By Ryan Maquiñana
Paul “El Gallo Negro” Mendez keeps piling up wins. The question is how many of them will be enough for the young middleweight to break through on a national level.
“I don’t plan on losing anytime soon, but in this business, I know you can’t just win,” said Mendez, who rides an eight-bout unbeaten streak into Saturday’s ten-rounder against Rahman Yusubov at Cache Creek Resort Casino in Brooks, Calif., an hour west of Sacramento. “You have to win spectacularly, and that’s my main focus if I want to get noticed by the television networks.”
Mendez (13-2-1, 5 KOs), who now fights out of Salinas, Calif., after growing up three hours south in the Central Valley city of Delano, did what most unsigned prospects do in their early careers—take fights on short notice in hostile environments, with some of them taking place at disadvantageous weights.
“I’m 24 years old and I’m still young, but a lot of people consider me a veteran because of my tough fights,” said Mendez, whose nickname (“The Black Rooster”) is derived from his dual African-American and Mexican heritage. “But sometimes, I want to fight, and it’s the warrior in me—what my dad taught me to do.
“I know if I want people to keep coming back to watch me fight, I have to entertain. A lot of people don’t always appreciate the sweet science, so I want to show I have the ammunition to entertain the fans, too.”
Eventually, the boxing world’s way of administering tough love to the 24-year-old middleweight has served him well, even during this recent string of victories. In his last two triumphs over Alfredo Contreras and Dashon Johnson, Mendez was forced to exhibit his poise as both opponents surprisingly took him the distance.
“I feel like the way I’ve been fighting lately, with my movement and speed, it’s because of my team,” Mendez said of his trainers, the father-son duo of Max and Sam Garcia. “They’ve taught me how to calm down and how to box. Sometimes I’ll start to trade punches and slug it out, but trust me, they yell at me when I get back to the corner to get me on track.”
Now Yusubov (9-11, 7 KOs) steps up to the plate. Once a promising welterweight, the resident of Dallas, Tex., and native of Azerbaijan has dropped eight of nine, becoming fodder for young pugs like Hugo Centeno and Abraham Han in the process. However, Yusubov showed there was something left in the tank last year when he knocked out aging former welterweight titleholder James Page, who was in the midst of a comeback.
“Yusubov can punch, but I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about what I have to bring to the table,” said Mendez, who held camp in Big Bear and sparred Shane Mosley and prospect Sammy Gonzalez among others.
Mendez, whose power seems more at home at 160 than 168 pounds due to his propensity to engage, is cognizant that one shot flush on the chin could end a fighter’s night, whether he gives or receives it.
“I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and I’ve never been dropped, but this is boxing. I know I’m taking a risk every time I trade,” Mendez said. “But I feel confident in my chin, in my ring experience, and how to react when I’ve been hit with a big shot. If it all goes according to plan, I’ll knock [Yusubov] out in five rounds.”
In the co-feature, Bruno “Aloha Kid” Escalante (9-1-1, 5 KOs) is building a streak of his own as he guns for his third straight knockout and fifth win overall in an eight-rounder against Joseph Rios.
The diminutive junior bantamweight has become a fan favorite in Northern California boxing circles for his explosive displays of one-punch knockout power. After flooring his last two overmatched foes a combined four times en route to stoppages, the 24-year-old Filipino who now calls San Carlos, Calif., home faces a genuine threat in Rios (13-8-2, 4 KOs).
“My team has warned me about Rios being tough,” Escalante said. “He’s never been stopped other than on cuts. I’m expecting a tough battle. I can last a strong eight rounds, but if the opportunity unfolds, I will take it. We Filipinos like to gamble, so I know there’s going to be a lot of us here on Saturday. I want to make them and my fans happy.”
Rios, from San Antonio, Tex., once took a young Leo Santa Cruz the distance, and prior to his last defeat in March to Jonathan Gonzalez, beat three consecutive unbeaten fighters. One of those wins was an upset of Miguel Diaz for a regional title.
“We expect him to come forward and fight, but my speed and power will be the key for this fight,” Escalante said. “He’s beaten a couple of undefeated fighters, and we’ll just have to see on Saturday in that first round how he fights, because a fighter can be different from watching him on film when he fights you.”
Beating Rios would add a hint of validation to the southpaw’s belief that he is a legitimate 115-pound prospect worthy of fighting at a higher level next time out.
“Every fight is an opportunity to showcase my skills, and if I get a chance to fight for any kind of title down the line, that’s great, but right now I’m prepared for this challenge in front of me,” said Escalante, whose only loss is to fellow up-and-comer Matthew Villanueva by decision.
The show will begin with three local unbeaten up-and-comers—San Francisco middleweight Ricardo Pinell (5-0-1, 4 KOs), San Jose lightweight Andy Vences (3-0, 2 KOs), and Salinas junior welterweight Darwin Price (1-0, 1 KO)—in separate bouts against opponents to be determined.
Tickets are priced at $65, $95 and $125, and can be purchased at cachecreek.com, tickets.com, and pacopresentsboxing.com. The weigh-in will take place at Cache Creek Casino Resort on Friday starting at 3 p.m.
Ryan Maquiñana was the boxing producer for NBCOlympics.com during London 2012 and writes a weekly column for CSNBayArea.com. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Ratings Panel for Ring Magazine. E-mail him at [email protected], check out his blog at Norcalboxing.net, or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.