Doug Fischer

Has Escobedo’s confidence returned in time for Guerrero fight?

Vicente Escobedo (far left) has the brightest smile of the four fighters featured on HBO's Boxing After Dark card from Newark, N.J. on Saturday. Perhaps it's because the lightweight, who will fight fellow Californian Robert Guerrero (far right), believes he's regained the form and confidence he had when he was a highly-touted prospect. Lucas Matthysse (center left) and Zab Judah (center right) headline the Boxing After Dark broadcast. Photo / Millennium Photo.

Once upon a time, Brandon Rios couldn’t touch Vicente Escobedo — literally or figuratively.

Rios didn’t receive a fraction of the hype that Escobedo, a 2004 U.S. Olympian, did when he turned pro. And when the two undefeated lightweight prospects sparred at the Azteca Boxing Club in Bell, Calif., in September of 2005, a handful of media observers understood why:

Escobedo was superior in every facet of the Sweet Science. Rios, 6-0 with 6 knockouts at the time, couldn’t lay a glove on Escobedo, 7-0 with 7 KOs. Most witnesses to the sparring session thought Rios was a promising fighter but everyone agreed that Escobedo was special.

Nobody doubted that the Woodland, Calif., native was a future champion and potential star.

However, five years later, Escobedo has yet to realize that potential. While the still-unbeaten Rios has recently emerged as the lightweight division’s hottest contender, Escobedo, who has lost twice and struggled against lesser opposition, is close to slipping to stepping-stone status.

Escobedo (22-2, 14 KOs) can avoid that unseemly label if he beats Robert Guerrero (27-1-1, 18 KOs) in the opening bout of HBO’s Boxing After Dark broadcast from Newark, N.J., this Saturday. However, few believe that Escobedo has what it takes to defeat his fellow northern Californian, a talented former two-division titleholder.

Given Guerrero’s well-publicized family concerns and inconsistency in the ring, one has to wonder why Escobedo isn’t given more of a chance to win by fans and media.

Escobedo still has the sharp technique and fast hands that made him a ballyhooed prospect. His two losses, to Daniel Jimenez and Michael Katsidis, were competitive split-decisions to quality opponents. He’s 28 years old and relatively fresh, never having taken an extended beating in the ring.

Why is there so little faith in Escobedo? Perhaps it’s because he did not appear to have faith in his own ability during many fights of the past 4½ years. He seemed plagued by self-doubt even during his best victories, a sixth-round TKO of then-undefeated Dominic Salcido in 2008 and a 10-round decision over former titleholder Carlos Hernandez last April.

Escobedo looked lost while stalking the fleet-footed Salcido, who led on all three scorecards before getting clipped while hot-dogging in the sixth round. He dropped a shop-worn Hernandez twice in the early rounds of their bout but allowed the 38-year-old veteran to get back into the fight and mount a spirited late rally.

So what happened to the blue-chip prospect who sparred with Rios and was 9-0 with 9 knockouts at the start of 2006?

Like many observers, boxing insider Ray Alcorta believes the fighter’s self-doubt began with his eight-round loss to Jimenez in April of 2006.

“He had looked so good before that fight,” said Alcorta, a matchmaker for Top Rank who once co-trained Escobedo with Clemente Medina. “He was knocking everybody out. There was a real buzz about him, and then he fought Jimenez, who was 13-1-1 at the time, and lost. To me, that was the beginning of his career going off track. That unblemished record was taken away so fast that Escobedo didn’t know what happened. He’s seemed a bit lost ever since, and that’s too bad because there was no reason for him to fight a dangerous guy like Jimenez, who had won 13 in a row going into the Escobedo fight and was looking good.

“Why did Escobedo fight a guy like that with only nine fights? I think [Escobedo’s promoter] Golden Boy made a mistake. It was an honest mistake because they were still a new company at the time. [Matchmaker] Eric Gomez was still learning his job. But it’s not like anyone told Escobedo ‘Oh sorry, Vicente, we messed up with that fight.’ So what’s the fighter going to think? He’s going to think what everybody else was thinking at the time, that he should have beat Jimenez. Suddenly, he doesn’t think he’s as good as he thought he was.”

David Avila, a sports writer for the Press-Enterprise, a San Bernardino County, Calif.-area daily newspaper, agrees that the loss to Jimenez was the start of Escobedo‘s ring struggles.

“The loss to the Puerto Rican took him backwards,” said Avila, who has closely covered Escobedo’s pro career. “I think he’s only begun to recover from it.”

Avila, who was one of the boxing writers present for the Rios sparring session, also agrees that the damage that Escobedo suffered in the Jimenez fight was 100-percent psychological.

“The sparring with Rios was just a couple bouts before the Jimenez fight, and at that time I thought Vicente was a shoo-in for a future world title,” he said. “In fact, I thought he’d get there real quick because he made Rios look like a rookie. He wasn’t beat up in the Jimenez loss; it was a real close, competitive fight but the loss absolutely caused a confidence problem in Vicente. After that fight he was doubting his own skill, doubting his power, doubting his chin.

“I think that’s the reason he moved around from trainer to trainer so much.”

Escobedo turned pro in February of 2005 under the guidance of veteran trainer Joe Goossen but he quickly moved to Medina and then to unheralded San Diego-based coach David Gutierrez just before the Jimenez bout. After the loss, Escobedo made a quick pit stop at the Wild Card Boxing Club, where Freddie Roach trained him for one fight, before he settled down with Nacho Beristain in Mexico City for three years.

He split with Beristain after his loss to Katsidis last September and has trained with Joel Diaz in Coachella, Calif., since the beginning of 2010. Diaz, the older brother of former lightweight titleholder Julio Diaz, is best known for his work with highly regarded junior welterweight titleholder Timothy Bradley.

Alcorta believes having six trainers in six years is part of Escobedo’s problem.

“He had four trainers during his first two years as pro. That’s not good for any fighter,” Alcorta said. “And the one trainer he stuck with made him move to Mexico, which I think was a mistake. Vicente wasn’t happy living away from all of his family and friends. This was a Mexican-American kid who grew up around the Sacramento area; you know Mexico City was a culture shock.”

Escobedo, who now lives in Pasadena, won’t go so far as to say that he was unhappy in Mexico with Beristain, but it’s clear that he prefers living in California and training with Diaz.

“This is the best camp I‘ve had in a very long time,” Escobedo told RingTV.com from New Jersey on Wednesday. “I haven’t felt this comfortable or this confident since my first pro camp with Joe Goossen. Joel is great. He inspires me. I love his training ethics. He pushes me to my limits, which is what I need. It’s what I want.

“The way I’ve performed in the gym has made me happier than I’ve been in a long time. I can’t remember when I’ve felt this good. It’s like I won the lottery.”

Escobedo’s purse for the Guerrero fight won’t make him feel like he’s hit the jackpot, but if he beats the talented southpaw, he knows that elusive title shot will be right around the corner.

It’s the reason Escobedo didn’t hesitate to take the fight. And if he’s lacking confidence, one can’t tell when talking to him about it.

“I feel I’m faster than Guerrero, and I know I can beat him with the right game plan,” Escobedo said. “He’s a southpaw, but he’s aggressive, and he’s not awkward like most lefthanders. My quickness and my skills will control the fight.”

It’s been a long time since Escobedo has controlled a fight from start to finish, especially against a fighter as good as Guerrero. He looked good in spots during his pivotal fights — against Jimenez, Salcido, Hernandez and Katsidis — but his offense and technique lacked consistency in all four bouts.

Escobedo is aware of this and he agrees in part with Alcorta’s assertion that too many trainers spoiled the prospect.

