Return of "The Atrisco Kid"
Maldonado in throwback, comeback mode
Story and photos by Chris Cozzone
You're not likely to find a community as stubborn as the town of Atrisco, which hugs Albuquerque's west side just south of Route 66. Settled by Spaniards in 1598 and fortified by a 1692 land grant that still continues to legally challenge the system, Atrisco is a living, breathing throwback of a town. Within its winding streets, over and around the ditches for which it is known, lives and trains another throwback, with a throwback name.
Technically an Atrisqueño, rather than an Albuquerquean, Fidel Maldonado has, for years, fought under the nom de guerre the "Atrisco Kid." In New Mexico, there hasn't been a "Kid" since Danny Romero donned the "Kid Dynamite" moniker early on his career – and that was half a century after New Mexican pugs had ceased to regularly use "Kid." Once upon a time, there were "Kids" galore – the Insurrecto Kid, the Congo Kid, Kid Payo and Kid Mortio were just a few. Nowadays, there's just one, though the "Atrisco Kid's" distinction does not stop there.
In a day and age where almost every fighter claims, "I'll fight anybody," but then won't, Fidel Maldonado is now making a career out of doing so, out of both necessity and a newfound hunger. No longer a shiny, undefeated prospect afforded the luxury of grooming, Maldonado is on a mission to buck the system that says would-be world champions have to be flawlessly undefeated.
"Back in the day, it wouldn't mean so much," Maldonado says with a shrug. "Not so these days."
Though he is still considered the No. 2 most-likely-to-succeed in New Mexico, after former champ Austin Trout, Maldonado's potential took a serious hit in 2012, the sort many fighters don't come back from.
Fighting under the Golden Boy banner as a hot prospect, Maldonado went unchallenged in his first 13 bouts, largely because the opponents were less than challenging, picking up a minor youth belt along the way. Then came Fernando Carcamo, 9-3 at the time, in a hometown fight.
"I never saw the punch, I didn't even feel the punch," Maldonado recalls the nightmare. "Then I was on the floor. I got back up . . . tried to cover up."
Maldonado survived the round, but was finished by Carcamo in the second.
"It'd never happened to me before," says Maldonado. "I just lost my legs and I couldn't close my mouth – my jaw was broken. I didn't know what was going on."
At 1:10 of the second round, Maldonado had suffered his first loss. Worse: His status as a rising star had crashed and burned in the process.
After four months of uncertainty, Maldonado climbed back into the ring in Indio, Calif. No longer Golden Boy's golden boy, he took on Michael Perez, 16-1-1 at the time, as an underdog in what was hoped to be, and what ended up, a pleasing TV fight. For the first five rounds, the Atrisco Kid held back.
"There was doubt," Maldonado admits. "The confidence was not where it should've been, the first half of the fight. Could I take a shot? I had questions but I also knew, whatever happens, happens. I needed to find out if I was made to do this."
Feeling more like his old, cocksure self, Maldonado went to work in the second half of the fight. He took over, knocking down Perez in the final frame and nearly winning by knockout. Though many were convinced Maldonado had done enough to win, especially with the knockdown, the result was a split verdict for Perez.
Perez went on to defeat Carcamo, who'd stopped Maldonado, and despite pleas for a rematch by the Maldonado camp, Golden Boy could not finalize one.
Lose once, could be fluke, runs the whisper of hometown optimism. Lose twice, you're done.
Despite a loyal rally from the Atrisco corridors, where a mantra of "A.K. all day" is frequently heard, Maldonado had a rough road ahead of him.
"It brought me back down to Earth," he says.
To Maldonado, Earth is the dirt and ditches that make up his casa in Atrisco, where lives his family, fiancé Dominique Yanni and daughters, Zaylie and Aaleah. Home is also a homespun, better-than-makeshift, 120-degree gym in the back with its soundtrack of crowing roosters and synchronized timekeepers that seem to buzz every three minutes, whether he's in there or not.
The rumors circulated: "Maldonado blew his chance . . . He needs a new trainer . . . should get outta 'Burque . . . Done. Finito. Finished."
As painful as the painless knockout he'd received months before, the declining faith in his future by the boxing community came at a bad time.
"But it was good for me," Maldonado smiles about it now – a smile most wouldn't have believed a year ago; and the sort of half-smirk that's backed up by a growing maturity, then strengthened with returning wins.
"I was getting a big head."
Two months after losing to Perez, Maldonado, starting again at the bottom, headlined a local card against perennial opponent 4-13 Trenton Titsworth. Tall as a tree and unbending in his determination to hug and hold his way to repeated paychecks, Titsworth lost by excessive scores of 80-58 and 80-59, due to continuous cuddling. The fight did little to bolster anyone's confidence in Maldonado – or his father/trainer Fidel, Sr.
