“The pressure of survival in the big city will make you lose sight of your dream … Hang in there.”
That quote by New York street artist James De La Vega was embroidered on Edgar Santana’s shirt as he sat in the back of a police car in 2008. He was waiting to be taken to Rikers Island on charges that he was part of a cocaine distribution ring that mailed drugs from Puerto Rico to New York City.
Just two weeks away from what would’ve been his breakout fight on national television on “ESPN Friday Night Fights,” the irony of the slogan may have run through his mind. Or perhaps it was another message, one told to him and a group of other teens by his first trainer, Mickey Rosario, the day he walked into Rosario’s gym on 112th Street and First Avenue:
“Only one or two of you are going to make it. The rest will end up dead or on drugs.”
Santana, a rising junior welterweight prospect from Spanish Harlem, was about to become the one thing he had hoped to avoid: a statistic.
“That definitely changed my perspective on life,” Santana, now 35, told RingTV.com about the ordeal that cost him four months in prison after pleading guilty to third-degree sale of a controlled substance. “That was a turning point for me. It was something that was in the past, we all commit mistakes, we all do things that I guess that set you back quite a bit and it did set me back. I paid my dues and I got right back to work.”
This Saturday, Santana will face IBF junior welterweight titleholder Lamont Peterson at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., which will be televised live by “Showtime Championship Boxing.”
It’s a pinnacle that he had always envisioned reaching in his career, only much sooner.
“I should’ve been champion already, honestly, but it had to happen like this,” said Santana (29-4, 20 knockouts). “I feel things happen for a reason.”
Santana was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, but is proud to point out that his family was originally from Manati. His family relocated to New York City when he was six or seven, Santana says, but he didn’t become interested in boxing until he was 15 when former light heavyweight champion Jose “Chegui” Torres came to speak at his school.
“That same day I told my father that I wanted to box,” remembers Santana.
After an undistinguished amateur career, Santana turned pro in 1999. He was dropped in the first round of his first bout by Horatio Pitmon, rose up and stopped him in the following round. He would win his first five bouts before losing back-to-back decisions in his next two.
Santana walked away from boxing briefly in 2002, “retiring” to the barber shop to cut hair before returning the following year under Hector Rocha, the Gleason’s Gym staple who had led Arturo Gatti to the junior lightweight title years earlier.
Santana would win his next 16 bouts, becoming a fan favorite during the early days of DiBella Entertainment’s “Broadway Boxing” when he and fellow New Yorkers Jaidon Codrington, Curtis Stevens, Dmitriy Salita and Gary Stark Jr. routinely turned the Manhattan Center into the biggest party in town.
Santana was explosive, if lacking in craft. His body punches and right hands often came in wide but his hand speed and unwillingness to relent made believers out of those willing to look past his early blemishes.
It didn’t hurt that he looked like a champion either, so much so that “Friday Night Fights” used footage of him shadowboxing during their opening promo.
Then the bottom fell out.
One left hand – thrown by unknown Dominican journeyman Harrison Cuello in June of 2007 – sent Santana to the canvas at the Hammerstein Ballroom. He rose up but was stopped in Round 3.
Santana would win three more bouts – including a “ShoBox”-televised majority-decision win over Josesito Lopez during which he overcame two knockdowns – before his legal ordeal began.
About 100 streets downtown from Harlem is Mendez Boxing Gym, where Santana trains clients in between his own sessions. His life is all about boxing now instead of “the streets,” an ambiguous place used as a marker for where he made his poor decisions in the past.
Santana isn’t in the streets anymore, and after walking out of Rikers he opened his own barber shop and returned to the gym. He sold the barber shop two years ago but has remained in the gym since then, fighting six times and winning five of them. He had worked with Leon Taylor, a former cruiserweight best known for giving Al “Ice” Cole his first defeat, but will be trained by Julio Rivera for the Peterson fight after Taylor withdrew with “personal problems.”
He finally got that delayed opportunity to fight on “Friday Night Fights” in 2012 but lost a decision to another journeyman, Manuel Perez. Santana says that by the midway point of the 10-round bout he had broken both his hands.
“Anybody else would’ve quit,” Santana said of the fight, which all three judges scored 96-94 for Perez. “I feel if I had my hands healthy it would’ve never happened.”
Golden Boy Promotions’ decision to set Peterson up with Santana came as a surprise to not a few people. It was easy to forget about Santana as he rebuilt his career on untelevised cards at a Delaware casino.
Much of the talk surrounding the fight centers on a possible unification showdown between RING/WBC/WBA champion Danny Garcia – who will face Rod Salka in the main event – and Peterson, who has dealt with his fair share of career turmoil as well.
Peterson (32-2-1, 16 KOs), of Washington D.C., tested positive for a banned substance that forced the cancelation of a rematch with Amir Khan in 2012 and was knocked out in three rounds by Lucas Matthysse the following year in a non-title bout. He then rebounded in January to beat Dierry Jean.
Santana may be booked as a “showcase opponent,” but after being presented a second chance that few get, to earn back what was lost, he’s there to fight the fight of his life.
“I’m aware of how people are looking at me. I think they made a big mistake,” said Santana. “I don’t mind being the underdog but I think I’m a lot more dangerous than people think. I know he’s going to find this out come fight time but I can punch with both hands. I can fight, I can box and I got heart. I’m training to win and to endure whatever he brings.
“Whatever people are talking and saying about me being washed up or I’m there to just set up a fight between him and Garcia, I’m the wrong guy to do that with.”
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.