NEW YORK -- Lightweight sensation Felix Verdejo, viewed by many as boxing's next major Puerto Rican star -- following in the footsteps of fighters such as Felix Trinidad and reigning middleweight champion Miguel Cotto --- took the next important step in that evolution as he routed Ivan Najera in a wide unanimous decision on Saturday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Verdejo made his HBO debut and fought for the first time in a featured bout on the eve of New York's annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, a date Top Rank developed for Cotto and one Verdejo is destined to take over.
The 2012 Puerto Rican Olympian and 2014 ESPN.com prospect of the year did not disappoint the crowd of 3,321, which was dotted with Puerto Rican flags. He scored two knockdowns and easily outpointed San Antonio's "Bam Bam" Najera, 22, in the Nicholas Walters-Miguel Marriaga co-feature.
Two judges had it a 100-88 shutout and one had it 99-89. ESPN.com also had it for 100-88 for Verdejo, 22, who was never in any trouble. Not bad considering Verdejo said he hurt his left hand in the first round.
"This is one of the toughest opponents I have faced. He kept coming," Verdejo said. "I dropped him twice but he kept coming."
The fight began with a measured pace as they felt each other out before Najera tried to turn it into a brawl in the second round by going right at Verdejo and throwing punches with everything he had. But Verdejo slipped them and began to fire his own shots. He landed several hard left hooks, one of which got through cleanly and sent Najera into the ropes.
Verdejo (18-0, 13 KOs) had mild swelling on the outside of his left eye and Najera (16-1, 8 KOs) round his right eye by the end of the second round.
Verdejo went after Najera hard in the fourth round and was unloading powerful combinations after Najera clearly upset him by hitting him after a break. He nearly knocked Najera down with a left hook as the crowd went wild.
Verdejo got the crowd even more amped up in the fifth round when he landed a thunderous left uppercut that dropped Najera to his rear end. He got up quickly, but Verdejo was all over him landing heavy leather for most of the rest of the round. Najera took a beating in the round yet was smiling at Verdejo.
Verdejo, who plans to go down to the 130-pound junior lightweight division, scored another knockdown on a clean left hook a tick before the end of the seventh round.
Verdejo continued to dish out a beating in the eighth round as he lashed him with a two-handed attack. Najera showed enormous heart to last as long as he did.
"His punches come out of nowhere," Najera said. "He's tough, he's technically slick and he counters good."
Monaghan makes Zuniga quit
Light heavyweight Seanie Monaghan (25-0, 16 KOs), 33, of Long Beach, New York, stopped Fulgencio Zuniga (27-11-1), 37, of Colombia, in the ninth round of a grueling bout.
Top Rank is hoping to land Monaghan a shot at titleholder Juergen Braehmer (46-2, 34 KOs), of Germany, but he had to get through Zuniga, the hard-punching veteran former four-time world title challenger -- junior middleweight, twice at super middleweight and once at light heavyweight -- for there to be a chance of that fight.
And it was not easy for Monaghan. It was a hard-fought, high-contact fight that left both with bruises and swelling on their faces. They spent most of the fourth round engaged in a slugging match with Monaghan coming forward, Zuniga backing into the ropes and both winging punches with little regard for defense.
By the fifth round both were showing the effects of the physical fight as both of their faces were bruised and swelling. It continued that way until the ninth round.
They traded punches and when Zuniga clinched and bent over Monaghan hit him on the back. Zuniga took a knee but it was not ruled a knockdown. Zuniga, who lost his second fight in a row, stayed down and quit, forcing referee Danny Schiavone to wave off the bout at 2 minutes, 10 seconds.
• Bronx heavyweight George Arias (4-0, 3 KOs), a 2014 New York Golden Gloves champion, knocked out Eric Cason (2-4, 2 KOs), 34, of Davenport, Iowa, at 1 minute, 34 seconds of the second round. Arias blistered Cason with shots in the opening round and had him in big trouble after connecting with a hard right hand that snapped his head back late in the round. When Cason grabbed on to him, Arias threw him to the mat and the round ended. In the second round, Arias dropped Cason face first with a right hand but he surprisingly beat the count. But when Arias bent him over with another right hand moments later referee Schiavone called off the fight.
• Crowd favorite Christopher Diaz (11-0, 6 KOs), 20, of Puerto Rico, outfought Marcelo Gallardo (5-3-2, 2 KOs), 25, of Renton, Washington, in a high-contact six-round featherweight affair. All three judges had it for Diaz, 59-55, 58-56 and 58-56.
• Lightweight Jason Sosa (16-1-3, 12 KOs), 27, of Camden, New Jersey, went to battle with Santiago Bustos (7-7-1, 3 KOs), 32, of Spain, and came away with a fifth-round knockout after an all-action fight. Sosa wore him down throughout the frenzied fight, eventually dropping Bustos twice in the fifth round. After the second knockdown, Bustos, his right eye busted up, made it to his feet but he was in no condition to continue and referee Schiavone waved off the bout at 2 minutes, 27 seconds.
• In an energetic fight, junior welterweight prospect Mike Reed (15-0, 8 KOs), 22, of Waldorf, Maryland, routed Puerto Rico's Luis Gonzalez (11-2-1, 6 KOs), 25. Reed, a southpaw, displayed fine form with his right jab, came forward throughout the fight and worked Gonzalez's body. In the end, it was a wipeout with Reed winning 80-72 on two scorecards and 80-73 on one.