Last month, lightweight contender Brandon Rios became a WBA titleholder, seemingly growing up before our eyes when he ripped the belt from Miguel Acosta and put the lightweight division on notice. It was a marquee performance that showed Rios could not only handle a mobile boxer/puncher’s best but show there’s more to this seemingly one-dimensional, come-forward brawler. Skill can only be measured so much and a man’s will must shine in times of extreme adversity. On February 26, Rios showed the depth of both in spades.
Rios, 27-0-1 (20), came on the Leave-it-in-the-ring.com radio show recently to discuss with me and co-host David Duenez the win, the future and the newest challenge in his life, his newborn baby girl.
“It’s going very well. She’s not a newborn no more. She is like a little King Kong right now. She is huge,” Rios laughed.
Rios trains up in Oxnard, CA with head trainer Robert Garcia. While Garcia’s gym was under renovations, Team Rios moved its operation to middleweight champion Sergio Martinez’s nearby training facility to prepare. Duenez was there also when Rios worked out with Victor Cayo in a heated sparring session that was a precursor of things to come.
“[Cayo] has a similar style to Miguel Acosta,” said Rios. “We knew it was going to be very hard for the first few rounds. But after putting pressure on him, keeping my game plan and my will, we knew we’d get him in the later rounds. But we knew it would be a very difficult fight. As you could see, it was but I just listened to my corner, followed my plan and did what I was told to do.”
The match-up was a difficult one. Acosta is a hard-hitting mobile boxer who throws from all angles, has a dangerous looping right hand and appeared to be a strong lightweight. Going into the fight, I picked him to beat Rios, who is something of a straight-forward brawler, sometimes forgetting to jab his way in. You can only go so many times to the well, taking shots to give them, before you get beat, I supposed.
“You know what? After saying that, I think we should end this conversation right now,” Rios joked when I told him I’d picked against him. “Naw, a lot of people thought I wouldn’t win because of the way his style is and the way my style is. They say I am just I am just a forward-coming guy with no movement and no discipline, nothing. I just throw punches and get hit a lot. But a lot of people don’t know really much about me. It looks like I get hit a lot but some of those punches don’t land hard. Yeah, some of them touch me but I move a little bit and they don’t land, like, full force on me. You weren’t the only one who doubted me. A lot of people doubted me but, you know, keep doubting me. I love when people doubt me because I love proving people wrong.”
Rios is still a very young man, much less a fighter. A 24-year-old new father and husband, he is still figuring out who he is. The ring is the one place he has always felt at home, a place of solace from where Rios can escape from the outside world. Still, this was his first world title fight and going in, the calm and collected fighter felt something he had never before: nerves.
“To tell you truth, my wife can tell the same thing, too; I never get nervous before a fight,” said Rios. “For this fight, I had butterflies in my room. Two hours before the fight, I was already nervous. I was like, ‘Damn, I am fighting for a world title.’ I was already thinking, ‘Dammit, dammit, I am fighting for a world title.’ When I got to the locker room, I even got more nervous. I was ready to piss myself; I was so nervous. Then I started hitting the mitts and little by little, it was going away. I had my people surrounding me. The people that always are in my locker room were there. I started focusing out the negative and concentrating on doing what I had to do and clearing my mind. And that’s when I started calming down. Then when I walked in the ring; that’s when I was even more calm. Then, when the bell rings, I’m like the calmest person, like, ‘Damn.’ I’m like high, fighting. I am so calm and relaxed.”
Calm as he was, once the bell rang, Rios started into a fight that proved to be every bit as hard as he expected. Rios had to go through some hell to get to the heaven of his first world title. Early on, it was all Acosta, moving, looping in that right hand and catching Rios with it several times. For the first four rounds, it did not look good for Rios. The end of the third was the worst when a right hand clipped Rios and had him giving the smile that almost always signals a hurt fighter.
“In the third round, I was doing alright through the whole round until the ending, around 30 seconds of the round,” said Rios, who just recently watched tape of the fight. “I got careless at the end of the round and [Acosta] caught me with my hands down. I went back and Robert told me what my plan was and to keep my hands up. Right when the bells rings for the fourth round, he caught me with a good body shot. Aw, man, that sh*t hurt so bad that I had to back up. I don’t really back up. When I was backing up, that was when he was hitting me and he was catching me good. So, you know, I had to keep my will. I couldn’t give up or go down. Even though it hurt so bad, I thought, ‘You better hit me pretty hard to get me to go down. I’m not going to go down.”
Fans and writers tend to keep score to weigh in against what the judges might see. I asked Rios how he keeps track of who is winning in a fight.
