Cartagena, 14-2, 5 KOs, won his first regional title belt in
his most recent outing, last July. That night, Cartagena
won the vacant IBO Latino bantamweight title. Friday night
he gets a chance to add another strap to his collection when
he faces LA-based Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez, 12-3, 4 KOs, in
a 10-round bout for the WBO Latino junior bantamweight title
in Palm Bay, FL.
There is no question
that Cartagena’s on a nice roll lately. However not long
ago, his career path turned into a rocky road that almost
became a dead end.
Just a few years ago,
if you asked any Philly boxing fan if Cartagena would become
a world champion sometime in the near future, the answer
would have been a resounding “YES”. Cartagena was one of
those super amateurs who won just about everything while
still in his teens. So, success in the professional ranks
seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
By Miguel’s side ever
since he was a nine year old amateur just starting out, was
trainer Javier Varela. Together they zipped through the
first eight pro opponents they faced. It was a careful
climb that felt a little slow, but Cartagena was building
his record and still clearly had that sure-fire future ahead
of him. But then suddenly, Miguel and Varela parted ways in
Cartagena moved on to a
new manager, and with that came a new trainer. At the time,
details were scarce about the shake up, but it was clear
that the Cartagena / Varela connection was over.
Miguel continued to win
fights, but he didn’t quite look like the same promising
fighter over his first few bouts with the new team. His
development not only seemed to plateau, it wasn’t long
before he appeared to start losing ground. He was getting
hit more and had clearly lost some of his fire. Regardless
of all this, he pushed his record to 12-0 by the spring of
In fight number
thirteen however, Cartagena suffered his first pro loss, a
third round upset TKO stoppage to bantamweight Timur
Shailezov. The shocking loss was written off as a fluke,
but after one easy comeback win, Cartagena was again knocked
out, this time in the first round by Emmanuel Rodriguez in
future was cloudy. Given that both losses came in bouts at
a higher weight class than Miguel’s usual division (he
typically walks around at less than 115 pounds), his
hardcore fans tried to write off these setbacks. However
the truth was that even his biggest supporters were
worried. Had this sure bet for professional glory peaked as
an amateur? It wouldn’t be the first time it happened.
Shortly after the first
round loss in Puerto Rico, Miguel showed up at his old North
Philly gym with a 13-2 record and a hope that he could
reunite with his old trainer, Varela. There was some
reconciliation to be done between them, but Javier welcomed
Cartagena back into the “Philly Rumblers” fold. After all,
they were like family and the Philly Rumblers always were
Miguel and Javier.
In their first fight
back together, Cartagena won a 10-round decision to capture
his first regional title. The victory served as a fresh
start and it seemed fitting that Cartagena and Varela took
that first belt home together.
Although his fight on
Friday night is for another belt, Cartagena’s future is
still not completely certain. Most feel that back with
Varela is exactly where Miguel should be, but the 23 year
old prospect still has some work to do to erase the shocking
setbacks that raised so many questions about him. However,
the 23 year old Cartagena seems to have put his two year
sabbatical from Varela and those two stoppage defeats into
perspective. Cartagena, a new father, has emerged focused,
more mature and ready to reclaim his status as a sure bet.
I caught up with
Cartagena and Varela before a recent workout at Kensington’s
Diesel Fit Boxing Gym. We discussed the upcoming fight,
their bumpy past and their hopes for the future.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO
WIN YOUR FIRST PRO BELT IN JULY?
CARTAGENA: “It was great. It was one of the best
feelings I’ve ever experienced. Besides my son being born,
I haven’t had an experience like that in a very long time.
Winning nationals and stuff like that was a great feeling
too, but nothing compares to winning your first (pro) belt.
Especially coming back with my trainer. We had a little
fall out. Coming back to Javier and winning my first title
with him, it meant all that more to me, and to us as a
DID IT FEEL STRANGE
TO BE WORKING WITH JAVIER AGAIN?
