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Karlos Balderas: The Hard Way

“It did hurt, I’m not gonna lie to you. I did cry. I think it did hurt my family more than it hurt me.”

Christmas 2019 in the Balderas household was a sombre affair. Normally a time of festive cheer, gluttony and happiness, the emotions were one of loss, guilt and regret. Four days beforehand Karlos Balderas had lost a fight, the first of a professional career which was two-and-a-half years old.

‘I think he’s one of the best young prospects out there,’ was how veteran trainer Joe Goossen, working as a Fox Sports analyst, described Balderas while his fight against Rene Tellez Giron was warming up.

The praise was somewhat skewered in the final seconds of round three when Balderas was put down by a left hook. A punch that was a continuous warning to the 2016 Olympian throughout their 18 minutes of Latino machismo. The sixth session was the conclusion. Once again, the American prospect was undone by the Mexican’s left hand. He was fortunate to get a second opportunity after his first visit to the canvas, but this time the bell and the generosity of referee Ray Corona wasn’t enough to save him.

As Tellez Giron celebrated, the Balderas corner was a picture of shattered dreams as Karlos rested his head on the shoulder of his father and trainer, David. 

Now working with Buddy McGirt, 135-pounder Balderas reflected on the defeat and that Christmas when he spoke to Boxing Social from a gym in Los Angeles.

“Christmas was bad. It was very bad. It was very dark and my whole family took it very bad, and it was just a very sad Christmas. Although I knew I would be okay, I knew I was going to be fine,” said Balderas (9-1, 8 KOs).

“If you think about it, think about all the amateur experience I had as a kid. I had over 200 fights. When you’re a little kid and you go to the nationals, and you lose a big tournament it means everything, you don’t care about anything else. You want to win and if you lose it’s heart-breaking, it’s devastating and as a kid I remember losing tournaments, for trophies and medals and I would cry, and dad would drive for hours heading home and I would be crying the whole way. I think all that has helped me along the way. As a kid that helped me prepare for the big leagues. Now that I’m here it’s just another loss for me. To my family this was something very devastating and that’s why Christmas was so hard. But, to me, I knew I’d be okay; I knew I’d be fine.”

For his father, the defeat hurt more. His son was hurting mentally but Karlos tried to cover it up to reassure him that he would be okay.

“I let my dad know I was good, even though deep down I was mourning, and I was hurting. There was times when I cried myself to sleep and I woke up and I was crying but I got over it. 

“My dad… it has affected him more because even just recently he cried when he was talking about it. He started crying because there was a lot of things behind that fight that shouldn’t have happened, and he allowed it to happen. Not just my dad, other people as well. It wasn’t a smart decision to take that fight. Not speaking about the opponent, regardless of the opponent, I’m just speaking about the fight as well. I was not myself.”

For a sharp-punching, crowd-pleasing, highly-regarded up-and-comer a defeat in that manner is a disaster. Dropped twice and being tagged repetitively by the same punch is not a good look. It was a bump in the road, but one that had the vehicle struggling to regain control before ending up in a ditch. Was it, though, an accident waiting to happen? Boxing Social asked Balderas.

“I would like to say no but truthfully I think I might have already seen something along the way. I was getting very comfortable with the way I was training,” he said.

“Just being home in Santa Maria there’s a lot of distractions out there. A lot of friends and a lot of family. It might sound a little bad but they’re always calling you saying, ‘hey I need this, hey I need that’. You, the person with a good heart, is going to go and try and do everything they ask you to do but now out here in L.A I can’t even if I would like to. I’m far from my friends, I’m far from my family and I don’t like being alone, but I know it’s going to work out.”

Isolation is boxing’s prison without the cast iron bars denying you freedom. You, your company, your thoughts inside a room with the usual technology to help you pass your time. It is not everyone’s choice but for Balderas it seems necessary. The 25-year-old is not completely comfortable being alone, but he realises that without it then his dreams of becoming a world champion could well become nothing more than a mirage in the desert.

“I’ve always liked being around my family, around my brothers, my cousins and my mum and my dad and my grandparents but then again there is a lot of distractions, a lot of friends,” he explains. 

“Every time I’ve been around a lot of friends, a lot of people… a mess always happens. Every time I’ve been by myself, when I’ve been focused like I was when I was getting ready for the Olympics and they had me isolated at the Olympic Training Centre, it’s for a reason and it really does help.”

In November 2016, Balderas and his older brother Jose signed with Richard Schaefer and Ringstar Sports. There was excitement, optimism, and belief that their destination of becoming world champions and star names had begun at the right pick-up point. During a conference call announcing where their pro signatures had been inked, Balderas said of Schaefer:

‘I felt like Richard has the power in L.A., where my market is at. I feel like he has all the good connects out here.’ 

Top Rank was also reportedly interested in signing the Balderas brothers. Four years down the line and Balderas is now in Bob Arum’s all-star stable of fighters.

“I’m very happy to have signed with Top Rank,” says Balderas. Happy, thankful, and relieved, too.

“This opportunity was first presented to me when I first turned professional, when I first got out the Olympics. They [Top Rank] even came as far as Santa Maria, you know, where I’m from and, now I look back at it, I wish I had done the decision and took the move with Top Rank. I know, looking at everyone that was in the Olympics. Teofimo [Lopez], Shakur [Stevenson], all these guys and I’m happy for them and their success. But I think maybe… Ringstar… I dunno… Ringstar had good intentions, but I don’t think he had the right power to promote me, I don’t know what it was.” 

Everything happens for a reason, something that many a fighter believes in and remind themselves of frequently. 

“I’m a firm believer of that,” Balderas says. 

“Even my last fight, where I took a loss, it was a learning experience. I changed up a lot of things since that loss.”