“I don’t really look at it like that,” said Rios. “The only way sometimes I know is when I am kind of behind or it is kind of close is when I go back to the corner and I see Robert’s face. It’s something in his facial expression or his voice. Then I know I need to do something to change the tone of his voice. That’s the way I know. I don’t really keep score of it because if I keep score, I’ll probably get knocked out or something.”
Rios explained that it was the excellent corner work of Garcia that got him on track.
“After [the fourth round], I went back to the corner and Robert told me, ‘Come on, Brandon. Come on; keep your hands up. Work the body. Body, head. Work the uppercut. Use the jab. Get in there; get in there,” explained Rios. “So when I came out for the fifth round, my jab came out more and then the body shots and the pressure was even more. More pressure and more body shots and then I caught him with a beautiful jab and it was nice.”
Once on track, Rios began to gain more and more momentum. Acosta had landed his best shots and Rios was still there. Meanwhile, the young man out of Oxnard was digging to the body and coming upstairs. More and more, Acosta was getting trapped on the ropes and raked all over with shots. Then in the sixth, a jab dropped him. In the eighth round, Rios scored another knockdown. By the tenth, it was a mere formality as Rios stepped on the gas, trapped Acosta in the corner and put him to sleep. Rios had looked on his way to being either down or out in that fourth round. He seemed confused and the more he backed up, the more it played to Acosta’s strengths.
“After the fourth round, I knew I had to change it up fast,” said Rios. “I thought, ‘If I keep doing what I am…this guy is not really hurting me but he is scoring points.’ I had to step up my game. After the fourth round, the fifth round, then the sixth round, that is when I stepped it up a little more. I had to step it up quick and you know what? I think I did a great job.”
Now Rios is the arguably the man to beat in the division. With linear lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez looking more and more at trying to get a third shot with Manny Pacquiao, Rios is becoming the man either avoided or called out in his division. The most rumored bout going is a match with aged veteran Marco Antonio Barrera. A mismatch on paper due to Barrera’s age, the fight is the kind that can put Rios on more of a global stage.
“Well, you know, I am not the one who does the matchmaking and the stuff to do with that stuff,” said Rios. “I am the fighter, not the manager and the promoter. If his manager and promoter are talking with mine, that is really up to them. I don’t handle that stuff. Why him? You know what? Sometimes you have to go back down to go back up. Marco Antonio Barrera has experience; he has a big name. If he has little gas in his engine, I am not for sure but that is not really my job. My job is to train and to fight. If that is who they want to pick, if they think that is a good move for my career to get to the next level, then I guess I go with it. I don’t argue or go against what they say. I don’t go against what Robert and my manager, Cameron Dunkin, say. Whatever they do, they know what is best for me and my career, so I just go with whatever they say.”
Rios explained that because he is calling out big names as well, he doesn’t begrudge someone calling him out. Sometimes, that is just how a fight is made. As it should be, fighters fight, managers manage, and promoters promote…or at least that is how it should be.
“I can’t really tell you, ‘I don’t want this’ because I have been calling out the bigger names,” said Rios. “I have been calling out Marquez. I have been calling out [Humberto] Soto. If they give me [Barrera], this guy wants a piece of me. He wants to be a world champion again and be the first Mexican to be world champion in four different weight classes, I can’t really say anything. If the money is right, I guess then I will take it. That’s not really my job. My job is to train and to fight. If he is willing to fight…he is old already and he came out of retirement. Some of those guys are still good; some of those guys are not. We’re going to see if he has gotten really old, old, old overnight or if he is old and good like Bernard Hopkins- old but still doing great. So we are going to see and if he comes and fights me; I am ready for him. I never take anyone lightly.”
As for his future, beyond getting some sleep when his baby is not keeping him up, Rios explained he simply wants the best fights. A big lightweight, he figures he can get down to the weight limit maybe three more times. Then it’s big game hunting at 140.
“To me, it is getting the best fights and fighting the best. I would love to unify the titles,” said Rios. “There are a lot of guys at 135 that are calling me out. Hank Lundy, John Murray from England, Miguel Vasquez wants a piece of me; Barrera wants a piece of me. The only guy who doesn’t want a piece of me is Humberto Soto. I want a piece of him but he keeps making excuses. Now I hear he is going to 140 after this fight. It’s like, ‘C’mon, I want unify my title with his title.’ I want the best. My manager and Robert know what I can do. They know what I want and know what I can do. I am ready for anybody. Our plan is to get maybe three more fights at 135 and then move to 140. That’s the plan. I can do 140. I am a big 135. I can make 135 but I can go to 140 and still be strong. Maybe you will see me at 140 this year and we will see what happens.”
Whatever happens, it will be hard to pick against Rios. One thing is certain, from fight fan to writer, no one will want to miss what comes next.