"Everything that happened was my fault," says Maldonado. "It was all me. If there's one thing I've learned, it's listening to my dad and trainer. Doing what I want – that's how it used to be.
"My dad tells me that if he feels he's got nothing left to teach me, we'll do something about it. Until then, things are working."
Bouncing back and getting better, for Maldonado, meant staying in the Atrisco Gym, shared by six others, including highly-ranked Brian Mendoza, who was recently a controversial decision short of winning Nationals. Maldonado considers Mendoza his chin-checker, and is convinced he'll be the next big professional from Albuquerque.
Back at the Atrisco oven, Maldonado and Maldonado baked a new plan, one that kept Junior at 135, rather than 140, where they'd moved up to fight the Titsworth tree.
Failing at the big time also meant contending with the lobster tank mentality that has always plagued the local New Mexican boxing scene. Fighting on TV and under a major promoter transcends the club scene; but losing twice in a year, drags you back down into the muck.
Though it'd been knocked around for years, everyone was now talking about a fight between Maldonado and cross-town lightweight Archie Ray Marquez, who'd suffered a similar fate of falling from fame the year before. Maldonado was more than happy to oblige local fans but despite legitimate offers, Marquez wouldn't take the fight.
While some would prefer to see Maldonado steer clear of all local challenges, with all the smack talk and mudslinging that goes with it, family patriarch Fidel Sr., had no problem stirring the local pot. Gleefully, he is as apt to throw out a challenge to a cross-towner as he is to a top tenner.
Marquez, says the elder Maldonado, "would only be a tune-up" or an in-betweener before a bigger fight. He's even mentioned Josh Torres, if New Mexico's top welterweight could find a way to make 140, that is.
"I'm ahead of everyone here," says Maldonado, Jr. "I'm not being cocky, but most here won't or don't fight out of state. I see what they're doing here, and they've got to fight better opposition. It's the only way you get better. It took two losses for me to realize that."
Fortunately, Maldonado's two losses were followed by two wins. One – Titsworth – wasn't worth much, but the second was. In January, Maldonado got the call to fight Mexican Jorge "Koky" Romero, 24-4, 21 Kos, at the time, for the WBC Latin lightweight belt – on Mexican turf, of course.
"I knew I was going as an opponent," says Fidel. "But I wasn't worried about the crowd. A decision was another thing."
Making sure his fate wouldn't land in the laps of three Mexican judges, Maldonado shocked his opponent, maybe even his promoter, by taking out Romero in round three.
Scoring the biggest win of his life, naturally, restored quite a bit of confidence.
"The hard way is the only way," now preaches Maldonado, ready to resume his climb toward contention. Considering "grooming" an overrated, underachieving process, Maldonado says he's happy to leap into the pit against whatever wolf or dog they've got for him – "even if it's Manny Pacquiao."
Maldonado didn't get Pacquiao, of course, but he did get 23-1 Luis Ramos. The two were supposed to mix it this coming weekend but the fight has since been nixed.
The irony? "Ramos pulled out because he felt like he was being thrown to the wolves," says Maldonado.
Bearing sharper teeth now, confidence and mission intact, Maldonado is likely to land a spot on the Mayweather-Canelo mega-card September 14, if all goes well. Undefeated contender Omar Figueroa has been mentioned as a possible opponent.
"We want 'im," says Fidel, Sr. who says a win over Figueroa will not only make up for lost time in 2012 but propel Maldonado into contention.
In the meantime, with nothing solid on the table, there's a good chance Maldonado will be heading back into Mexico, possibly as early as June 15. He may also headline the July 20 local card at Buffalo Thunder north of Santa Fe.
"I'm taking whatever is offered," says Maldonado. "I've never turned down a fight and I'm ready for war."
Past survival mode but still in get-back, come-back mode, Maldonado says he embraces the challenge brought on by two setbacks. He equates it to his early, early days, when, at the age of eight, he first decided he was going to be a boxer after knocking down a junior national champion in a local sparring session . . . . then spending the next two years getting beat up by a girl in the gym while he learned the sport.
In a town that has recently lost one icon (Johnny Tapia, last year) to death, another long-time boxing draw (Holly Holm) to the cage, fans are taking what they can get. And right now, love him or hate him, that hopeful is Fidel Maldonado.
Who knows? If he can prove half as resilient as the land around him in Atrisco has proven to be, the Albuquerque area just might see another champion.
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Chris Cozzone is a longtime writer, photographer and historian, and has covered boxing full time since 2000. A book co-authored with the late journalist Jim Boggio, “New Mexico Boxing: A History - 1868-1940” was released earlier in the year by McFarland Publishing.
© 2013 by Chris Cozzone.