Brandon Rios’ first shot at a major title won’t come against an easy opponent. Miguel Acosta, the WBA lightweight beltholder Rios faces in a title fight Saturday in Las Vegas on Showtime, is experienced, skilled and talented.
That’s OK with Rios. The 24-year-old contender, who relishes a good scrap, seldom has problems in the ring. Rios always found trouble when he wasn’t fighting.
His out-of-the-ring drama got so dire a few years ago that he was in danger of being dropped by trainer Robert Garcia, manager Cameron Dunkin and his promoter, Top Rank.
However, Rios has gotten his act together over the past two years, and recent ring performances – a third-round stoppage of prospect Jorge Teron and a seventh-round DQ of top contender Anthony Peterson – reflect the new positive direction of his life.
The catalyst for his change is his newlywed wife, Vicky, according to Garcia and Dunkin. Good things started happening to Rios once she became part of his life.
“If it wasn’t for Vicky, I don’t think Brandon would be in the position he’s in now,” Garcia told RingTV.com. “If he wasn’t with her, I don’t know where his mind would be. I don’t think he’d have the maturity to deal with a fighter like Acosta. I don’t think he’d be ready to fight for a world title.”
Dunkin is more blunt with his take on the relationship.
“She saved his life,” the prominent manager said.
How out of control was Rios before he met his wife-to-be? Dunkin and Garcia claim that he wound up in jail almost every time he visited his hometown of Garden City, Kan., between fights.
“It was mostly fist fights that were getting him tossed in jail,”Dunkin said. “He has two kids with a girl back there who just loved drama. She would step out on him with other guys while was training in (Oxnard) California with Robert, and he would go looking for them whenever he found out while he was back there.
“It was always something whenever Brandon was back in Garden City. Every couple of months I would get a call from him begging me to bail him out of jail.”
Dunkin wasn’t the only one who received those distress calls. Garcia dreaded the call from Rios the moment his fighter got on a plane to head back to the Midwest.
“He’d call, and I wouldn’t bother saying hello, I’d say ‘What did you do this time?’” Garcia said. “He’d be yelling in a panic, ‘Robert, you gotta get me out of here, I slugged this fool, I broke his jaw, they’re pressing charges!’”
Rios was spending more time in court and in jail than he was in training, and it showed in his ring performances.
“It got to the point where he wasn’t looking like a prospect,” Dunkin said. “He was 13-0 or 14-0 at the time, fighting on TV, and he barely won a six rounder against Carlos Madrid, an OK opponent but someone a real prospect shouldn’t struggle with. Brandon won a split decision and looked like a club fighter.
“After the fight he tells Robert and me that he wants to move back to Garden City, where his dad will train him and then he‘ll finish up in California before his fights. We told him if you do that, there’s no reason to manage you. He went anyway and he got thrown in jail. I got a call from him and he said ‘Get me out of here, and I promise you I’m done with this. I’ll never come back here. Give me one more chance.”
Dunkin was willing, but Garcia wasn’t so sure. He knew Rios had potential but he also recognized that the young man needed help. Garcia turned to a friend of his from high school who worked with at-risk youth.
“Robert told me about this troubled fighter he trained named Brandon,” Vicky Rios, a clinician with the county of Ventura who works with transitional young adults, 18-24 year olds who are homeless or suffering from depression and other behavioral problems. “I was working towards my master’s in clinical psychology from Antioch University-Santa Barbara at the time, so I guess he thought I could help.
“But when Robert introduced me to Brandon a few weeks later, I didn’t know he was the one. He was certainly different from other men I knew but in a good way.”
She liked him but she wasn’t interested in dating him.
“I was always a big boxing fan, but I never wanted to be in a relationship with a fighter,” she said.
Rios, however, was fascinated by the older woman (by 10 years) with the college degree, and he was as persistent in pursuing her as he is opponents in the ring (in a charming manner, of course).
“She didn’t want to give me the time of day at first,” said Rios, who met Vicky when he was 20 and began dating her three years ago. “But I think I grew on her.”
“I know Brandon has a reputation for being crazy but he was very nice, very outgoing and funny,” she said. “The love just sort of happened. He always came around my place, and I’d tell him ‘Why are you wasting your time,’ but my roommate encouraged me to give him a chance.”