CARTAGENA: “No. We jumped right in there. I felt more
comfortable coming back and training and doing everything
getting ready for that fight than anything else. Everything
automatically picked up right where it left off.”
WAS IT DIFFICULT TO
REBOUND FROM LOSING?
CARTAGENA: “It was a learning experience. There’s
nothing bad about learning. I just took the wrong steps. I
thought I had faith in certain things and certain people,
but it wasn’t what I expected. It just wasn’t the right
timing. It was more of a blessing to be honest. When I
look back at it now, I see in a way I was being cocky. So I
feel as though those fights mellowed me out. Now I respect
boxing and I respect what it can do for you.”
DID LOSING MAKE YOU
A BETTER FIGHTER IN THE LONG RUN?
CARTAGENA: “I gained more than I lost. With my two
losses, I gained more within myself as a fighter than
anything else. So, I’m not going to say it was a bad
WAS IT THAT NEW TEAM
DIDN’T WORK FOR YOU?
CARTAGENA: “I was never completely convinced. I was
still trying to do my own thing, but listening to that
person at the same time. So it kind of contradicted
itself. I was trying to listen, but if something wouldn’t
work, I would just go back to myself.”
YOU WERE ALSO
FIGHTING ABOVE A COMFORTABLE WEIGHT, RIGHT?
CARTAGENA: “That didn’t feel good. I felt out of shape
trying to keep the weight on. 115 is almost where I walk
around at. I’m just like a heavyweight; I don’t have to
worry about weight. I have trouble keeping the weight on.
This past week, I was weighing 111. So I had to eat to pack
on a couple more pounds.”
DOES TRAINING FEEL
THE SAME AS WHEN YOUR WERE YOUNGER AND FIRST STARTING OUT?
CARTAGENA: “No, it doesn’t feel the same at all. I
come to the gym with different motives now. Before I would
come to the gym just to train and win fights. I got a son
now. So I gotta be sure I go above and beyond to support
IS WINNING A WORLD
TITLE STILL YOUR DREAM?
CARTAGENA: “That still is the goal, always. Ultimately
that is the goal, but I’m coming at it from a different
angle now. Now there is a process. Everything comes in its
time. You can’t rush it, can’t cheat your way around it.
You have to take it as it comes.”
DO YOU THINK YOU’LL
FIGHT FOR A WORLD TITLE IN 2016?
CARTAGENA: “Honestly, I’m not even thinking that far.
I’m literally thinking about each fight at a time, giving it
my 100% complete focus to every fight. So, honestly I’m not
even thinking that far.”
HOW DO YOU FEEL
ABOUT THIS UPCOMING FIGHT?
CARTAGENA: “I’m feeling good about it. He has about
the same experience as me. He won two nationals as an
amateur. My professional record and his is just about the
same. He had a nice amateur background, not as much as me.
But, nice enough. I’m feeling good. I’m excited to fight
for the belt now. I’m excited to fight the actual fight
HOW DO YOU FEEL
ABOUT MIGUEL’S UPCOMING FIGHT?
VARELA: “There’s a lot on the line. He’s fighting for
the WBO Latino title. That’s the situation right there. The
guy he’s fighting, Ricardo Rodriguez, is a good fighter.
Good fighter, Mexican guy. Actually he held three
(regional) titles. He’s got a good trainer. I have a lot
of history with his trainer, Rodolpho Mosquera. Actually we
pretty much hate each other from the amateurs. (Laughs)
We’re always competing with each other. Miguel was always
competing against one of his guys. So, it’s an important
fight. It’s going to be a tough fight.”
HOW IS THIS GO-ROUND
WITH MIGUEL DIFFERENT FROM THE FIRST TIME?
VARELA: “Second fight back, not much has changed. Now
I’m a little harder on him, because he’s in a good stage of
his career right now. After them two losses that he had,
after he was gone, it served him good, actually. He knows
what it feels like to lose. He knows the position that it
could put him in. He knows that he was in a bad situation.
