By Thomas Gerbasi (photo by Tom Casino)

As award season kicks into full blast, you won’t hear too many mentions of Mike Anchondo when it comes to the Biggest Comeback of 2009. There were bigger names and more spectacular returns, but as far as the former junior lightweight champion is concerned, nothing was more important than getting his career revived and back on track after an absence of nearly two years, whether the boxing world cared or not.

And 12 months ago, there were few indications that the Southern Californian was going to be back in the ring and actually on the verge of getting back into the title race.

“I just wasn’t happy with myself, to be honest,” said Anchondo when asked about his mindset on New Year’s Day 2009. At the time he had quit his day jobs in real estate and Home Depot and had gotten back into the gym – not to train, but to teach boxing to kids at the Jerry Ortiz Boxing and Youth Fitness Gym in El Monte, California. He thought about a comeback, but wasn’t sure if he still had what it took, despite being only 26 years old. But seeing the kids at the gym gave him that fire to fight again.

“It came back when I saw the innocence in the kids that I teach,” he said. “It took me back. I had forgotten why I was boxing before. Back then, I just did it.”

Anchondo went on to get back in fighting shape, and on April 16th, a day after his 27th birthday, he returned to the ring with a shutout six round decision over Hector Alatorre. Yet despite the win, his 28th as a pro and first since December of 2006, the heavens didn’t open, the promoters didn’t come racing to his door, and things weren’t quite the way he expected them to be. A July fight with 7-6-1 Octavio Narvaez was arranged in El Monte, and Anchondo’s focus was everywhere except where it needed to be.

“I wasn’t even focused on him,” he admitted. “I fell out of love again with where I was at, and I just wasn’t happy.”

Anchondo, whose battles with the scales in the past were no secret, weighed in at a career high 148 ¼ pounds. He says now that he didn’t even train the last month leading up to the fight, and his performance reflected that as he struggled to a six round majority decision victory.

“It was a rude awakening,” said Anchondo. “The kid came out to fight, and we fought, and I won.”

Sounds simple enough, but after the fight, he got more doses of reality. First, his trainer Joey Olivo left. “Who wouldn’t have?” said Anchondo, who still remains friends with Olivo. “I didn’t want to train.”

Next, his wife laid down the law in the way only wives can.

“She knew what I did,” said Anchondo. “And after the fight, she said ‘If that ever happens again, I’m not gonna support you at all.’ I love my wife to death, and I said I’ve got to take this serious. If not, go back to work. I knew that was coming, so I went back to square one again.

And in the way only boxing can, it delivered Anchondo – who is now training with Justin Fortune – a silver lining when he got a call on three weeks’ notice to take on unbeaten Mauricio Herrera on a Showtime-televised card on December 4th.

“They saw the fight before last and they said ‘this kid’s washed up,’” he said. “I fought horribly in that last fight, and I had second thoughts about my ability as well. I had too much trouble with someone who I shouldn’t have had trouble with.”

Anchondo took the fight.

“I said I’m still young enough to start my own career in something else, or I can pick up where I left off – I’ve got a phenomenal record – and proceed,” said the 30-2 (19 KOs) fighter, and proceed he did, pounding out a close eight round split decision on national television that suddenly injected his career with new life again. And he felt it even in the gym.

“I loved it again,” he said. “If you love your job and where you work, you’re gonna do it to the best of your abilities, and in the ring, I felt different because I wasn’t scared anymore. Before I had this fear of even being touched by somebody in the ring, but I didn’t have fear anymore. That can be a good thing or that can be a bad thing. (Laughs) There’s still nerves and still a gameplan, but I had no fear and that’s the difference between me then and now.”

Next on the agenda is a proposed February bout with 23-year old Filipino southpaw Mark Jason Melligen (16-2, 12 KOs) in Las Vegas, and again, Anchondo – who is currently a free agent – knows that he’ll be the “B” side. He’s fine with that though, as it’s the price he has to pay to get back to the point where he was on the verge of becoming the toast of the boxing world.

Back then, around 2003-2004, he was appearing regularly on televised shows, had garnered a significant fan following, and won the vacant WBO super featherweight crown with a 12 round win over Julio Pablo Chacon. But then he split from Golden Boy Promotions, lost his title on the scale before getting halted in four rounds by Jorge Rodrigo Barrios in 2005, and two years later he suffered a second knockout loss, this time to Darling Jimenez. Then he disappeared.

Yet now, as 2010 arrives, he is not only philosophical about his place in the grand scheme of things, but he realizes that he’s still young enough to get that rarest of rarities – a second act.

“A lot of these guys up at the top are my age now, but if you think about it, I’m on my second go-round and I’m hitting my prime,” he said. “I believe I’m a little ahead of the game. This time I’ll get it right and I understand the physics of the business. So now I know what to do, and it starts right now.”

That means no more slacking off when it comes to training and no more lack of focus. Thankfully he doesn’t have to look far for motivation.

“I’ll be in the gym punching the bag, and I’ll get kinda tired around the sixth round, and then I’ll think back,” he muses. “I revert back to 2007 and I say ‘I definitely don’t want to go back there.’”

He says it with a smile, and it’s clear that while boxing has thrown its best shots at him, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor or his optimism, and like it or not, the sport is in his blood, and probably always will be.

“I’ve been doing this since I was five years old,” he said. “There must be some talent there.”

Or maybe he’s just stubborn.

He laughs.

“Either way, I’m a fighter.”

And a fighter ready for a return to the big stage this year.

“It’s gonna be colorful, but win, lose, or draw, they will not keep me down and I will get the championship back. I’m gonna avenge my losses and I think this is gonna be a great run.”