family, Viloria made the trip back into the gym, not to work, but to just touch base with his trainers and get away from everything.

It was the best medicine, and once Contreras was out of immediate danger and started to make progress, Viloria got his life back. After a couple of weeks, he was back sparring and preparing for the fight of his life.

"There was a lot of thinking about why I'm in this sport," Viloria said, "but everyone contributed to helping me get through it, and as soon as I found out Ruben was going to be OK, I put it into full gear for my world title fight."

Then the postponement of the fight came down a week and a half ago, and while you could look at it as a blessing that Viloria has more time to prepare, he doesn't necessarily agree.

"Hopefully it is a blessing," he said, "but I was ready for this fight. I was about to peak, and I was on weight, and I was so looking forward to being in Vegas and winning this fight, and then this had to happen. Yeah, I got a month more, but it's just making the wait a little bit more intense."

Now he'll just have to pull back the reins a bit and get ready again for the grind leading up to the bout, where he'll push himself to the nonscientific, but oh-so-important point where he's at peak-performance strength just in time to face Ortiz.

It's something a pro fighter learns with time, and something he gets better with as he moves through the ranks. But the most important thing Viloria has learned in his days since he was a representative of the U.S. Olympic team in 2000 was how to deal with life outside the ropes. And sometimes, that's harder than taking punches inside of them.

"I learned a lot about having to fight outside of the ring, trying to get fights scheduled and trying to maintain those fights," he said. "I think it's a lot harder than training itself. I really didn't expect it to be this hard, but unfortunately it is, especially for my weight division, and a lot of waiting is involved. Trying to be patient and finding the right opportunity to be in the ring again, I think that's the hardest part and the biggest thing I've learned about the pro game."

The way I look at it is that it's just a matter of time for me -- when I win a world title -- that more people will look into our weight division, with the help of Jorge Arce and Vic Darchinyan as world champions [at flyweight] also.
Brian Viloria, on the frustrations of competing in the often-overlooked lower weight classes

He's also learned a hard lesson (along with Olympic teammate Jose Navarro) about American fight fans' biases against fighters south of 140 pounds (or in rare cases, 135 pounds).

"It's frustrating, but I try to take a look at it as it will take us to ignite something in our weight divisions for people to pay more attention," Viloria said.

"The way I look at it is that it's just a matter of time for me -- when I win a world title -- that more people will look into our weight division, with the help of Jorge Arce and Vic Darchinyan as world champions [at flyweight] also. We should give great fights for the fans, and I think that's all we need. It doesn't take one person to make a weight division. We need each other to make our division popular enough for people to come down and watch us fight."

Viloria, who has spent his entire career at flyweight -- where he has earned the NABF and WBC Youth titles -- will drop four pounds to 108 to face Ortiz. But with marquee matchups (at least for fight aficionados) at 112 pounds with Arce and Darchinyan, expect a jump back up to his more natural weight sometime soon after winning the belt.

And if you've followed the sport closely for any amount of time, you just know that a bout between Viloria and the entertaining Arce (who on July 30 in Mexico defended his interim WBC belt at 112 pounds with a third-roud knockout of Viloria KO victim Angel Priolo) would be a battle.

"That's a key person for us to bring a lot more attention to our division," Viloria said of the 26-year-old Mexican.

"We need even more guys like that in our weight division because statistically speaking there are not enough knockouts, or there's not enough lure for people to pay attention to us or for the fans to come out and watch. But now I look at it like wow, with Jorge Arce coming up the way he is, and Darchinyan coming up and winning a world title the way he did, there's going to come a time where everyone's going to start fighting each other and it's going to be great fights and great draws, and that's what I'm looking forward to."

After a hard road to the championship-level fights, and a year that has been tough to deal with so far, to say the least, Viloria finally sounds excited again about the sport. He's primed for the future, if he can get the right breaks in the coming months. Watching a couple of his Olympic teammates -- most recently middleweight champ Jermain Taylor -- reach the pinnacle of the sport doesn't hurt, either.

"That gave me a lot of boost," Viloria said of Taylor's recent win over Bernard Hopkins, "We're actually doing it, and that everyone coming off the Olympic team is winning world titles got me a little bit more hyped up than usual and the whole time I was watching the fight I was like, 'Man, that's gonna be me.' I want to get in there and win some hardware, and that's why we've been training -- we've been bred to be world champions. Seeing Jermain go through that, and Jeff Lacy winning a world title is just inspiring me a little bit more and making me train harder."

Viloria jokes about hugging the title belt and sleeping with it for a week after he wins it, but most important, he knows that once he can put the words "world champion" after his name, then the real work begins, to move from being just another title holder to being the leader of a new wave of exciting lower weight class fighters.

He's ready to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

"I'm ready for everything right now and I'll do whatever it takes to make people realize that we're out here fighting our hearts out and we are giving great fights, a lot more than some of these middleweights and some of these heavyweights," Viloria said. "It's all heart and all guts type of boxing. The way Arce did it gave us a little insight into how it's gonna be if you just fight really hard and give the people what they want to come in and see.

"We do deserve a look."