Ray Beltran has to win this fight. At 37 years old, he’s running out of time.
“In boxing, when you’re at the level to fight for a championship, every fight becomes just paramount because you can slide down the ladder,” Hall of Fame analyst Al Bernstein said.
“And when you’re a veteran fighter, as in the case of Ray, for instance, the pressure mounts because you have less time, if any time, to try to make up the difference.”
Beltran knows this better than anyone. It was on his mind as he wrapped his hands at Gent’s Boxing Club in Glendale before a public workout to promote his WBO lightweight world title defense against Jose Pedraza on Aug. 25 at Gila River Arena in Glendale.
He didn’t get his first title shot until he was 32. It was a draw, though most observers say Beltran was robbed. From there, it took him four years, eight fights and one no-decision to finally become a world champion. All the while, he had to worry about his immigration status.
Now? Beltran’s camp believes their man has cleared enough hurdles to secure a green card, but he still has to worry about his future.
He’s been a top-level sparring partner for Michael Carbajal and Manny Paquiao. He’s trained at Kronk and Wild Card gyms. He’s busted Ricky Burns’ jaw and given Terence Crawford one of his toughest fights.
But none of that translates to life-changing money.
If Beltran (35-7-1, 21 KOs) beats Pedraza (24-1, 12 KOs), he should get to fight Vasyl Lomachenko in one of the year’s top bouts.
“Even though he’ll be an underdog and it’s an uphill climb, it’s the opportunity of his career,” Bernstein said. “It’s an opportunity to make more money. So, this fight becomes vital. A loss is not acceptable.”
Getting ready to enter the ring at Gent’s, Beltran refused to look past The Sniper.
“Pedraza, he’s a former world champion,” Beltran said, preparing for the first time in nearly 15 years for a bout in his adopted hometown. “He’s a tough guy. Difficult guy. He’s had some good fights.”
Beltran knows what’s at stake.
“They have a big, big fight after, but I’m not really much focused on it,” he said. “I’m more focused on the fight right now.”
Pedraza is taller and boasts a longer reach and a better record. He can fight inside and outside. And he can switch stances between southpaw and orthodox.
Trainer Brian McIntyre doesn’t think any of that will make much difference.
“I don’t know if that’s gonna pose no problems,” he said. McIntyre, Crawford’s coach, noted that the veteran Beltran can adjust to most any style.
McIntyre does see one advantage for the 29-year-old Pedraza.
“Only problem I think Ray’s gonna run into with this cat, man, is his youth. That’s it. Youth. Only thing I see,” McIntyre said. “Ray’s at a point now in his career where he kinda (can) bust up real easy.”
Photos of Beltran from his recent media workout show a cut on the bridge of his nose. If Pedraza can pick at it with his jab, it could open a gash that would influence judges or stop the fight.
If Beltran gets too bloody, he could lose.
Michael Carbajal, sitting on the ring apron of Michael Carbajal’s 9th Street Gym in downtown Phoenix, acknowledged cuts could be a problem.
“You don’t even worry about it, unless it comes up,” the Hall of Famer said. “And if it comes up, you can’t even worry about it when you have it. You just go in there and do what you have to do. No matter if you’re cut up or not. I was cut up plenty of times. I didn’t worry about it. I just kept fighting. And that’s the way that you have to go. You just focus, man. ‘I’m whipping your ass, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t care if I’m cut, I don’t care if the blood’s running in my eyes, whatever. I’m whipping your ass and that’s it.’”
Beltran has the mentality of a fighter. He honed it sparring with Carbajal and training at legendary gyms, under the guidance of Hall of Fame trainers like Emanuel Steward and Freddie Roach.
Roach remembered when he knew Beltran might be special.
“I had a deal with all the sparring partners for Paquiao, I used to tell them if you knock Manny down, you get an extra hundred bucks,” Roach said.
“One day, Ray was just about to knock Manny down. Had him off balance. Had him hurt a little bit. I was reaching in my pocket for the $100, and all of the sudden Manny turned it around and knocked Ray down. I was happy. I took my hand out.
“These two guys would really, really go at it. It was that tight and that close. … Ray helped Paquiao get ready when he was at his best. When he had his killer instinct and he was knocking everybody dead.”
Such experience could breed confidence. But it could also lead to the dreaded “sparing partner’s mentality,” where a fighter develops a habit for easing up at crucial moments.
Carbajal has a guess for how Beltran has been able to avoid that.
“Ray must have a great mentality,” he said, “because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have that confidence he has now.”
The stakes have been high for Beltran for years. He came to the country illegally when he was 16 and has fought on temporary work visas in recent years, hoping to win a world title that should qualify him for a special exemption to stay in the U.S.
He’s now on that path and hopes to one day become a citizen.
“I love the United States,” he said before climbing into the ring. “I’m grateful. It gave me everything I have, all the opportunities. … I’ve said it before, and I mean it: If I had to go to war to defend the country, I’d do it.”
For now, he’s focused on beating Pedraza. His family’s financial security is on the line. He can’t fight forever.
“I come from nothing,” he said. “From a place where nobody is supposed to make it, and there’s no hope. To me, it’s very important that people over there know about it. So, they can know that whatever you want to do in life, if you work hard, you can make a change.”
For him, it’s about belief.
“I believe as long as you believe in yourself, you can make things happen,” he said. “I believe in that.”