Venezuelan 'Golden Boy' happy to call Japan home
Jorge Linares' good looks and classy boxing style have earned him the nickname "Golden Boy," but Michael Rosenthal writes Linares' transition from raw talent to refined boxer came with its fair share of growing pains.
Originally Published: December 13, 2007By Michael Rosenthal | Special to ESPN.com
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesJorge Linares, right, burst into the spotlight earlier this year by blasting out Oscar Larios.In 2002, Jorge Linares left his family in his native Venezuela and moved 9,000 miles to Japan as a raw 17-year-old for practical reasons. Japanese promoter Akihiko Honda of Teiken Boxing Promotions in Tokyo, a close ally of WBA president Gilberto Mendoza Jr. of Venezuela, offered to guide his professional career. And, perhaps more important at the time, Linares could fight at 17 in Japan but would have to wait until he was 18 in Venezuela. It made sense. But wasn't he nervous about moving to a strange land at such a young age? "It didn't matter," he said by phone through an interpreter. "I had to take advantage of the opportunity." Five years later, even after many lonely nights in his Tokyo apartment, Linares has no doubt that he made the right decision. He has become a world champion -- having stopped Oscar Larios to win the vacant WBC featherweight belt in July -- and has found a new home in the Far East. He plans to live permanently in Tokyo and bring his extended family over.
"Imagine this," said Linares, who defends his title against Gamaliel Diaz on Saturday in Cancun, Mexico. "Now, if I'm away from Japan for more than two weeks, I want to go home." Linares struggled in the beginning. Rudy Hernandez, a boxing trainer associated with Teiken for years and frequent visitor to Japan, remembers Linares when he first arrived in Tokyo. The young fighter bursting with confidence after following his older brother, Nelson, into the sport and building an impressive amateur record. He thought he'd take Japan by storm. "He was really cocky," Hernandez said with a laugh. "He thought he knew it all. You'd try talking to him but it was hard to get through. That's the way he was." But the bravado was superficial: Linares actually was unhappy after the move. He adjusted to the food fairly quickly. And the boxing was largely the same; for the main part, a gym is a gym and hard work builds champions if you have knowledgeable people around you and opportunities. The language was a different story. He spoke no Japanese, so he couldn't establish a social life. He associated almost exclusively with his trainer, Sendai Tanaka, who speaks Spanish, and no one else. Once surrounded constantly by family, his life in Japan was something like this: A run in the morning, a meal, a workout at the Teiken Gym, another meal, and then back to his apartment. In a way, he kept his family by his side: He spent all evening, every evening chatting on the Internet with his relatives back in Venezuela. Still, he admitted he was lonely. Not depressed, he stressed, but lonely. "Always," he said, "for almost a whole year." Gradually, that changed. First, he began to pick up the language by listening carefully when his comments were translated and from a translation book provided by Honda. He believes the fact that he was so young helped him absorb a lot very quickly. And the more he boxed, the more people entered his life. At first, admirers would compliment him through a translator or through body language. But slowly, he began to understand their words and open a new world to him.
AP Photo/Jae C. HongIn the past year Jorge Linares, right, has gone from an unknown to one of boxing's hottest prospects.
|Cancun Night of Champions|
|TV lineup for the Saturday night's pay-per-view card (9 ET, $29.95) from the Plaza de Toros in Cancun, Mexico: • Junior lightweights: Edwin Valero (22-0, 22 KOs) vs. Zaid Zavaleta (15-2-3, 11 KOs), 12 rounds, for Valero's title • Featherweights: Jorge Linares (24-0, 15 KOs) vs. Gamaliel Diaz (22-6-2, 9 KOs), 12 rounds, for Linares' title • Featherweights: Naoki Matsuda (28-7-3, 11 KOs) vs. Rudolfo Lopez (20-4-1, 14 KOs), rematch, 12 rounds, title eliminator • Featherweights: Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. (9-0, 8 KOs) vs. Jorge Cardenas (9-4-3, 6 KOs), 8 rounds -- Dan Rafael|