When countries and territories with boxing prestige are mentioned, you often hear of Mexico and Cuba, but there is one that has been outperforming every other nation by a significant margin throughout history – Puerto Rico.
Despite its small size, the Caribbean Island has produced a champion in every weight-class barring the heavyweight division – although John Ruiz was of Puerto Rican heritage – with only the United States and the United Kingdom doing the same.
What’s more impressive is these statistics from JD Sports showcasing the champions per capita of each country and broadcasting how far ahead Puerto Rico are when it comes to claiming world titles, more than doubling the champions per million people of their closest competitor, Panama.
Puerto Rico has no advantages when it comes to boxing. It has no secret technology like the Russians in Rocky IV. It’s a small North American country with a history of poverty, a weak economy and high unemployment that has felt the full effects of hurricane crisis’, recessions and the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the knock-on effect of such hardship has inspired will, perseverance and determination into the heart of its inhabitants, creating a community that is sedulous to the core, with that same drive being passed on through generations.
Since that graphic was created, Puerto Rico has provided two more Boricua world champions – Jonathan Gonzalez and Subriel Matias – and an interim champion in McWilliams Arroyo. The latter has thrice challenged for a world title and, like the rest of his countrymen, he is driven to achieve his goal.
In November 2021, his WBC Flyweight title clash with Julio Cesar Martinez was cut short due to an accidental head clash, but he is pushing for a rematch for later this year. Boxing Social spoke to McWilliams to discuss how his country is so efficient in the sport of boxing, and he explained that ‘it is in their blood.’
What it’s like growing up in Puerto Rico with the hope of becoming a boxer?
“Actually, I didn’t grow up there, I was born there but we moved to Luquillo and lived for a couple of years there and them move to the states – 3 years Connecticut, 3 years in Florida – and then I came back to Luquillo. It wasn’t until then that I was introduced to boxing in Fajardo 25 years ago, which is where I currently live.”
What are the boxing facilities like in Puerto Rico?
“Amazing, very nice and the best part about it is you don’t have to pay, so the low class can participate. It’s amazing, actually.
There are a lot of gyms all around the different cities that are improving very much, but I believe that because of all the distractions today, it is not the same as when i was growing up. The technology for example, I didn’t have a phone at that time, and believe it or not even that’s a distraction.”
Is there pressure and expectation to continue to produce Boricua world champions?
“If we think of it, yes, but it comes within our blood the willingness for success and that’s why I believe Puerto Rico will always succeed in boxing.”
“The desire for success makes us very brave.”
It’s within their blood, Arroyo claims, and the proof is in the pudding. The Boricua’s most fabled pugilists battled in some of the most arduous eras in boxing, and more than held their own. Perhaps none more so than Wilfredo Benítez.
‘El-Radar’, a super-lightweight, became the youngest world champion of all-time in 1976 aged just seventeen-years-old, before he twice stepped up in weight and enhanced his legacy as a three-division world titlist. During his time in the ring, Benítez would take on three of the ‘four middleweight kings’ at welterweight and super-welterweight, defeating Roberto Durán but losing out to both Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns.
Puerto Rico has also birthed the likes of super-bantamweight power-puncher, Wilfredo Gómez, who also became a three-weight champion, as well as fellow legends Héctor Camacho, Carlos Ortiz, Félix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto, with each fighter inspiring the youth of their hometowns to emulate their success.
Similarly, Arroyo always looked up to the man from his community who introduced him to the sport, Juan Molina.
Do kids in Puerto Rico dream of becoming the next Miguel Cotto?
“Well, I went to meet a fellow boxer [as a child], Juan Molina, and once we saw kids our own age, my Dad asked us if we wanted to start boxing immediately, and we said yes. It was October 22nd, 1997, I remember like it was yesterday.”
“Everyone called him [Molina] ‘John John’. I was born in Ceiba, but my boxing career has been from Fajardo, and I was very influenced by him, he was my role model. Him and Felix Trinidad.”
Young fighters today should have no trouble finding an idol for motivation, with Subriel Matias following in the footsteps of Wilfredo Benítez and currently reigning as the IBF Super-Lightweight champion. In a world where attention spans are shortening and the beauty of boxing has become less attractive than highlight reel knockouts, Puerto Ricans are lucky that their national hero has a style that appeals to the sports’ new audience.
Matias holds a record of nineteen wins to his one loss and each of those wins has come by knockout due to his aggressive and high-octane style. This has given Arroyo hope that, not only can Matias waive the Puerto Rican flag in a grandiose division, but that he can ‘tear everyone down’ and compel the next generation to match or better his accomplishments.
How proud are the people of Puerto Rico with the current IBF super-lightweight world champion, Subriel Matias?
“Subriel is the face of boxing in Puerto Rico, hopefully he can still tear everyone down, but he’s just got to be careful.
I’m very excited and happy with his accomplishments in boxing. He made it, he used to train in my gym, we used to spar. I remember as a child I would take him to the gym if I saw him walking, so there is history with us.”
How do you think Matias fares against the likes of Regis Prograis, Rolando Romero, Josh Taylor, and Ryan Garcia?
“I believe they all are hard fights, but his style makes each fighter need to be aware. Even so, I still will pick him for his constant pressure, he just can’t get hit too much.”
Arroyo is still hopeful that he can continue to represent his country on the biggest stage himself, and finally claim the world title that he so craves. His goal is clear, and his target is obvious – Julio Cesar Martinez.
The Mexican has had three bouts since his no-contest with Arroyo, who is yet to enter the ring since they met, but still the 2009 World Amateur Boxing champion is confident that the pair will run it back in a few months’ time.
What are your personal goals? You’re still the interim champion, are you planning on rematching Julio Cesar Martinez?
“Yes, I am planning to fight in September against Martinez. For different reasons something always happens, but hopefully we can get rid of that in September.”
A win for Arroyo would make him the 51stmale Puerto Rican world title holder and skyrocket him into unification contests against the other superstars of the hotly contested 112lb scene.
Sunny Edwards, Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez and Artem Dalakian hold the other flyweight belts, and with each man showing intent to become undisputed, it seems that the division is set for an entertaining era of its own.
Like many of his predecessors, that will not trouble Arroyo, and it would be a pleasure to see him compete against the top players at the weight. Write him off at your peril, for his desire for success is ‘in his blood’.