That roommate was the maid of honor at their wedding, which took place two weeks before Rios’ fight with Peterson last September on HBO.
Rios was a decided underdog but he dominated the then-unbeaten Peterson (30-0). It was the kind of coming-out party that young fighters dream about, but it’s clear that Rios is more proud of his marriage, fatherhood (he and Vicky have a 2½ month old daughter, Mia) and newfound responsibility than any of his fights.
“Vicky has helped me so much I don’t know where to begin,” Rios told RingTV.com. “She’s helped me turn my entire life around. I never had any money before I met her. I used to blow through it after every fight. Most of it went to my lawyers, bail money, settlements to keep peoples’ mouths shut. Believe me, it’s expensive being a f___-up. But Vicky’s helping me manage my money. I’m shocked every time I go to an ATM and see money in there. I’m not used that.
“I’m not used to living a normal life, but I’m loving it because I never thought I’d be married, saving up my money, or looking to buy a house for my family. She’s even got me going to church.”
Vicky is every bit the life coach for Rios that Garcia is a trainer, according to Dunkin.
“(Rios) sees how a responsible adult behaves by being around her,” Dunkin said. “He sees how normal people live, and because he loves her, it was easy for him to change.”
Vicky gives Rios credit for the turnaround.
“Brandon’s life has improved because he wanted it to happen,” she said. “I’ve learned from my job that if someone doesn’t want to change, it doesn’t happen. And believe me, it didn’t happen overnight.”
The newlywed couple have their issues like everyone else.
“He can get nasty during the final weeks leading into a fight,” she said. “We get into power struggles over food. Dieting is hard for him, but I’ll only fight with him to a point. It’s always his choice what he wants to do. I tell him ‘This is your career, you choose. If you want to give up, just tell me. I’ll support you, but it’s up to you.’”
Sometimes it’s not what’s going into Rios’ mouth that upsets his wife, but rather what’s coming out of it. Rios is known for his often vulgar remarks about fellow fighters (mainly former stable mate Victor Ortiz). He, along with Garcia and Antonio Margarito stepped over the line, however, when they made fun of respected trainer Freddie Roach’s Parkinson’s disease while being video taped prior to Margarito’s fight with Manny Pacquiao.
“Brandon’s a great husband and a great father, but here and there, he gets out of control,” Vicky said. “I was not happy about that whole thing with Freddie Roach. When my brother showed me that video online, I immediately called Brandon (who was in Dallas, fighting on the Margarito-Pacquiao undercard) and let him know that it was not appropriate. We had a long talk about that.
“I told him ‘You are in the public eye now, you have kids looking up to you, is this what you want them to see? Would you want your child looking up to some crazy foul-mouthed person?’
It may not seem like it — yet — but Rios is trying to clean up his mouth, in public and in private. And again, it’s because he wants to.
“I don’t police what he says,” Vicky said. “I’m not his mother, but I am proud of him because I’ve seen where he’s been, and I see where he is now.”
“I’m in a good place,” Rios said. “It wasn’t long ago that I was close to being cut loose from everybody. Robert and Cameron told me that Top Rank was ready to pull my contract. Now I’m ready to fight for a title against one of the best fighters in my division. Acosta is right up there with Juan Manuel Marquez. He proved what he could do by beating two strong, undefeated fighters (Urbano Antillon and Paulus Moses) and now I’m going to prove what I can do.
“I’m going to show him and the world that I’m more than just a brawler or a puncher. I’m going to show that I can come forward with smart aggression.”
Rios (26-0-1, 19 knockouts) will probably need the performance of his career to beat Acosta. The 32-year-old veteran from Venezuela did not merely outbox Antillon and Moses, he knocked them out.
“This is not an easy fight,” Garcia said. “Acosta controlled Antillon with movement and took him out with uppercuts. He stopped Moses with a perfect right from the outside. He can box and he can punch. He’s the real deal, but I know what I got with Brandon, and I’m know that he’s ready.”
Rios says he’s in better shape for Acosta than he was for Teron or Peterson. He knows that he has to be.
“This is the most important fight of my career,” Rios said. “It can change my whole life around.”
Those who love him know that it’s already changed for the better.
Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank