Frankie Gavin is “In The Zone”, that mythical place an athlete goes where muscle-memory kicks in and thought is rendered obsolete.
Rekindling a time when he was the UK’s brightest prospect, the only British fighter ever to win an amateur World Championship, Gavin is boxing beautifully. Staying in the pocket, Frankie swaps volleys of combinations with his tank-like opponent, out-punching him two-to-one, and while his punches barely seem to have any effect on his rival (whose own punches have an ominous thudding denseness to them), it doesn’t matter; Frankie is looking sensational.
In front of Frankie stands the one they call “The Revolver of Morga”, a hulking, malevolent block of tattooed muscle that trundles forward relentlessly, yet Gavin is defiant, proud, in this moment as brilliant as he’s ever been. The vast partisan crowd, high on alcohol and adrenaline, had jeered him to the ring, but now roar on approvingly as jaw flexed and eyes blazing, Frankie lets fly with yet another combination, as the two warriors collide center-ring in a brutal war of attrition.
Suddenly, The Revolver fires a single piercing body shot, so fast most watching don’t see it but pinpoint accurate and utterly devastating, and within a split-second it has extinguished the roaring fire that was Frankie Gavin’s self-belief. He slides to the canvas, paralyzed with pain, and the referee counts him out.
No sooner is the count completed than The Revolver, foregoing the wild celebrations of his cornermen and the crowd, is on his knees, aiding his stricken opponent and helping Frankie back to his feet. He then bows toward him with respect, beckoning his adoring fans to show their appreciation for Gavin’s brave effort.
The “Revolver” in question is Kerman Lejarraga, a young man whose relentless fighting style, granite toughness and KO power brings to mind two recent Latin welterweights famed for their doggedness, durability, and seek-and-destroy mentality; Marcos Maidana and Antonio Margarito.
However, Lejarraga isn’t from Argentina or Mexico, or anyplace else in South or Central America, he hails from Bilbao, capital of the Basque Country, the prosperous but historically conflicted region of Northern Spain. 26-year old Lejarraga is the reigning European welterweight champion and the most exciting fighter to emerge from Spain since the early 1970s.
With his tattoos, muscles, buzz-cut-ponytail hybrid haircut and street swagger, Lejarraga is the quintessential “Urban Warrior”, which is appropriate as his career thus far has been all about overwhelming ring rivals with a combination of intensity, power, strength, a ferocious work-rate, plus sheer toughness. That warrior spirit has taken him to 26 straight wins, 22 inside the distance, the European welterweight title, and a top-five world ranking with the WBC, WBA and IBF.
Lejarraga’s ring success, his charismatic demeanour and exciting fighting style, plus the fact that Kerman is very much one of their own quickly earned him cult status in the Basque capital among Athletic Bilbao fans, but as his success has continued, so his fame has quickly escalated, crossing the border into Spain, where has become the figurehead for what looks set to be a Golden-Era of Spanish boxing.
Kerman Lejarraga would certainly appear to have that essential combination of world-class ability, the capacity for punishing himself in training that would make an extreme athlete proud, plus that God-given charisma and star quality that cannot be taught or earned, it just is. While he might be a ruthless assassin in the ring, everyone who knows Kerman is unanimous in their opinion that he is in fact “the nicest guy in the world.”
Certainly, throughout his career thus far, Lejarraga has displayed nothing less than total respect for his opponents, and complete humility and humbleness, despite a succession of scarily world class performances.
Exorcizing The Ghost Of Urtain
The last Basque fighter to capture the imagination of the entire Spanish nation was a young heavyweight named José Manuel Ibar Azpiazu, known simply as Urtain, whose explosive punching power made the cover of The Ring Magazine. Urtain achieved such a high distinction by winning 28 straight fights, all by KO, a feat that earned him this headline on the July 1970 issue of Ring Magazine:
“Is Urtain Boxing’s New Superman?”
Then Ring Magazine editor Nat Fleischer – upon seeing the 5’11”, 205 lb Urtain perform several astonishing feats of strength including picking up a 500 lbs boulder with his bare hands and holding it above his head – declared him “the strongest heavyweight of all time.”
