WHEN Edgar Berlanga Snr walked out of the prison gates a free man he expected to find his son hurting people. The Puerto Rican’s incarceration had left his family fraught with worry for what might happen to Edgar Jnr, a whirling dervish of a teenager floundering in the deprivation of New York’s Lower East Side. Berlanga Snr reached out to his friend and local boxing coach, Benny Roman, in a bid to give his son some direction.
“He started looking after me in the gym,” Top Rank’s super-middleweight prospect Edgar Berlanga Jnr tells Boxing News.
“He was doing a favour for my dad. My dad asked him, ‘Please, I’m going away. Please keep Edgar in the gym.’ Benny kept that promise. He picked me up every day and just kept me there. And it was working … to a certain extent.”
Keeping on straight paths is difficult in a neighbourhood as tough as Bushwick, Brooklyn. Berlanga Jnr recalls those early days with a sombre reverence, the struggles and the conflict, desperate people doing desperate things just to survive.
“I lived in the projects all my life,” he explains. “I’m a projects baby. It’s rough. You gotta deal with a lot of crap; people trying to steal from you, people trying to hurt you. My sister was getting into fights, I was getting into fights. Being so young, that actually made me a man, growing up from there. And I’m not ashamed to say I’m from where I’m from. Brooklyn, the Lower East Side. I’m not afraid to say that. If you know Bushwick back in the days, oh man! It made me who I am. It gave me that mental toughness.”
From an early age it was clear Berlanga Jnr was gifted with his fists. He remembers vividly his first fight with a school bully, not only the punishment he dished out to him but “the buzz, the quick rush” of duking it out on the street. His natural talent had been a genuine source of hope for his father as he sat marking time in his jail cell. So it was with a degree of shock and disappointment that he returned home to find his son had abandoned his gloves for a ball, a hoop, and a new goal.
“I fell in love with basketball. I would take days off from the gym just to play. And I was getting pretty good. I was actually getting very good. Pops came home and I told him, ‘I think I wanna play basketball.’ And he was like, ‘No, you’re not playing basketball. You’re gonna be a fighter instead. You’re good at it. I’m here, I’m back home. This is how it’s gonna be.’ Then he said to me, ‘You’re the LeBron James, you’re the Michael Jordan, you’re the Koby Bryant of boxing.’ Those were his words. I took his word for it and I’m here now.”
With his father free and his self-belief emboldened Edgar Jnr began to dominate the amateur boxing circuit. By the time he made the decision to turn over he’d amassed an impressive record of 162-17 as well as eight national championships and a silver medal in the Junior Olympic Nationals. Huge achievements for any young fighter, but Berlanga already had his journey mapped out.
“When I hit 15 I already knew what I wanted. I already had it in my mind that I was gonna turn pro. And I always said that as a kid I was gonna sign with Top Rank. I made my dream come true.”
Turning professional was one thing, but the spectacular nature of his transition was quite another. Removing the headguard and donning 8oz gloves for the first time, Berlanga Jnr discovered a degree of power in his hands that left him genuinely shocked.
“When I turned pro I thought, “S**t, I can really punch.” I never knew I could punch in the amateurs. It was more about just throwing punches and finishing rounds strong. When I turned pro I was training for four, six, eight, 10 rounds. It’s just a different feeling. I can truly say I was made for this. A lot of fighters, I call them ‘gym stars’. They look good on the bag, they look good sparring, they look good shadow boxing, but when it comes to fighting they can’t perform. It’s too much pressure. I turn that pressure into a positive. When people think it’s negative, I turn it into a positive. I just grasp onto that.”
A debut knockout victory in the first round was followed by another. Then another. And another. By the time Bob Arum’s Top Rank team approached him with a contract in March 2019 he’d already amassed a record of 9-0, all by knockout. All in the first round. And he wasn’t finished there. Top Rank began placing the young power puncher on major undercards, lining up more fights to showcase their new prodigy. Seven more fights, seven more knockouts. You guessed it, all in the first round. So what does he think is the key to a remarkable run that edges him closer to equalling Ali Raymi’s fabled record of 21 first round KOs? “Patience and poise. I’m more cautious. I’m more aware of a lot things in the ring. I box beautifully now and I sit down a lot on my shots now. That’s why I’ve been catching a lot of knockouts. I’m very, very, very accurate. I always had that as a kid, accuracy. Anything I did, when I played baseball, when I was pitching, I always shot the ball down the middle. When timing the bat from hitting the ball I always timed it very well. When I started playing basketball, I started getting the hang of my jump shot and where to shoot and what angle to shoot. I was very accurate with those things, and I just turned that into landing my punches the right way when I turned pro. Just be accurate, don’t waste shots and don’t throw just to throw. I throw with meaning. So it’s just accuracy and patience.”
His success has already caught the attention of some major names in the world of boxing, most notably Mike Tyson, who recently described his performances as “sensational.” Yet all of this appears to feel inevitable to an up-and-coming fighter with an unshakeable belief in the Law Of Attraction, a philosophy that claims positive or negative thoughts will be mirrored in a person’s life experiences.
“I truly believe that when you think it, when you believe it, and when you talk it, it comes to light. If you say, ‘I’m a bum, I’m lazy, I don’t have no motivation,’ if that’s what you put out into the universe that’s what’s gonna happen. That’s all you’re gonna get. If you continue to tell yourself, ‘I’m gonna be a world champ. I’m gonna have the throne of Trinidad and Cotto. I’m gonna sell out Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna be that guy from New York, from Puerto Rico, that’s gonna bring everybody back together like it was back in the early 2000s and the 90s.’ That’s one thing about me, I always imagined it. And now it’s plain. It’s exactly how I said, everything is exactly how I said it.”
Berlanga Jnr now has the cream of the super-middleweight division in his crosshairs. And though some may scoff at the huge step up in class that those names represent, his ambition has only been strengthened by seeing his friend and fellow Top Rank star, Teofimo Lopez, defeat a pound-for-pound great in Vasiliy Lomachenko to become the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.
“This generation that’s coming in now, we have balls. We’re not worried about all this bulls**t. We’re willing to step up to the plate and face whoever. And my brother, Teofimo, he started it. And I know he’s motivated a whole generation of kids that’s coming up that’s young and hungry. And I’m one of them, man. I witnessed it live, him becoming undisputed champ. Now I’m like, ‘S**t, man, I wanna fight Canelo.’ Just like Teofimo did, he went straight to the source. That’s the guy that has it so that’s the guy we want. It’s no bad intentions on him, it’s just this generation now, it’s what we’re doing. Shooting for the top dog, and we’re joining them.”