Though he finished his spectacular career 27-0, Edwin Valero no longer knows the word “undefeated.” Valero strangled himself in a cramped jail cell, Monday, just a day after he murdered his wife in a hotel room in Caracas. The 28-year-old Venezuelan boxer stopped each of his opponents in the ring – all 27 of his fights ended in knockouts, 19 of these in the first round – but he couldn’t stop his addiction to cocaine, nor his dependence on alcohol.
Edwin Valero made destruction his living. And destruction made Edwin Valero a dead man.
If you only know boxing by Tyson and Ali – by late night bouts on ESPN Classic – you might be inclined to overlook the magnitude of the man’s talent and the enormity of his homeland stature. Valero was nothing short of a superstar in native Venezuela. At only 5-foot-6-inches, the ferocious southpaw without fail towered over his opponents within the first three minutes of every fight. On February 26, 2006, he downed 130-pounder Whyber Garcia two minutes, 57 seconds into his 18th fight to set the record for most consecutive first-round knockouts to start a career. Exactly a month later, Genaro Trazancos ended Valero’s streak.
Trazancos lasted till round two.
Valero fought like a lion. He’d come forward. He’d come forward. He’d come forward some more – his flash of highlighted black hair swooshing back like a wild mane to reveal a terribly clinched face and eyes made of pure terror. A flag of his country stamped with the head of a dictator emblazoned his bare chest. And that the likeness of Hugo Chavez only recently appeared on his naked figure gives you some idea as to what the young hero began to mean to his people, and what his people began to mean to him.
“Venezuala de verdad,” reads a tri-colored tatoo that is now cold and pale.
Valero’s truth was an all-too-short life of monumental highs and equally devastating lows. He was born in Bolero Alto, Merida, to a father he would not know and a mother that would sell fruit from a market stand to feed her family. Poverty was a fact of life, as it was for over half of his countrymen, so he took out his frustrations in street fights against children who were painfully unaware that they were standing toe-to-toe with a future champion.
Edwin Valero was homeless by 12, but as is the case with most rags to riches stories, on the brink of a run-in with destiny. He finds a job with a bicycle repairman. The repairman is a boxer. By 19, the boy of skin, bones and fury is a three-time national amateur champion and the reigning Central and South American title holder.
Crouching on the cusp of international fame and his first professional fight, Valero fell prey to his own reckless nature in early 2001 when he lost control of his motorcycle without a helmet. His skull cracked. His blood clotted. His camp waited another year for clearance to fight.
In time, Venezuelan doctors gave him a clear bill of health. Sanctioning bodies commissioned his pro career. And Edwin Valero charged out of the gates like a caged animal, finishing opponents in the ring as if making up for lost time – as if stringing together fight after fight of 41 seconds (Jose Hernandez), 20 seconds (Aram Ramazyan) and 75 seconds (Esteban de Jesus Morales) would somehow compensate for long years of waiting.
On August 5, 2006, Valero knocked out Vincente Mosquera in the tenth round to claim the WBA super featherweight title, a belt he defended four times before bulking up to lightweight. He became champion in a second weight class in April of ’09 when he demolished Antonio Pitalua in front of a wild Texas crowd, his first American audience in 6 years.
After two more successful defenses of his WBC supremacy, Valero vacated his belt at the suggestion of promoter Bob Arum in a suspected attempt to intercept Manny Pacquiao before his next big payday. Arum also promotes the Filipino star.
Valero spent March beating his own body and his 24-year-old bride.
On March 25, she “fell down the stairs,” puncturing her lung and covering her body with black and blue. Valero insisted on his wife’s clumsiness, but the nurses’ suspicion of domestic abuse grew more acute each time the former champion unleashed vicious barrages of swear words in the waiting room. He had fought rage before he’d ever fought in the ring. The drugs didn’t help.
He stabbed his wife three times on Sunday – it was me, he told hotel security – and hours later he twisted his sweatpants into a noose. Cooly and calmly, Edwin Valero hung himself from the ceiling of a barred room.
His death is the fourth such boxing suicide in the last 12 months. We know about corrupt promoters and divisive governing bodies. We know about Don Kings and cash grabs. But the haunting story of this young man is a chilling reminder that boxing is killing itself in more ways than one.