By Keith Idec
HACKENSACK, N.J. – Jonathan Maicelo couldn’t sleep.
The lightweight contender was back home in Peru only a few days, but losing a world title fight to Colombia’s Darleys Perez was eating away at him in January 2015. His trainers back in New Jersey, Butch Sanchez and Angel DeJesus, told Maicelo to take off as much time as he needed – six months if necessary.
Maicelo didn’t want to waste that type of time. Less than a week after returning home to Callao – the drug-plagued, violence-ravaged city in which he grew up – Maicelo went to the airport in Lima and flew back to Newark.
He was back in the gym a few days later, more determined than ever to keep the world championship promise he made to his late grandmother. Isabella Roman, 82, died just a few weeks before Maicelo challenged Perez.
An emotional Maicelo cried at times while training for his first world title shot, even when he was doing pad work in the ring at the Garden State School of Boxing. He never considered withdrawing from the Perez bout because he didn’t know when he’d get another championship chance if he pulled out.
“My grandmother always motivated me to be what I am today,” Maicelo told BoxingScene.com through a translator following a workout this week. “She was the one that raised me because my mother worked. It was so hard when she passed away because she was my motivation.”
Two years later, Maicelo might just find himself in position again to keep that promise to his grandmother, the rest of his family and all those proud Peruvians back home. If the 33-year-old Maicelo can upset third-ranked Ray Beltran (32-7-1, 20 KOs, 1 NC) in a 12-round IBF lightweight elimination match May 20 at Madison Square Garden (HBO), the seventh-ranked Maicelo (25-2, 12 KOs, 1 NC) will advance to the No. 2 spot in the IBF’s 135-pound rankings.
Mandatory challenger Denis Shafikov (38-2-1, 20 KOs) will face IBF lightweight champion Robert Easter (19-0, 14 KOs) on June 30 in Toledo, Ohio. The Maicelo-Beltran winner will move into position to eventually face the Easter-Shafikov victor.
“That would mean everything to me, to become world champion,” Maicelo said. “I’ve talked about it with my family for so long. I don’t care about the money. My goal is to bring that belt back to Peru and put it on my grandmother’s grave. Ever since I was little, me and my grandmother talked about becoming world champ one day. That’s my goal and I won’t stop until I get it. That’s the only thing that matters to me.”
Beating Beltran obviously won’t be easy.
The Mexican veteran knocked out Louisiana’s Mason Menard (33-2, 24 KOs) in the seventh round of his last fight, which HBO broadcast December 10 from Omaha, Nebraska. The 35-year-old Beltran’s lone loss in the past five years came against unbeaten WBC/WBO super lightweight champion Terence Crawford (30-0, 21 KOs), who’s generally regarded as one of the top 10 boxers, pound-for-pound, in the world.
The Beltran-Maicelo match will open HBO’s broadcast from the Garden. Crawford will defend his titles against the Dominican Republic’s Felix Diaz (19-1, 9 KOs) in the main event.
“Maicelo has shown that he can fight at that level, but we know this is a tough fight,” Sanchez said. “Beltran is tough, but I believe if we do what we have to do, with the speed, good boxing, good movement, I think we should beat him.”
Maicelo made believers out of matchmakers for Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc., Beltran’s promoter, in his last fight. He floored favored lightweight contender Jose Felix Jr. (35-2-1, 27 KOs) five times on his way to winning a 10-round unanimous decision February 17 in El Paso, Texas.
“At this stage, you don’t sugarcoat anything,” Sanchez said. “They called us to fight Felix and I told Maicelo, ‘We’re the opponent. You know what you’ve gotta do.’ He said, ‘I’ll beat him.’ It was a main event in El Paso, the kid’s backyard. The kid was 35-1, had 27 knockouts, was No. 3 in the WBO. We knew we were going in there as the opponent.
“But again, not one time did we think we were gonna lose. And Maicelo showed it. I remember looking at [Top Rank matchmakers] Brad Goodman and Bruce Trampler, and they had their jaws open because Maicelo just kept knocking him down. The last time [Felix] hit his head [when he went down]. The kid just kept getting up, but Maicelo looked real good that night.”
That impressive victory and this subsequent shot to make his HBO debut have made Maicelo and his team thankful that they didn’t give up when things didn’t look nearly as good.
Maicelo came to northern New Jersey in 2009, hopeful of finding fame and fortune fighting in the United States. All along, he has been a popular, prominent sports figure in Peru, where Maicelo has done commercials for Pepsi and has appeared in his country’s version of “Dancing with the Stars.”
He was working his way toward a title shot until Russia’s Rustam Nagaev (29-8-1, 18 KOs) knocked him out in the eighth round of a fight ESPN2 televised four years ago from Santa Ynez, California.
“The Nagaev fight was a real shocker to us because we were winning the fight,” Sanchez said. “But we knew that at the pace he was going, it was almost impossible to finish that fight that way. He lost that fight more from being fatigued than anything because every round he was blasting away, trying to get the knockout. But he learned from that.”
A split-decision victory over Armenia’s Art Hovhannisyan (17-4-3, 9 KOs) in July 2014, a fight ESPN2 also aired from Shelton, Washington, helped Maicelo get a shot at Perez (33-3-2, 21 KOs).
“Even with everything he was going through with his grandmother dying, I thought he would stop Perez,” Sanchez said. “It just didn’t work out. He couldn’t sleep after he lost that fight. I remember him calling me from Peru. He broke down. He said, ‘I let you guys down. I had to win that fight.’ We told him, ‘When we lose, we all lose together, just like when we win. We’re not gonna give up on you. We know you can fight.’
“What impressed me most about Maicelo was that he was back in the gym a week after that fight. He said he wanted to get better and that’s what he’s done. We’ve seen it here in the gym. He’s developed more power by working with Dave Palladino [his strength and conditioning coach]. And he’s just on a high mentally and physically right now.”
Maicelo feels like he is a world away from where he was late in 2015. He thought a 10-round, unanimous-decision victory over Cincinnati’s Brandon Bennett (19-2, 8 KOs) in August 2015 in Washington, D.C., would lead to signing with powerful manager Al Haymon, but it never happened.
A frustrated Maicelo contemplated retirement.
“They offered me Brandon Bennett, who was 19-1,” Maicelo recalled. “They said, ‘You beat this kid, we’re gonna sign you and things are gonna look bright.’ I beat that kid and I beat him good. When nothing came out of that, I was in a depressed state because I wasn’t fighting. I really considered giving it up at that point.
“But I feel now is the time to show people what I’ve got. I’m gonna do everything possible to get that win for me and my people next Saturday.”
Based on ticket sales thus far, roughly 1,000 native Peruvians who reside in New Jersey are expected to attend the Beltran bout at the Garden, by far the biggest stage of Maicelo’s 12-year pro career.
“If Maicelo is gonna do anything in boxing, it’s now,” Sanchez said. “Don’t look for after this. It’s gotta be now.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.