BEFORE he was a murderer, Edwin Valero was a boxer. And before he was a boxer, he was a boy, born in Venezuela on December 3, 1981 into a life of poverty and hard knocks that led to street fights and trouble with the police from a tender age. It was this shaky foundation that guided him to the prizefighting ring and from which that ring provided escape; it is likely in this harsh, angry soil that the seeds were sown that would ultimately erupt with shockingly violent finality.
Those early years, he would tell confidantes when he first arrived in the United States, were times of theft and motorcycle gangs, of finding an outlet for a tightly-coiled rage, a rage that seemingly never left him, even when he channeled it into the challenges of boxing.
“I saw him train about three times before I ever saw him spar, and I was immediately awed by him,” recalls Doug Fischer of The Ring, who was one of the first journalists to see the young super-featherweight in action shortly after he arrived at Joe Hernandez’s gym in Vernon, California in the spring of 2003. “The first time I saw him just train, just going through all the stations in this really cramped gym, and watching him skip rope and go from a double-end bag to a speed bag to a heavy bag and shadow-boxing, his intensity set him apart from most professional fighters that you saw. And then I saw him spar, and my God, he was having an easy time with guys he shouldn’t have been having an easy time with.”
“Lazcano couldn’t hang with him,” says Fischer. “I think Lazcano sparred with him two or three times and decided he’d be better off at Joe Goossen’s gym in the valley sparring with [former and future world champion] Joel Casamayor.”
At the time that Valero was taking care of future world champions, he had fewer than eight full rounds of professional boxing under his belt: eight contests, each of which he had won inside three minutes. It was a record of ring rapidity that would continue when he began fighting in the States.
On July 19, 2003, Valero faced off against Emanuel Ford in Maywood, California. The result: a first-round stoppage. One month later, he took on Roque Cassiani; once again, the fight was stopped in Valero’s favour inside the first round. By the end of the year his record had grown to 12-0, the first-round knockout streak still in perfect shape, and the young fighter was on the verge of making his HBO debut.
But in January 2004, while the boxer was undergoing a routine medical in New York in advance of that HBO bout, an MRI revealed a small spot on his brain, a possible sign of cerebral hemorrhage.
“Oh that,” offered Valero nonchalantly. That was probably the result of a motorcycle crash he’d had in 2001, before he turned pro. No, he hadn’t been wearing a helmet.
With that, the New York State Athletic Commission promptly refused him a licence. And where New York went, the rest of the Association of Boxing Commissions went too. Valero’s fast-rising career was suddenly on hold, and as it remained on hold, he began to harbour doubts about those who were guiding it.
“He never gave up on himself or his own career, but he was frustrated with his promoter, which was the then-fledgling Golden Boy Promotions, and his manager, who was Oscar De La Hoya’s dad,” recalls Fischer. “And he thought these guys were powerful people in the sport, and he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t handle the situation, why they couldn’t get him reinstated, why they couldn’t hire the right people on the medical end or the legal end to work things out, and I know he began to get disillusioned at this point.”
In the multitude of reflections that followed the Valero story’s horrifying nadir, there were questions raised about that mark on his brain and the accident that may have been responsible for it. Could they have been responsible for his erratic, violent personality? Were they the ultimate cause of the events that would explode with shocking finality in April 2010? Perhaps so, but isolating an individual impact is difficult, when the elements that create each and every one of us are complex mixes of genetics and environment. In Valero’s case that mix also included the surroundings from which he came, the violence that was embedded in his nature almost as soon as he could walk or talk, and the fact that his chosen profession was one in which he not only dished out punishment with his fists but also received countless blows to his head in return.
All of those elements in concert may have made for a combustible brew, and all the more so given the accelerants that Valero at some point began adding to the ingredients, in the form of alcohol and cocaine.
Fourteen months after his licence was denied, realising his Stateside career was at a dead-end, Valero returned to Venezuela before moving to Japan, severing ties with Golden Boy and hooking up with Teiken Promotions. He became a road warrior, fighting on cards in Panama, Mexico and France, as well as Japan and his native land. He picked up where he had left off, scoring six more first-round knockouts, running his string to 18 in a row before, in March 2006, Genaro Trazancos – who would retire in 2012 with a pedestrian record of 22-16-1 – carved a place of sorts in boxing history by being the first to extend Valero into the second frame.
