There is a fool-proof method to tell whether someone really knows Raymond Serrano. If they refer to him as “Tito,” they probably are aware that very few people who know him on a personal basis call him by his birth name.
The 22-year-old junior welterweight prospect from North Philadelphia wasn’t named after the iconic knockout machine who captured the hearts of Boricua fans during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but rather was given the nickname by his parents to avoid confusion with his father of the same name. Still, as a Puerto Rican boxer nicknamed “Tito,” Serrano has much to live up to.
“It just stuck with me,” said Serrano (17-0, 8 knockouts), who faces Kenny Abril in the co-feature of this week’s Friday Night Fights from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.
“I feel that it’s a good nickname because a lot of Puerto Rican fans follow boxing from ‘Tito’ Trinidad. I’m an upcoming fighter and I feel that when they hear that name, they’re gonna follow it.”
Serrano hopes to do it justice against Abril (11-4-1, 6 KOs), of Rochester, N.Y., before a national audience watching on ESPN2. The broadcast begins at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT and is headlined by 2008 U.S. Olympian Demetrius Andrade (15-0, 10 KO), of Providence, R.I., facing late-replacement Angel Hernandez (30-10, 17 KO), of Chicago, Ill.
Serrano’s links to the greats of Puerto Rican boxing are more than just in namesake, as he is trained by Felix Pintor, who guided Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez and most recently Ivan Calderon to Hall of Fame (and future Hall of Fame) careers. The pair are entering their third fight together since teaming up last year.
Serrano says he made the switch to train in Puerto Rico in part to connect with his cultural roots, but found the piercing summer heat ideal to shed extra pounds. In due time he had shrunk a division, from welterweight to the 140-pound limit, where he feels he can better impose his 5-foot-8 frame on opponents. According to a recent press release from his promoter Star Boxing, a victory on Friday could move him towards a regional belt, which is usually a prerequisite to bigger things.
Reluctant Child Pugilist
Like many young people, Serrano was guided towards the sport by his father as a means of minimizing idle time in a dangerous neighborhood.
“We’re from North Philly, it’s the craziest place you could live in, drugs and crime all over the place,” said the elder Raymond Serrano, who himself was an amateur boxer. Ray Sr.’s brother Ben Serrano was a pro fighter during the early ’80s whose claim to fame was handing future WBO middleweight titleholder Doug DeWitt his first defeat in 1981. None of Ben Serrano’s children would go on to become top contenders, but one of his other nephews named Kermit Cintron, whom he had raised after the untimely deaths of his parents, would go on to become a welterweight titleholder.
Raymond Sr. initially put his son in a local football program, but after taking a hard hit, the son decided that he didn’t want to go back. That’s when boxing, the passion of his father and uncle, was imposed on young Raymond. Boxing and Raymond didn’t click immediately, but it became a joy once he began traveling to boxing tournaments.
One method that Raymond’s father used to teach him the fundamentals of boxing as a youngster was to take $30 in singles and place one in his hand at a time. The son would have to jab at it and hit the dollar bill to earn it. Once he earned all $30, his father took another $30 in singles, made him switch to southpaw and repeat the exercise. Call it positive reinforcement. Serrano soon picked up track at school and would run for an hour before heading to the gym to train.
Young Serrano got an early lesson in dealing with adversity, one that almost compelled him to give up. He was nine and had just returned home from a disappointing defeat in the Ringside National tournament in Indianapolis, reeling from what he felt was an unjust decision on his seventh straight day of competition. Of his father’s stable, everyone came home with a belt but himself.
Raymond had locked himself in the bathroom and was crying. When his father asked what was wrong, Raymond simply replied that he didn’t want to fight any longer.
“I told him, ‘Don’t give up in life, keep going and trying; whatever you do, don’t give up,’” remembered Ray Sr. “I told him, ‘If you want to go to college, you can go to college and be somebody, too. But keep it up, your day will come.’ And now look where he’s at. Everywhere he goes, people know him. I’m very proud of my son.”
Raymond Serrano would continue to box, and had a banner year in 2005 when he won gold medals in the Junior Olympic Nationals and Junior Olympic International tournaments. He added a Pennsylvania State Golden Gloves title and turned pro shortly after losing in the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials. Serrano estimates that he had over 100 amateur fights.
What Lies Ahead
Serrano’s opponent Abril is 27 years old and a southpaw. Abril is coming off a defeat to former World Amateur Championships gold medalist and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Yordenis Ugas in June, but had been unbeaten in his prior seven bouts.
If you’ve heard of Abril, it’s either because you’re from Rochester and support the local scene, or you’ve seen HBO’s 24/7, where Abril served as a sparring partner for Miguel Cotto as he prepared to face Manny Pacquiao. Serrano says that Abril’s experience in the gym with Cotto doesn’t impress him much.
“He sparred Cotto and I sparred Pacquiao,” said Serrano.
Serrano didn’t work with Pacquiao for the Cotto fight, but was in Pacquiao’s camp for the Ricky Hatton fight in 2009, which Pacquiao won by second-round knockout. Serrano wasn’t called up by Freddie Roach; instead he and his then trainer took the cross-country trip to Los Angeles on their own dime after hearing that Roach was lacking in proper sparring. Serrano showed up at the Wild Card Gym, told Freddie that he was a 9-0 welterweight prospect looking to work with the Filipino star. Roach tested him out first with another fighter in the gym.
“Then he said you’re going in with Pacquiao,” remembers Serrano. “(Freddie) liked my work, said he’s going to take care of us and get us paid. They used me for four weeks.
“It was a good experience to be in there with the best fighter pound-for-pound in the world. It’s not that you’re scared, but it’s nerve-wracking. It’s different with all those cameras on you. He’s a speed fighter and every once in a while he sneaks in a punch that’s hard. But I felt like I was the bigger guy at the time.”
What – and who – comes next are not questions Serrano prefers to ponder prior to a bout. His father too is nonspecific, but has high expectations of his son’s future prognosis.
“We’re ready for whatever comes,” said Raymond Serrano Sr.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.