Urtain was idolized in Spain, where the somewhat biased press declared he would defeat both Muhammad Ali and the then-world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. While there’s no doubt Urtain possessed a crowd-pleasing, explosive, all-action style, immense strength and KO power, his defence was non-existent, and his stamina suspect. Urtain and his corner’s technical limitations were exposed on his biggest night, when, on the verge of a world title shot, he lost his European heavyweight title to a 37-year old Henry Cooper, who TKO’d him in nine rounds in 1970.
The spectre of Urtain still hangs over the Basque region, based in no small part on the boxer’s slide into depression and alcoholism following retirement, and his subsequent suicide in 1992 aged just 49, one week before the Barcelona Olympics.
The Basque region has produced several other famous boxers over the years, none more so than Paulino Uzcudun. In the 1920s and 30s, Uzcudun, a wood chopper by profession, was the George Chuvalo of his era, a 5’10” 220 lb granite-jawed bull of a man who fought Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera, Mickey Walker, Tommy Loughran, Harry Wills and Max Baer, and was only floored and stopped once, both in his 71st and final fight against Joe Louis in 1936.
Curiously, Uzcudun’s domestic rival was Isidoro Gastanaga, another Basque strongman and a murderous puncher, but for whatever reason, the two never fought each other. Another Basque boxer, middleweight Ignacio Ara is regarded by some as Spain’s greatest ever fighter. Ara boxed almost 200 times in a 21-year career that ended in 1947, and was never stopped.
Uzcudun, Ara and Urtain were high profile contenders and European champions, but none of them were truly world championship calibre (although Uzcudun did fight Primo Carnera for his world title, losing a controversial decision in front of 70,000 in Rome in 1933.)
The New Generation Of Basque Fight Fans
There is a whole generation of young Basques who know nothing of Urtain and Uzcudun, and who frankly could have cared less about boxing, had it not been for the emergence over the past five years of their fistic messiah, Kerman Lejarraga. While it might seem odd that soccer fans would so easily share their allegiance with a boxer, and there isn’t an equivalent storyline in the NFL, NBA or MLB, it makes perfect sense that working class fans of a working class sport like soccer would get behind one of their own in the most working class sport of them all, boxing.
There is a brief but definitive history of fans of struggling football teams channelling their frustration into fanatical support of a promising local fighter. Back in the late 1990s, fans of Manchester City – then languishing in the English Third Division – latched on to an exciting, all-action local boy named Ricky Hatton. Before long, Hatton had a traveling army of 50,000 fans who supported Ricky in his biggest fights against the likes of Kostya Tszyu, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, drinking the bars dry wherever they went.
Tony Bellew is a devout Everton supporter, and thousands from the blue half of Liverpool always supported the Bomber throughout his career. Bellew often states that easily the proudest moment of his life was wining the WBC cruiserweight title in front of the Everton faithful at their home ground of Goodison Park.
More recently, fans of another of English football’s “Sleeping Giants” – Leeds United – have shown Hatton-like devotion to Leeds born-and-raised Josh Warrington. In May 2018, 30,000 fans at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground cheered Warrington on to victory over Lee Selby, a win that earned him the IBF featherweight title.
Today, the hard-core supporters of Athletic Bilbao are as equally committed in their support of Kerman Lejarraga, and just as with Hatton and Warrington, their number is large and growing, and their devotion fanatical. Already 20,000 have turned out for a EBU title defence, so it’s not much of a stretch to envision 55,000 packing Athletic Bilbao’s San Memes stadium for a fight against Shawn Porter, Keith Thurman, Errol Spence or Terence Crawford.
But it’s not just the hard-core fans who are believers: The general consensus across the Basque country and increasingly throughout Spain is that in Kerman Lejarraga they may finally have a fighter capable of laying to rest the ghosts of Urtain, Uzcudun, Ara, Gastanaga and all of the province’s past underachievers, and prove himself no.1 in his weight class, and one of the top fighters in the world, pound-for-pound.