(It was) like, everybody looked down on him. Like he was
(or had been) overrated.”
IS HE A BETTER
VARELA: “His physical strength is better. Like the
fight we had in St. Maarten, he fought Javier Franco.
Javier Franco was a 122-pounder. Tough Mexican guy. Big,
real big, and Miguel handled him really easy. But it was
tough, because the guy had the power to knock out Miguel
with one shot. His dedication is still the same. He comes
to the gym and does whatever I ask him to do. Something I
don’t really like that’s happening is that he’s so concerned
about disappointing me. I don’t know where that comes from.
Do you approve? I don’t have to approve nothing. He runs.
He trains three or four times a day. I haven’t seen him
miss a step yet. He’s doing great. I don’t have no
complaints. He’s always willing to do more to improve
himself. He’s been sparring a lot with heavier guys, and
he’s hurting these guys. So, I can’t wait to see him test
his power at 115.”
DO YOU SEE ANY
HESITATION IN HIM SINCE HIS KO LOSSES?
VARELA: “No, not at all. Not at all. When we went to
St. Maarten, the whole game plan was to box, use the ring,
move and let the guy walk into everything. But Miguel jumps
on the guy in the first round, bangs with him toe to toe.
Miguel’s getting hit with good, strong shots. Miguel’s
hitting the guy with good, strong shots. So, right there I
got real nervous. This is not what we came here for. We
didn’t come here to bang, especially with a guy that
outweighs you by three weight classes. But Miguel, he
caught on and really started boxing well.”
DID HE GAIN ANYTHING
FROM THOSE LOSSES?
VARELA: “Like the old timers say, you don’t become a
complete fighter until you witness a loss. So, he’s getting
there. As a fighter, as a human being, that lingers in your
brain. It was pretty rough on him. I’m just happy that
finally he got the opportunity at 115. The opportunity he
got in Puerto Rico? That fight should have never happened.
Miguel can still make 108 pounds.”
WHAT WAS IT LIKE
WHEN HE CAME BACK TO YOU?
VARELA: “He came back about a week after he got knocked
out in Puerto Rico. For me, it was like seeing the high
school sweetheart that broke your heart, after you’re
already married. In my mind, I was looking at him like,
‘what the hell do you want?’ But I knew what he wanted. It
wasn’t hard. It was bound to happen. I knew he wasn’t
going to make it nowhere without me. I knew that. He knew
that. I love Miguel. I’ve been with him since he was 8, 9
years old. It’s a family thing. There is a
misunderstanding out there. People are thinking that Miguel
left me. That’s not the case. Miguel did not leave me. I
didn’t want no part of THAT, what was going on. I didn’t
want no part of it. So, I walked away. It was healthy for
me. It helped me grow. I have to take care of things at
home. I needed that time off. The whole time, I kept in
contact with his mom. With Miguel, not so much. He was
turning into something that I didn’t like. I didn’t stand
for it. If I don’t stand for something, I’d rather walk
away. I just wanted to clear that up.”
AFTER THIS FIGHT,
HOW CLOSE IS HE TO A WORLD TITLE FIGHT?
VARELA: “I think by September or December, if not at
115, then definitely at 112. He’s blessed that he’s got a
good promoter behind him now, All Star Boxing. They going
to do good things with him, as long as he stays committed.
He’ll be fine. In your article years ago, I told you Miguel
would be champion by the age of 23. Look it up! It’s in
your article. Here’s the amazing thing about 23. When
Miguel went to St. Maarten, the guy he was fighting had 23
wins. We fought on the 4th of July. The
decision didn’t come in until after midnight. July 5th.
Miguel turned 23 years old (at midnight).”
Although Cartagena is
running out of time to become a world champ by age 23 (He
turns 24 on July 5,, 2016), at least he is in
position, back with Valera, to eventually get there before
too long. As Miguel says, “Everything comes in its time”.
For Javier and Cartagena, a world title is not guaranteed,
but their journey for it together was always meant to