By Jake Donovan
With each fight these days, Jhonatan Romero moves one step closer towards realizing every goal he’s ever set out for himself as a professional fighter.
The unbeaten Colombian is already enjoying the best year of his young career after having won his first major title this past February. Now comes his long-coveted HBO debut, when he takes on Spain’s Kiko Martinez in the first defense of his 122 lb. title this weekend in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The bout serves as part of a televised tripleheader. Headlining the Atlantic City portion is a middleweight title fight between Daniel Geale and Top 10 contender Darren Barker. Opening up the show is a same-day tape-delayed offering of a terrific pairing of unbeaten light heavyweights, as Nathan Cleverly of Wales enjoys a hometown title defense against murderous punching Sergey Kovalev.
There is no shortage of anticipated action to be found in any of the fights, which means each contestant will have to step it up a notch if they want to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Romero is up for that challenge as well as the one that awaits him in the opposite corner on fight night.
“This is a big deal for me, it’s an opportunity I’ve dreamed of ever since I wanted to become a fighter,” Romero (23-0, 12KO) says of this weekend’s co-feature attraction. “Kiko Martinez is one of the toughest fighters in the world at this weight. These are the challenges that will put my name on the map.”
Slowly but surely, the deceptively strong Romero is making his presence felt in the boxing world. The 26-year old is barely four years deep into his pro career, but was anxious to hit the ground running upon turning pro in 2009. His first 17 pro bouts took place in his native Colombia, where the wins piled up but his pockets remained empty.
Following in the footsteps of his countryman and former bantamweight titlist Yonnhy Perez, Romero took his act to California, where he presently trains. The trek westward landed the rangy boxer with Thompson Boxing Promotions and soon thereafter a joint promotion deal with Gary Shaw Productions.
The latter move put him in position to appear on Shobox, where he scored a breakout win over Chris Avalos in Dec. ’11. From there came the opportunities to eventually position himself for an eventual shot at a vacant 122 lb. belt.
Winning the belt meant delivering the performance of a lifetime, as Romero was forced to hit the road to face Alejandro Lopez. The unbeaten rising star was up for the challenge, fending off a late rally to take a well-earned split decision and his first title reign.
“It was a tough fight, which we expected, but you still don’t know what to expect until you actually experience it,” admits Mauricio Gonzalez, who has been instrumental in guiding Romero to the title since relocating his training camp to the United States. “He passed the test and knows that he can take on any challenge.”
So too, do his countrymen. A huge celebration was held in his native Colombia following the narrow points win, a humbling reminder of just what his every move means to his nation.
“We had a huge parade in Colombia. I was given a medal by the city and I got to meet the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos,” Romero recalls of the homecoming. It is an honor to be the first world champion from the city of Cali. Here, we are known for football (soccer in the U.S.), dancing and women, so it’s great to put Cali on the map.
The next step is to put Romero on the boxing map, which means taking on all comers. There was never any hesitation in accepting the fight with Martinez (28-4, 20KO), who is managed by current middleweight king Sergio Martinez (no relation). However, the fights he initially sought were against bigger game, including an opponent who already conquered the southpaw slugger.
“There was a lot of back and forth in the media with Carl Frampton,” Gonzalez acknowledges of the unbeaten Brit, who knocked out Martinez in the 9th round of their war earlier this year. “We also had Leo Santa Cruz calling us out as a possibility. The options were there, but when all was said and done, the Martinez fight was the best one that was available.”
Santa Cruz thought enough of Romero to drop his name following his 5th round knockout win of Alex Munoz this past May on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather’s dominant points win over Robert Guerrero. The comment was well-intended; Santa Cruz had previously vacated his 118 lb. belt and was seeking a title shot in a second weight class.
That opportunity will now come next weekend, as he faces Victor Terrazas for a separate portion of the 122 lb. title. It’s possible that Romero – with a win on Saturday – could get the winner down the road.
“My promoter (Gary Shaw) does business with everybody,” Romero said, indicating his availability and willingness to take on all comers. “It doesn’t matter to me who I fight. I can still make weight at 122 lb. (Romero is 5’8”) and want to clean out the division.”
The first step is getting past Martinez, who recovered from the knockout loss to Frampton with a 2nd round stoppage of David Marchiano this past April.
"I know he has a lot of power in either hand so we will have to watch out for that," Romero acknowledges of his opponent’s ability to end a fight at any given time. "He's a worthy opponent that is looking to knock me down, but I'm not going to let that happen."
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as the Records Keeper for the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and a member of Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox