Manuel “Manny” Manzo Cortes said the walk from the locker room to the ring that day in the Save Mart Center eliminated any doubts he may have had before the fight.
The crowd, what was left of it anyway, erupted for the Sanger boxer.
“It felt like they had my back,” Cortes said. “I felt like for the first time I wasn’t alone, that I’m where I belong.”
Cortes went on to beat Leonardo Reyes, nicknamed the Killer, on May 26.
Promoter Rick Mirigian said Cortes’ next fight will be even bigger. Cortes faces Sergio Lopez, 27 of Las Vegas, July 7 at the Save Mart Center. The fight is another undercard bout but is part of what may be the Central Valley’s biggest fight of the year. Avenal native Jose Ramirez, 22-0 with 16 knockouts, defends his World Boxing Council super lightweight title against Danny O’Connor, 30-3 with 11 knockouts.
“This is as big as you get,” Mirigian said.
Mirigian said 71 billboards — including one on Academy Avenue — and more than 4,000 TV spots advertise the bout, which he’s dubbed the largest and farthest reaching sporting event in the region’s history. He said it’s on ESPN in prime time with a potential estimated audience of about 100 million.
And Mirigian said he admires Cortes, a scrapper who trains at the Sanger Youth Center. “The reason I added him was because of who he is as a person,” Mirigian said. “This kid’s just a great story.”
The fight outside the ring hasn’t been simple for Cortes, 28. He comes from humble beginnings. He worked in the fields and said he is determined to make a name for himself in boxing, which has grown increasingly popular in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Mirigian underlined boxing’s new-found acclaim by explaining that he’s sold out the Save Mart three times at about 14,000 seats each and the Selland Arena four times. “It dominates the Valley,” he said of boxing.
Cortes’ last Save Mart bout was an undercard fight to the main event, pitting Jerwin “Pretty Boy” Ancajas against Jonas Sultan. Cortes fought after Ancajas beat Sultan, when many had already left the arena.
This time Cortes expects greater visibility.
And those in his corner say he’s on his way up.
Nearly everybody who walked into the Sanger Youth Center just before he began working out the evening of June 21 shook his hand. They knew he’d gone from a guy who would take any fight to the guy on the undercard at Save Mart — twice.
The little gym alongside the tracks in Sanger filled with fighters, fans and support crew. David Valenzuela, Cortes’ coach, talked about the upcoming fight with Lopez and how he felt when the crowd cheered Cortes at the Save Mart Center.
“It gave me goose bumps,” Valenzuela said. Omar Sanchez, whose son Evan is an up-and-comer, translated his words from Spanish. “Even though he is small, he has a big heart. He goes out and fights like he’s a heavyweight. Gigante!”
Valenzuela said Cortes and Lopez bring similar fighting styles and records. BoxRec.com lists Cortes at 5-foot-3, and he fights at 118 pounds. “They’ve taken the hard road, both of them,” Valenzuela said. “It’s going to be a dogfight.”
Cortes wore a shirt bearing the names of his sponsors. One of them was Mi Linda Tierra Market on J and Ninth streets in Sanger. Owner Javier Elizondo said he could relate to Cortes. Elizondo, his brother and friends started the band Los Vaquetones Del Hyphy back in 1995, toured the country and developed a significant fan base in Mexico.
“He took me back to my beginnings, back to the time when I wished I had sponsors,” Elizondo wrote in a text. “I wasn’t asking for much. I didn’t expect millions. All I wanted was someone to sponsor me, some guitar strings, some drumsticks. Shoot, even gas money to our next gig would’ve really helped. And that’s exactly what Manual desires. Some running shoes, some boxing gloves, some gas money to his next spar or training event. That’s what got me.”
Mirigian said he plans to talk more about Cortes in the days before the fight as the fighters train for media and get their official weigh-in. Mirigian said Cortes trained out of garages and even got a tattoo in honor of the guy who gave him a place to train. And he said Cortes helps farmworkers get access to and then navigate the health care system by translating for them.
“You can’t help but admire a guy like that,” Mirigian said. “He brings a lot to the sport.”
Cortes’ sister Lucy Manzo said her brother has been a great role model. She’s the sixth of the siblings and Cortes is No. 4. “He’s always been able to keep pushing for what he wants,” she said. “To go for your dreams despite the odds. He literally fights for what he wants.”
Manzo and their older sister Maria attended Cortes’ workout that afternoon. “He puts his heart into everything he does,” Maria Manzo said as Cortes worked up a sweat in the ring. “He’s really humble. He’s built his career on his own.”
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