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Feature Story

Viloria back from the brink

Chris Cozzone

By Karl Freitag

Flash back to January 2008. When former world champion and U.S. Olympian Brian Viloria entered the ring for his fight against Jose Garcia Bernal it seemed about as far from the glamor of big time pro boxing as possible. Picture an outdoor parking lot in South Central Los Angeles surrounded by barbed wire that almost looks like a prison yard. Then add in a driving rainstorm. Brian had to be carried from a make-shift tent which was functioning as a dressing room to the ring by his handlers so that his boxing boots wouldn’t get soaked in the eight inches of water that had collected en route to the parking lot ring.

It was a dramatic fall from grace for the former world champion Viloria, who had gone from headlining televised shows and appearing in featured bouts on big pay-per-view telecasts to being buried deep on non-televised undercard bouts.

Coming out of the amateurs, Viloria was one of the most decorated U.S. amateurs in recent history. In addition to being considered the jewel of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, he was a world amateur champion, and a two-time junior Olympic champion.

He started his pro career on ESPN in front of a packed house at the Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu and proceeded effortlessly through the earlier part of his professional career right up until he won the WBC light flyweight title against Eric Ortiz at the Staples Center on a card that featured Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales in separate bouts.

The resounding win thrust the Filipino-American into the limelight in a major way in the Philippines, where nearly 100% of the population tunes in to watch Pacquiao’s fights. Brian was invited to meet President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at the MalacaƱang Palace and was escorted all over the Philippines by politicians and television networks.

However, as suddenly as Brian came to stardom, that’s how suddenly he fell a year later when he lost his title to Omar Nino in a very unspirited and frankly horrible performance. Viloria’s career continued to sputter with a draw against Nino in a rematch, followed by a loss to Edgar Sosa.

“He was trying to figure out whether or not to continue in boxing or whether he should go on to something else,” said Viloria’s longtime manager Gary Gittelsohn. “I had a serious talk with him and said ‘Brian we’re going to have to go to a place where you’ve never been to before because you started your professional career as a star you’re going to have to be completely unknown now. Hopefully I can get cooperation from folks like Top Rank to put you on card. You’re not going to make meaningful money, in fact I don’t want to negotiate purses for you, I just want to get you work and you’re not going to be a headliner and you may not even be on the bout sheet.’”

Brian decided he didn’t want to go out fighting the way he did in his three most recent matches and he agreed it was time to take several steps back in order to move ahead.

Starting with the rainstorm fight on the non-televised undercard at the Alameda Swap Meet, it took five fights and a year and a half to get Viloria ready to challenge the champion considered at that time to be the best of the 108-pounders in IBF titleholder Ulysses Solis. Brian was a prohibitive underdog going into that fight, but not only did he win the title with an eleventh round knockout, many people rated his performance as a ‘fight of the year’ and a ‘knockout of the year’ candidate.

“I think Brian’s story is a great story of redemption,” said Gittelsohn. “Boxing as we all know can be an unforgiving sport. People ride the wave of your success, and unlike other sports where you can lose a game and come back the next night and win and over a long season losses are erased, boxing isn’t that way. You don’t get that many opportunities. Especially when you’re 108 pounds.”

Viloria makes the second defense of his IBF title on Friday night against Carlos Tamara at the Cuneta Astrodome in Manila. The fight will take place at 11AM in the Philippines to accommodate U.S. pay-per-view on Friday night, however distribution of the fight in the U.S. will be extremely limited.

If Viloria wins against Tamara, a unification showdown with unbeaten WBO champion Ivan Calderon is likely.

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