Jose Uzcategui: Trial By Fire

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The Venezuela native had to fight for everything he’s ever had. Now that he’s a world champion, he has no plans of letting the title go.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

If true, then Jose Uzcategui would be a man after Roosevelt’s own heart. As a child, Uzcategui used to fight in the streets to appease his father. His toddler daughter died when he was barely 16. His first fight in America nearly derailed his career. And he lost by disqualification in his first world title bout.

Yet he remained steadfast through it all. Today, Uzcategui, 28-2 (23 KOs), is the IBF super middleweight world champion. This Sunday, January 13th, he defends that title versus top-rated contender Caleb Plant in the main event of a PBC on FS1 card (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT) at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

The 26-year-old Plant is a smooth boxer from Nashville, Tennessee. Yet all Uzcategui sees—true or not—is a fighter that has had too much handed to him, one who hasn’t experienced the hardships that makes championship material.

Uzcategui’s own baptism by fire began in the agricultural town of El Vigia, Venezuela. While most six-year-olds are learning how to form sentences, Uzcategui was busy putting combinations together in street fights.

“My dad was a streetfighter,” he said. “He would pay other kids in the area to fight me. That’s where the nickname, ‘Bolivita,’ comes from. That’s the name of the Venezuelan currency. I would always win so I would keep the money.”

“But I loved boxing,” he continued. “And I was good at it. I would study tapes of Felix Trinidad, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr, Ricardo ‘Finito’ Lopez, Juan Manuel Marquez and, of course, my countryman Edwin Valero. Even at that young age, my goal was to become a world champion.”

Uzcategui went from being the neighborhood’s best to joining the nation’s elite. He had 327 amateur bouts and became a member of the national amateur team. His Olympic hopes were dashed when his six-month-old daughter died during the qualifying events. It’s a subject he doesn’t like discussing; Jose only saw her twice, when she was born and when she died.

Still hurting from the loss, Uzcategui relocated from Venezuela to Mexico, where he closed out his amateur career. In 2011, he turned pro as a middleweight. Despite ring successes—he won his first 22 bouts, all in Mexico—he struggled financially.

In June 2014, he made his US ring debut versus undefeated Russian Matt Korobov. Korobov controlled much of the action. In the seventh, he dropped Uzcategui twice. That’s when the Venezuelan came alive, catching Korobov with repeated hooks in the eighth. Uzcategui finished strong but couldn’t overcome his slow start, losing a 10-round unanimous decision.

“I was undefeated going in so I thought I was invincible,” he admits. “Here I am fighting in America for the first time…everyone says they’re ready for it, but you never know until you’re in there. The lights and all that had an effect on me. It was the biggest lesson I learned. I analyzed every part of myself and my team and decided change was needed.”

I don't respect Caleb Plant. In the fight game, you’ve got to earn respect. You can’t just talk, you’ve got to get in the ring and prove it. IBF Super Middleweight Champion Jose Uzcategui

Uzcategui continued to reside in Mexico but opted to train in the U.S. He enlisted the help of a then-31-year-old trainer, Jose Cital. Cital had an equally rough background; a formerly homeless teen who worked three jobs to build his own gym in San Diego.

Together, they concluded it was time for the lanky, six-foot-two boxer to move up to 168-pounds. The decision paid off. Uzcategui won his next four fights, all inside the distance, including a two-round destruction of unbeaten prospect Julius Jackson—son of Hall of Fame inductee Julian Jackson.

In May 2017, Uzcategui faced the ultra-talented Andre Dirrell for the vacant interim IBF 168-pound strap. He surprised early on, nearly flooring Dirrell in the second with a hard right.

The American found his rhythm in the middle frames, but the cleaner, more effective punches came from Uzcategui. With seconds remaining in the eighth, he drove Dirrell toward the ropes and unloaded a three-punch combination. The third blow landed a split-second after the bell. Dirrell fell face-first. Uzcategui, ahead on two of the three cards, was disqualified.

Emotions boiled over in the aftermath. Dirrell's uncle and co-trainer, Leon Lawson, confronted Uzcategui, landing a one-two on a fighter who didn’t defend himself, nor did he swing back.

It’s reasonable to assume most humans, let alone boxers, would’ve done one or the other, if not both. But compared to what he’s already gone through, this was a walk in the park for Uzcategui.

These days, he only recalls the positives when reflecting on the incident.

“That whole situation made me famous,” he laughs.

The rematch occurred in March 2018. Uzcategui dominated from the opening bell, winning the world title via ninth-round TKO. That belt will be on the line against a Plant brimming with unabashed confidence.

“I don't respect Caleb Plant,” said Uzcategui. “It’s not a personal disrespect but in the fight game, you’ve got to earn respect. You can’t just talk, you’ve got to get in the ring and prove it. How can anyone show you respect when you keep saying you’re better, but you haven’t proved it? Do your talking in the ring and then after, not before.”

Yet Plant, 17-0 (10 KOs), isn’t the only one full of self-assurance. Uzcategui believes he’s simply too much for a man who hasn’t gone through the trials he faced.

“Plant is a good fighter,” he said. “We’ll find out how good on the 13th. I’m going to punish him, beat him up and then knock him out. It may not be easy…nothing is easy."

For a close look at Uzcategui vs Plant, check out our fight page.

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