The winding dust track from the state of Sonora to Las Vegas, where Oscar Valdez is hunkered down in a bio-secure bubble at the MGM Grand, is by now intimately familiar. Born in the Mexican half of Nogales, a city fractured by a century-old fence along the US border, the boxer spent his childhood toeing the line of sand that separates hope from opportunity. “We didn’t get here on a free ride,” he tells The Independent. “We really had to struggle. My father and I didn’t have anywhere to stay, we were pretty much homeless. We’re the perfect example: you can come from literally nothing and have a dream.”
From a childhood spent brawling in the steel gyms that pockmark Arizona’s desert, surviving off loose change and a singular dream, Valdez is now a two-time Olympian and undefeated former world champion. Although not technically a ‘Dreamer’ – Valdez’s mother is a US citizen – it’s an identity he shares resolutely, and although he prefers not to dwell on those early toils, he recognises it as the backbone of his career.
Shortly after he last fought at the MGM Grand, winning the WBO featherweight world title four years ago, one of Valdez’s uncles was deported back to Mexico following a routine traffic stop. Several court dates and significant legal fees were required to prevent the same fate occurring to his elderly grandfather. As a result, Valdez has long been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump and America’s volatile and polarised politics, and appeared on promoter Bob Arum’s self-styled ‘No-Trump’ undercard during the 2016 presidential election race.
“It’s very important to use my platform to speak up,” Valdez says. “That’s the beauty of freedom of speech. The immigrants coming to the United States are not bad people, they’re coming for a better job, a better life. They’re doing the only thing they can to protect their families. People don’t understand what it’s like in places like Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador. We want to be in the US for a better life, not to be rapists or drug lords or whatever [Trump] wants to call them. America has been built through immigrants, and the ones who are working hard should be allowed to stay.”
So when the coronavirus pandemic forced the world into lockdown, Valdez had already become accustomed to imagining a life where those around him are stripped of their basic freedoms. The looming prospect of Trump’s dividing wall has long threatened to strand his close relatives and friends in Sonora, and once the severity of the outbreak came into focus, Valdez abandoned his training camp in San Diego and rushed back home to “protect his family”.
“We heard rumours that they’d close down the borders and things were getting a little scary back home. I wanted to be with my family,” Valdez says. “Mexico isn’t doing good in this pandemic. There’s a lot of people going out without masks, people not believing this is a real thing. A lot of people I know have been infected and it’s scary, but you’ve got to be positive and think about fighting. Then I’ll go home again and take care of my family because I want to make sure they’re safe.”
But with less than 24 hours to go until his bout with Jayson Velez, a tough Puerto Rican fighter who’s no easy touch, Valdez has now had block out all those concerns. Success for his family is contingent on his own performance in the ring, with a lucrative attempt to become a two-weight world champion planned for later this year. “We haven’t made it yet,” he adds. “We’ve still got to put in the time and effort to get a better lifestyle for our loved ones.”
It will be just Valdez’s fourth fight in the last two-and-half years, after a brutal back-and-forth points win over Scott Quigg in March 2018; the type of fight that can steal years from a fighter’s career and health. Quigg weighed almost three pounds over the featherweight limit, but Valdez insisted the fight go ahead, despite the protestations of his advisors. In the fifth round, under pouring rain at the open-air arena in California, the Briton broke Valdez’s jaw with a grimacing right hook, throwing the bout into jeopardy. “I made one mistake and it was so painful,” Valdez says. “Round after round, it was getting worse. In the 10th round, he pushed me in the clinch, and I heard it break more. I still remember it like it was yesterday. Sometimes, when I look back on it, how bloody I was, I don’t even believe it myself.”
Valdez smiled, laughed and posed for photos as he was wheeled into an ambulance afterwards. At an oral surgeon in Beverly Hills, his jaw was reset under anaesthetic and remained wired shut for two months. “I lost a lot of weight. I couldn’t have anything that wasn’t liquid. We’d put potatoes and salad into a blender, it wasn’t nice, but we were trying to survive at the same time. When the wires finally came off, I couldn’t even open my mouth for five days.”
After regaining the muscle lost during an 11-month absence, he found it almost impossible to shed it again to make the 126lbs limit. During the final week before his world title defence against Jason Sanchez last June, he wouldn’t eat more than five grapes a night and went several days without swallowing any water. “Being hungry is one thing, but the worst is being thirsty,” he says. “You can’t sleep, your body temperature is high, that was every day to make 126, I was eating literally nothing, no water, no food, it wasn’t healthy.”
Valdez laboured to a points decision, his power and reflexes sapped, and accepted that he would have to relinquish his world title and move up a weight division. A fearsome challenge against fellow Mexican Miguel Berchelt awaits if he’s successful tomorrow. The pair never faced one another as rivals in Mexico’s cut-throat amateur ranks, but are united by their odds-defying success in the US. “We are the perfect examples as athletes, we come to the US to provide, we pay our taxes, we’re coming here for a better life,” Valdez says. “People who work hard should stay and always speak up because they deserve opportunities.”