Lejarraga: From Morga To Bilbao And Beyond
Kerman Lejarraga was born on February 19, 1992 in Morga, a tiny mountainside municipality of around 400 people, just east of Bilbao. As a shy teenager, Kerman’s life revolved around spending time with his girlfriend, going to watch his beloved Athletic Bilbao, and playing football with friends, which often erupted into fisticuffs, which Kerman showed a natural aptitude for. Even when the opposition would be a decade older and much larger, Lejarraga would still lay them out with ease. It wasn’t long before the young Lejarraga was running with Bilbao’s notorious “Ultras”.
The co-founders of MGZ Promotions, the Basque company that have been behind Lejarraga from the start, are lifelong friends Jesus Del Valle and Inigo Herbosa. Herbosa – an extremely affable 33-year old who gave this writer a priceless insight into Kerman’s story – is an academic who boxed as an amateur, a polyglot with seven languages under his belt including fluent English, whose background is in business and advertising, and who will surely soon rival Eddie Hearn and Kalle Sauerland as Europe’s top young promoter. On Kerman’s life pre-boxing, Inigo recounts:
“His uncle brought him into kickboxing and judo, because he started to fight other kids when he was a teen. Since he was not very skilled using his legs and instead had powerful hands, he immediately changed kickboxing for boxing. He was little bit troublesome since he got involved in hooligan fights with adult guys from a very young age.”
When Kerman was 17, a friend took him to the Bilbao boxing gym run by Txutxi Del Valle (pictured above), saying simply that he had brought him a little pitbull. Herbosa remembers the incident well:
“One of Kerman’s best friends brought him to the gym. I remember I told him to come once before that and I was surprised he showed up to the gym when I saw him there. He was very powerful but not very talented, but Txutxi was very patient with him. I saw much more talented young boxers bailing out when it came to get serious, but from the start Kerman was a focused, hard-working, well committed boy.”
Del Valle recalls seeing a spotty, shy kid, but one who hurt him with a right hook the first time he put the gloves on.
“The first time I sparred with him, I was surprised by the strength and the impetus he had,” explains Del Valle. “He hit me with a right-hook that hurt me. I was amazed at how strong he was, because he was only 17. He had a lot of strength. You asked yourself: “How can this boy be so strong?””
It wasn’t long before Kerman was taking a train and a bus every day to get to the gym and work out. Within weeks he began his amateur career, which would result in a Basque national title and a record of 66 wins from 70 fights, although how the talent-starved Spanish Olympic boxing setup failed to spot Lejarraga remains a complete mystery.
In May 2013, a 21-year old Lejarraga turned pro with a four-round decision over Jair Cortes. His progress was rapid, and in his fourth bout he KO’d one-time prospect turned career journeyman Georgian Nugzar Margvelashvili in two rounds. By December 2015, Lejarraga was demolishing EBU contender, 27-2 Danish prospect Kim Poulsen in two rounds.
In his next fight he thrashed world-ranked 21-1-1 Hungarian Lazlo Toth on points, earning himself the WBA International welterweight belt. By now, Kerman’s rapid rise up the rankings, impressive performances and streetfighter demeanour was earning him a cult following in the Basque capital and beyond.
In June 2016 Kerman faced the first of three British fighters that have acted as a career barometer. Denton Vassell was once one of the most talented fighters in Europe, but the four-round shellacking Lejarraga handed him virtually ended his career. In 2018, Lejarraga drew rave reviews for his two-round KO of the UK’s highly rated Bradley Skeete, a performance that earned Kerman the EBU welterweight title, a WBC no.4 ranking, and a glowing review by Skeete himself who stated that Lejarraga was the hardest puncher he had ever faced, had a world-class jab, and was “destined for big things in the division.”
Later in the year, Kerman faced another highly regarded Brit in Frankie Gavin, once the brightest young star in UK boxing, but someone who hadn’t earned the nickname “Funtime Frankie” for his love of training camps and sobriety. Given scant regard by the UK press, especially when he failed to make weight, Gavin nevertheless went out on his shield against Lejarraga, looking as good as he ever had, but even that hadn’t been nearly enough to put so much as a dent in The Revolver’s progress.