The changes have swept through Balderas. From promoter to trainer to working with a strength and conditioning coach. This is Karlos Balderas 2.0. It was all needed and, in his mind, it was coming too before the loss to Tellez Giron.

“I was being a little ignorant because along the way I was still knocking people out,” he admits.

“I was still feeling good, still had that speed, that exciting style although speed and excitement is not what takes you far, it’s smart boxing. Along the way I was slacking. After the loss was when I realised, I knew that I needed to make change. No longer I was saying, ‘I gotta make a change, I gotta make a change’. After the loss I said, ‘I’m gonna make a change’. Sometimes we have to learn the hard way.”

On to Saturday night in Tulsa. A six-round appearance for his Top Rank debut against Kansas City’s Fidel Cervantes. In the main event, Joshua Franco and Andrew Moloney will try and put a full stop on their rivalry once and for all at the third time of asking. For Balderas, it is an opportunity to show the people of Top Rank that they have championship material on their hands. It is a chance for that once hot prospect to put the last 20 months behind him and remind us all why the likes of Joe Goossen and others had such high hopes for him.

“I would like to get my name back on top,” he says, adding that another fight before the end of the year would be ideal. 

“It’s funny because, check this out: I feel like when a fighter is not that good and he takes an L, a loss, people say you’ll be back, and they say stuff like you’ll still be a champion. But I think when people see a fighter has talent and he loses they try to shame him, they try to bash him, told you he wasn’t that good. But people know the type of talent I bring. I’m really not even worried I just need to get back in the ring. 

“After this fight Top Rank will see they made the right decision in signing me and they’re gonna put me back in again and again and again. I’m excited. I’m feeling really good, feeling strong. I can’t wait to fight.”

Life in Los Angeles suits Balderas down to the ground. The only negative may be the solitude but working with McGirt is a constant reminder of what it takes to get to the promised land. Eighty fights, a two-weight world champion, who topped bills in Madison Square Garden, Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and mixed it with the likes of Pernell Whittaker, Simon Brown and Meldrick Taylor. Even if he wasn’t in your corner, you would ask for advice.

“Buddy had a lot of experience as a fighter,” Balderas says before telling Boxing Social how the association with the hall-of-famer came about.

“I’m a fan of boxing, I’m not just a boxer, I’m a big fan of boxing. I seen a lot his fights in the past. I like to watch a lot of Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard so just watching [McGirt] I knew he was a good fighter. Back in his prime, if you were a champion, you were a champion, it’s not like now there’s about 20 organisations! 

“I’m actually good friends with Adam Lopez. When I ran into him in at the Fury-Wilder rematch. I told him I’d really like to come out here. I knew he was Buddy McGirt’s main fighter, but I just wanted to make sure it was cool because I knew that would mean he would be taking someone else on and giving their time to me. I was a little bit sceptical thinking he doesn’t want me to come but he said, ‘Nah come through, Buddy knows his shit’. I remember those were his exact words. He said, ‘Buddy knows what he’s talking about, Buddy knows what he’s doing, you should come out here. You’ll get good sparring with me, good sparring with a bunch of other people in L.A. You’re in L.A everybody comes’.

So, I said for sure I’ll check it out. I eventually came and made the move out here and now I’m out here sparring with Adam and a bunch of other fighters. Out here you get a bunch of awkward styles and it’s what you need as a fighter. Out there in Santa Maria, three hours away, where I’m from I was sparring maybe once a week and I had to take it easy on sparring partners. It’s not what a champion needs.”

Solid structure has been brought to the life of Karlos Balderas. The danger signs, the bump in the road, the “messy” moments and relaxed attitude before venturing to LA resembled a property on the edge of a cliff. At any time, that structure could give way and be swept out from under him.

“Out there in Santa Maria my dad has his gym so I had the keys to my gym and I sometimes if I wanted to do weights in the morning I would go and if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t go,” Balderas says. 

His father and uncles showed leniency. Mr. McGirt has a different way of looking at it.

“I have Buddy in the gym every day. In fact, he texted me one time, I forgot to get back to him that I was resting, because I had a hard session, so I thought I’d take the day off and he texted me to say, ‘Where the fuck are you at? I’m here waiting for you at the gym’. I was like, ‘oh shit I forgot to get back to him’ but that’s the type of pressure that a fighter needs.

“If a man wants to work or move on his own, he can make a lot of mistakes. I think I needed a little bit of guidance; I was a little bit reckless and saying a lot of crazy things and doing a lot of crazy things. I got a lot better guidance now.”

Balderas has revenge on his mind when it comes to the man who gave him that humbling defeat in 2019. Top Rank president Todd DuBoef has told him to relax, to slow down. A rematch with Tellez Giron can wait. That time can come if it makes sense. 

“I do trust in Top Rank and that they’ll move me correctly and they’re going to promote me correctly and that’s something…”

A pause before Tellez Giron clearly enters his thought process again.

“I really want to fight him again. It’s not even so much about the fight… I don’t even know what it is, but I know that I’m a better fighter and I just can’t wait to prove it again. Maybe just a little bit of a thorn that’s stuck in me, a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But I’m going to get him.”

The new Karlos Balderas is clear and present but the old one pops up from time to time. Maybe that balance will serve him well moving forward. Only time will tell. He wants to entertain and excite, particularly for UK fans who may be seeing him for the first time in the early hours of Sunday morning on Sky Sports, but recklessness could see the reset button he has pushed disappear into the distance if he is not careful. 

Balderas is counting on himself, McGirt and Top Rank to prove that Tellez Giron was nothing more than a blessing in disguise. The comeback begins in Tulsa, a place known for devastating tornadoes. He has already been inside the eye of a storm and survived. This second chance is an opportunity for him to prove that he is going to become a boxing force of nature.

Main image: Premier Boxing Champions.