On August 5, 2006, Valero faced by far the biggest test of his career so far when he challenged Vicente Mosquera for the WBA super-featherweight title in Panama City. It looked at first as if Valero would win the title the way he had won those first 18 bouts when he decked Mosquera twice in the first three minutes. But Mosquera survived, and then he survived the second round too. In the third round, he even dropped Valero, who for the first time in his professional career found himself in a real dogfight. But he dug deep, eventually stopping the defending champ in the 10th round to claim his first world title belt.
Winning a world title might reasonably have been expected to bring some element of contentment and achievement to Valero’s life, not least given the obstacles he had encountered – from his underprivileged beginnings to his involuntary career hiatus – along the way. Instead, according to those who knew him, the always edgy Valero became, if anything, more sullen and less pleasant to be around.
Perhaps the most noticeable change, however, was not so much in Valero as in those around him, specifically his wife, Jennifer Carolina Viera. As Fischer notes, “After he won the title, I never saw her smile.” Something within Valero’s personality, if not exactly changing, was growing, and not for the better. Even back in California, Fischer remembers, Valero had his young wife “pretty much under lock and key. He had major jealousy issues.”
I met Valero on just one occasion, when he made his successful assault on a second world title, claiming a vacant WBC lightweight belt with a second-round stoppage of Antonio Pitalua in April 2009. I spoke no Spanish and he knew very little English, yet by the second or third day of fight week, he would greet me enthusiastically with a powerful handshake and hug. A few weeks later, I mentioned to a friend who worked for Teiken that I had met their former charge; “He seems like a nice guy,” I ventured. My friend responded with an instinctive grimace, as if I had just told him I liked to torture cats. Several years later, Top Rank president Bob Arum characteristically expressed his attitude toward Valero with greater bluntness.
“He was totally erratic,” Arum recalled recently. “He was kind of a nice guy, but then he could go off at any time. He wasn’t normal.”
Arum promoted Valero for the Pitalua bout, having found an accommodating American commission in the form of Texas, which was willing to grant the boxer a licence. Arum denies it now – “It was never a consideration,” he insists – but there was talk at the time of pitting the explosive Venezuelan against Manny Pacquiao, a fight Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach embraced. “I’ve been thinking about it, and the number one contender in my mind right now is Edwin Valero,” he said in 2010. Two years earlier, he had noted that Valero “is a bit slow but he’s got a lot of power. He’s very dangerous.”
It was not to be. Valero’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. He raised eyebrows when he had the Venezuelan flag and a portrait of that country’s controversial president Hugo Chavez tattooed on his chest. Valero claimed that tattoo was the reason he was denied a visa to re-enter the States after the Pitalua fight; the official and more likely reason was that he was charged with driving under the influence while in Texas.
He fought twice more, defending his WBC title against Hector Velazquez in Venezuela and, in his final outing, against Antonio DeMarco in Mexico [below] , but outside the ring the warning signs were now flashing bright and red. In September 2009, he denied reports in his hometown of Merida that he had been hitting his wife and mother; in March the following year, one month after the DeMarco fight, Jennifer was admitted into hospital for injuries including a punctured lung and broken ribs – injuries that she asserted had been caused in a fall. Valero was arrested after appearing at the hospital where she had been admitted and threatening doctors and nurses; he subsequently argued with the arresting officer and forbade his wife from speaking with him.
After that incident, he was admitted to a psychiatric facility for treatment and observation, but was released on April 7, 2010. The Venezuelan government arranged for him to enter rehab in Cuba; two days later, on his way to the airport, a drunk Valero crashed his car and missed his flight. Now widely suspected of beating his wife regularly, he was assigned a police escort, but on April 17 he somehow managed to give them the slip and rented a van in which he drove with his wife to the city of Valencia, where that night the two of them checked into a room at the Hotel Intercontinental.
At 5.30 the following morning, Valero walked barefoot to the front desk and calmly announced that he had killed his wife. She had been stabbed to death.
He offered no resistance when he was arrested; concerned that he was presumably drunk or high and might be a suicide risk when he sobered up, police removed his shoelaces and jacket. But he was allowed to wear his sweat pants, and it was those that he used to hang himself in his prison cell sometime early in the morning of April 19, 2010. He was 28 years old.
My mind returns to that fight week in Texas. I was standing in the hotel lobby when Valero saw me, strode toward me and wrapped me in a bear hug. As he did so, I looked over his shoulder and saw Jennifer and their two young children crowded close together, focused on us and eyeing proceedings uncertainly. I thought at the time that they were shy: uncertain visitors to a foreign land whose language they did not speak. In hindsight, I wonder something else, whether what I saw as shyness was fear and the eyes that looked at us were making a silent, ultimately unanswered, plea for help.