The journey is nearly complete for new WBO lightweight champion Raymundo Beltran

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
WBO lightweight champion Raymundo Beltran will make his first title defense Saturday on ESPN at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, against Jose Pedraza. (Mikey Willams/Top Rank)

Raymundo Beltran is, in so many ways, the epitome of the American dream.

The native of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, in Mexico has been a professional boxer since 1999, more than half his life. He hasn’t been blessed with extraordinary natural ability. He’s gotten by on grit, determination and an ability to take a powerful shot to the chin and keep coming forward.

Beltran was just 16 when he entered the U.S. illegally with his mother in order to escape abject poverty in Mexico. He grew up in a home with no running water or electricity. Often, the family would scavenge for food and eat scraps others had left behind.

He turned pro three weeks before his 18th birthday, winning a unanimous decision over Victor Manuel Mendoza, who was five years older and vastly more experienced. Much of his pro career was spent in high-risk, low-reward fights against guys with big punches and bigger dreams who were as desperate as he was to use boxing as a way out.

He’s been primarily known as a sparring partner, mostly for Manny Pacquiao. He’d dutifully show up for months at a time at the sweat box known as Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood and get into the ring and let the legendary Manny Pacquiao beat him. It was the most difficult money to make, and few could have done it as well or as long as Beltran. He’d be sore, dizzy, some part or another of his body throbbing with pain, but back he would come the next day and drain himself to do it again.

As he fought, though, he learned, and what he learned was that he wasn’t just a human punching bag. No, he didn’t have Floyd Mayweather’s quickness or Pacquiao’s power or Vasyl Lomachenko’s beautiful footwork, but he realized one important thing after all those hard rounds with Pacquiao: He could fight, too.

In February, he not only proved that to himself but to his many doubters and detractors, as well, winning a unanimous decision over Paulus Moses in Reno to become the WBO lightweight champion. It not only fulfilled a dream, but allowed him to obtain a green card and eventually become an American citizen.

WBO lightweight champion Raymundo Beltran. (Getty Images)

On Saturday at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, in a bout televised by ESPN, he’ll make the first defense of his title against Puerto Rican Jose Pedraza, with the winner likely to earn a lucrative end-of-year unification bout with Lomachenko.

It’s the culmination of a lifetime of work, where he’s left enough sweat on gym floors throughout North America to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In 1996, I came to the United States illegally,” Beltran said. “I did it not because I wanted to, but because I had to. Thanks to that, I’m making my dream come true. I want to dedicate this fight to all of the immigrants all over the world, especially to my Mexican people. I represent them with so much pride. Just to show the world that we don’t come to commit no crime. We come here to get a better future for our family. I represent that. I represent the truth.”

Though he holds the belt, Beltran said that even after six months as champion, “I’m still the underdog.”

In his situation, there are no sure things. Much was expected of Pedraza when he turned pro amid much fanfare in 2011, and although he is a former IBF 130-pound champion and brings a 24-1 mark into the bout with Beltran, there is a perception that he has underachieved.

He lost his championship in New York to Gervonta Davis last year and enters the fight with Beltran motivated not only by that, not only by the always fierce Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry, but also by Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last year and accounted for untold deaths. Estimates of the death toll range from 793 to 8,498.

Puerto Rico still is not the same place it was prior to the hurricane, and the outcome of a boxing match won’t change that. But Puerto Rico is a boxing-mad island and its best fighters are national heroes. A win over Beltran, he said, would give at least momentary solace to those still struggling to rebuild their lives after the epic storm.

It means a lot to me,” Pedraza said of the title shot. “This is the second opportunity I’m getting for a world title. I really want to win this world title because I want to bring happiness to Puerto Rico after what happened with Hurricane Maria. It will be a lot of emotion and happiness for me when they say, ‘And the new champion.’ But I don’t like to get ahead of myself. One step at a time. But if I win the title, it’s going to mean a lot to Puerto Rico. It’s going to bring happiness to my people.”

WBO lightweight champion Raymundo Beltran works out prior to his Saturday title defense in Glendale, Arizona, against Jose Pedraza. (Mikey Williams/Top Rank)

So both men have great motivation, knowing a win would mean a lot to them, to their futures and to their countries. And, of course, there is the big payday that would come as a result of a bout with Lomachenko, one of the best fighters in the world.

At the highest levels, boxing is often seen as a glamorous sport, and its biggest stars live that kind of a lifestyle. But so many more are like Beltran, tough, determined men willing to sacrifice just about everything to get ahead.

Beltran’s journey, and the journey of literally thousands of fighters like him, is why we watch. Nothing is more compelling in sports than to watch someone with everything to lose pour his heart out in search of victory.

It’s what Raymundo Beltran has done repeatedly since turning pro in 1999 and what he’ll undoubtedly do on Saturday and again and again and again until he walks away from boxing for good.

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