Lejarraga still trains at the same gym he used throughout his amateur career, and is still with the same trainer, the aforementioned Txutxi (pronounced Chuchi) Del Valle. With his 1980s wedge-style haircut, Txutxi resembles a younger version of Joachim Lowe, the German national soccer coach who led his team to the 2014 World Cup – and that unforgettable 7-1 win over Brazil.
Just as with Lowe, Del Valle’s appearance is misleading: He may not have the regulation shaved head and tattoos, cauliflower ear and broken nose, but he was a successful amateur boxer in his own right – and is proving to be a brilliant and innovative thinker who lets a fighter find his own style, and then refines it, much like a sculptor. It’s a system not dissimilar to that of the great Cus D’Amato, who famously said that he “discovered and uncovered” talent, rather than enforced a preconceived style on a fighter.
Txutxi is fiercely protective of Lejarraga, and is quick to defend his fighter against those critics who have labelled him an “unskilled brawler”:
“That’s a lie” says Del Valle curtly. “Kerman is a super-technical fighter. I’ve heard some so called experts say that Mike Tyson was not a technical fighter either, and that is a lie too. Tyson was super technical and what he did was perfect. Within boxing there are stylists and sluggers. Kerman for me is a hybrid, although it is true that at the beginning of his pro career he lacked technique and was a bit of brute. But back then, because he was so superior to his opposition, he knew was going to break their heads!”
While it is invariably his heavy hooks to the head and body that finish his fights, the punch that actually breaks the spirit of his opponents is his jab. The Lejarraga left jab is a bona-fide lethal weapon, a power punch that sent Bradley Skeete staggering backward across the ring the first time he sampled it. It was a left jab that split open the nose of the resilient Mexican Jesus Gurrola, effectively ending the fight. One can count on one hand fighters whose left jabs had such fight-ending power; Sonny Liston, Joe Louis, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns. Add Lejarraga to that list.
One Basque newspaper columnist quipped that despite starting boxing at the relatively late age of 17, Lejarraga shows the skills and punching power of Mexican fighters who began their ring careers “even before their first communion.”
Txutxi Del Valle is himself fast becoming a Bilbao legend, and he is certainly a Svengali-like figure to his young stable of fighters, which he limits to ten talented amateurs and ten pro prospects. The buzz in the Mampo Gym is palpable, like the legendary 5th Street Gym and Freddie Roach’s Wildcard Gym in their heydays, and unsurprisingly the great and the good from rival gyms in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and everywhere else are desperate to train and spar there.
Nadal, Garcia, Alonso, Contador, Gasol, Casillas… Lejarraga?
Few nations have had such a wide range of consistent sporting success as Spain has enjoyed in the first two decades of the 21st century. Soccer, tennis, golf, cycling, motor racing, even basketball has seen Spaniards become standouts in their chosen field, some, such as tennis icon Rafael Nadal and goalkeeping legend Iker Casillas will go down among the greatest ever exponents of their particular sports.
Boxing is booming in Spain right now. There’s a whole generation of hungry kids that grew up during “La Crisis”, Spain’s economic crash that has led to more than a decade of austerity. Leading the way is Kerman Lejarraga, and he is a beacon for every frustrated inner city kid growing up in Bilbao, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga, or any other big town. They see him and they identify with him 100%. There are lots of naturally athletic, energetic kids in these areas. Maybe they aren’t the best at football, and maybe they didn’t get the chance to play tennis or golf, but as long as they have their two fists and plenty of hunger and aggression and desire, maybe they can be the next Kerman Lejarraga.
Historically Spain lags behind the other major Western European nations the UK, Italy, France and Germany when it comes to producing world champion boxers, with just thirteen. Two of Spain’s most recent world champions were the elegant light middleweight Javier Castillejo, who fought Oscar De La Hoya and gave the modern great a tremendous fight for eleven rounds, and hard-punching bantamweight Kiko Martinez, who gave Carl Frampton all he could handle in two highly competitive bouts, and also gave current WBA featherweight champ Josh Warrington his toughest night thus far.