“It caused some problems,” he said. “I was a little confused, and it was mostly my fault. The trainers I worked with didn’t try to change my style. They just wanted to add to it, but I wanted to pick up everything they tried to teach me so fast that I neglected the basic things I learned in the past.”

Escobedo says Diaz realized that he had abandoned his fundamentals.

“Joel is the first trainer to notice that I was neglecting the basics and correct the mistakes I was making,” he said. “The others were so busy with other fighters, especially Roach and Beristain, I don’t think they really noticed what I was doing wrong.”

Diaz does more than remind Escobedo of the basics in the gym; he goes over past fights with the fighter and shows him what he could have — probably should have — done differently and where he can improve. The video sessions appear to have boosted Escobedo’s confidence.

“I’ve watched the Katsidis fight 10 to 15 times with Joel, and I’ve seen what I did wrong,” he said. “I recognized all the little things that made that fight difficult. It could have been easier. The result could’ve been different because he won by out-muscling me, and I let him do it. I moved around too much and I was tired by the end of the fight.”

Escobedo says he will be more settled down and offense minded for Guerrero. Evidently, getting back to the basics has returned Escobedo to the sharp-shooting form he had at the start of his career, which has resulted in the kind of gym buzz he had when he was a prospect.

There was a rumor that he had knocked out junior welterweight fringe contender Patrick Lopez in a sparring session before the tough Venezuelan lefty was stopped by Tim Coleman last month. Escobedo, who is usually modest, doesn’t deny that he was exceptionally sharp in camp but he amended the rumor of a sparring knockout to a sparring knockdown.

“Patrick was finishing up his camp for Coleman and was looking for some work with a few physically strong sparring partners,” Escobedo said. “His trainers wanted him to spar with Tim Bradley or Julio [Diaz]. They didn’t think I would be strong enough to give him good work, but Joel talked them into it. He told them I’ve got power. They agreed to a sparring session just to test me out, and I landed a double-jab followed by a straight right that put Lopez down hard.”

“It was my first week of camp so I surprised myself with the knockdown, but I shouldn’t have been. I came in shape for this fight, and that session set the tone for this camp. Right off the bat I was sparring five 4-minute rounds with 30-second breaks with Lopez and Julio, who can fight southpaw, and I haven’t had any trouble with stamina or the left-handed stance.”

Most who tune into HBO’s broadcast Saturday will be surprised if Escobedo doesn’t have trouble with Guerrero. Many fans and insiders will be shocked if he actually wins the fight. Alcorta and Avila are not among them.

“A lot of people think Guerrero will whip right through Escobedo but I think it’s a pick-‘em fight,” said Avila. “It’s a very good fight, one that I’ve wanted to see for a long time, and I think Escobedo has a real good shot.”

Alcorta is picking Escobedo to win the fight.

“I think his speed but also his accuracy will be the difference,” he said. “I’ll never count him out because that guy works hard. He trains hungry. When he’s confident, I think he can beat anybody, even a Robert Guerrero. I won’t be surprised if he hurts Guerrero. Vicente’s not a knockout puncher but he’s got decent power. I don’t think people realize that.”

Avila believes Escobedo’s resiliency is also underrated.

“He’s tougher than people think,” he said. “He went the distance with Katsidis, and Katsidis is no joke. He’ll take you out quick if you’re not elite. Just ask Kevin Mitchell. Escobedo was right there with Katsidis to the end. I was impressed. The only thing he lacked in that fight was experience.”

Escobedo agrees.

“I understand people’s doubts about me,” he said. “They thought I was going to be a champion by now, and truth be told, so did I. Now I realize that it takes time for a fighter to develop. The losses set me back, but they also gave me experience I needed. The guys who beat me had to go through their own losses and setbacks, which made them better fighters.

“I know I’m a better fighter than when I fought Katsidis and fans will see it on Saturday. They will see a blossoming fighter, a stronger and more confident fighter. The Vicente they’ve been waiting for is finally showing up.”

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