The Biggest Welterweight Ever?
Talented as Castillejo and Martinez are, neither are likely to make the International Boxing Hall of Fame anytime soon. In order to get to the very top and stay there for a long time, as the truly greats do, a fighter must have at least one thing that he does better than his rivals at that time, an “ace in the whole”, if you will.
While Lejarraga may well hit harder than anyone else at 147, have a stronger jab and better body attack that any other welterweight right now, that is subjective and open to argument. One thing that isn’t is Lejarraga’s capacity for post-weigh-in rehydration, which effectively makes him the biggest welterweight in the world right now, maybe ever.
Bradley Skeete commented that Lejarraga was “massive” in the ring, and far bigger than he had been at the weigh-in, and he was correct: Kerman has been as heavy as 180 lbs in a welterweight fight, making him in effect a cruiserweight, although his team prefer him to go no higher than 165, or super middleweight. Despite that massive increase in size, his muscles remain defined, as all the pictures of him in action in this article show.
At 5’9” and with a long reach of 76”, Kerman is a big welterweight, but that’s an understatement. As already stated, his capacity for rehydration is freakish; the welterweight limit is 147 lbs, and Lejarraga usually scales 165 Lbs on fight night – his optimum weight.
For his thrilling third round KO of Panamanian puncher Azael Cosio Kerman blew up to 180 lbs, which his camp subsequently decided was too big. In the most entertaining fight of his career, Kerman was sent to the canvas in round two courtesy of a swinging hook to the back of the head, but regained his feet before the referee could begin a count, only for Cosio to dart in and deliver a huge uppercut flush on Kerman’s unprotected jaw. Instead of collapsing in a heap, the Spaniard spread his arms in a “what the fuck are you doing?” gesture, as if to say, “so you floored me with an illegal punch, now you are trying to finish me with another one?”
Lejarraga subsequent tore after Cosio like an enraged bull, absorbing multiple booming uppercuts and taking shots flush to the face, even suffering a broken nose before trapping his foe on the ropes in the third round and landing the crushing right hook that ended the fight.
Shades Of Duran, Valero
Both during a fight’s build-up and in the ring, Lejarraga is a compelling, utterly menacing figure. He has that same gaunt, hard-faced, street urchin appearance of a young Roberto Duran or an Edwin Valero. He sports the buzz-cut-plus-ponytail home-made looking hairstyle popular with many kids from the Bilbao “Barrio”, the equivalent of the ghetto or “hood”. The abundance of tattoos that adorn his rock-hard, muscular physique gives the affable Lejarraga the appearance of a battle-hardened jailbird.
2019 And Beyond?
In May 2017, Lejarraga’s management team may made their one mistake so far; they signeda promotional deal with Lou DiBella’s DiBella Entertainment. Here’s the quote from the Lejarraga camp that appeared on the DiBella Entertainment site after contracts were signed:
“It’s like a dream come true that such a great promoter as Lou DiBella has put his eyes on me,” said Lejarraga. “I come from a little village in Spain and I couldn’t ever imagine that I was going to fight and pursue my career in the United States. I look forward to making my American debut and proving that I belong among the welterweight elite.”
“Great promoter”? Talk about star-struck! DiBella stubbornly tried to compete against Golden Boy and Top Rank, and the losers were his fighters, primarily Sergio Martinez, who had the blinding talent that deserved a Superfight with Mayweather of Pacquiao, but had to settle for modest paydays against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, and Miguel Cotto when he was 39 with the knees of a 70-year old.
As a promoter, Lou DiBella lacked clout until he began to work as a frontman for Al Haymon, promoting the reclusive billionaire’s stable of fighters via DiBella Entertainment. Former music impresario Haymon, who made his fortune promoting hip-hop concerts, is now boxing’s most controversial figure, a man who – despite losing literally hundreds of millions of investors dollars – still has a ton of influence on the sport with his PBC (Premier Boxing Champions) company, particularly in the welterweight division.
As a manager or “advisor” of such highly ranked 147-pounders as Luis Collazo, Danny Garcia, reigning WBC champ Shawn Porter, Amir Khan, Adrien Broner, reigning WBA titlist Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Lamont Peterson, IBF champ Errol Spence and WBA Super champ Keith Thurman. Only WBO champion Terence Crawford, who is promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank is so far out of Haymon’s clutches.
The obvious question is; why would Al Haymon let an unknown white European fighter with no following in America destroy one of his most high profile, high earning champions, and then take that belt back to Spain and defend it in a soccer stadium for years to come? The answer is – he wouldn’t.
Therefore, it’s not inconceivable that DiBella has signed Lejarraga for the express purpose of keeping him well away from Porter, Spence and Thurman. The plan might be to feed him a diet of Luis Collazos Andre Bertos, Robert Guerreros on undercards, maybe he’ll lose, and if he doesn’t, maybe he’ll fail a drug test, and if he gets a shot as Shawn Porter (Lejarraga could well become WBC mandatory in the near future), use the old Mayweather tactic of loading the dice in Porter’s favour, i.e., gloves, officials, referee, venue, testing etc.
Maybe we are in danger of being cynical, but DiBella’s own quotes are hardly bursting with enthusiasm:
“25-year-old Lejarraga is an aggressive, hard-hitting fighter with a crowd-pleasing style” and “There is a lot of talent in Spain, and the undefeated Kerman Lejarraga has already established himself as one of the most promising fighters in his country” who is “being compared by fans and experts to former world champion Javier Castillejo.”
“Crowd-pleasing style”? Isn’t that term usually reserved for face-forward brawlers like Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward and Ruslan Provodnikov?
“One” of the most promising fighters in Spain? Who’s more promising?
Javier Castillejo? With all respect, comparing Javier to Kerman is like comparing Eddie Chambers to David Tua! Castillejo was a slick boxer-puncher, Lejarraga isn’t!
After Lejarraga blitzed Frankie Gavin in four thrilling rounds, DiBella tweeted:
“A brutal body attack leads to a fourth-round KO for “The Revolver” Kerman Lejarraga, now 27-0 (22 KOs), against a game Frankie Gavin. Look for the European Welterweight Champion to begin his US invasion in 2019.”
Imagine Eddie Hearn – who turned AJ into a stadium filler in the UK – totally ignoring that Lejarraga has a huge following in Spain, and would pack a 55,000 seat soccer stadium in Bilbao for a title fight, and instead look to put him on some undercards in places like Kansas in front of crowds of barely 2,000?
Nice going Lou!
Thus far, MGZ are remaining tight lipped about DiBella and his first year-and-a-half as their US promoter, which has resulted in just one fight thus far, a two-round KO of unranked Dominican Jose Antonio Abreu Turning Stone Resort & Casino, Verona, New York, the fifth fight down the card.
However, while co-managers Inigo Herbosa and Jesus Del Valle are supremely confident in their fighter and his ability to dominate the welterweight division, they are also fiercely protective of the way he is promoted, and are only too aware that such a loyal, fervent fanbase as Kerman has, where he could fight Joe Schmoe and sell out a 20,000 seat arena, is only shared by a handful of other fighters, such as AJ and Josh Warrington in the UK, Canelo in the US/Mexico, and Manny Pacquiao should he fight in the Philippines.
So confident are MGZ that Kerman won’t lose before those fans in Bilbao, they recently enquired via a series of messages through this writer if Eddie Hearn would be interested in making a fight with Amir Khan for Lejarraga’s European title, a fight which would likely pack the San Memes stadium. MGZ stated that all they wanted was Spanish TV rights and in-ring merchandising, Eddie and Amir could split the rest.
And Amir could keep the entire purse.
Surprisingly, (or maybe unsurprisingly), there was no reply from either Amir of Eddie.