Ray Beltran could be fighting for U.S. citizenship on Saturday

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Ray Beltran, above, knocks down Jonathan Maicelo during the second round of a lightweight championship on May 20, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Ray Beltran is little different than most fathers. He wants the best for his three children, and he worries greatly about them.

But Beltran is different than most. He was born into abject poverty in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico, on July 23, 1981. He lived in a home with no running water or electricity. For food, the family would go to a local grocery story, but it wouldn’t exactly shop.

“They’d have all the fruits and vegetables [that they hadn’t sold] and they were throwing them away, and we used to get that,” he said. “Like an apple, it might have some bad parts, but the rest of it was good. We would cut out the bad stuff and eat the rest.”

In 1997, when he was almost 16, his mother gathered Beltran and his siblings and tried to cross the Mexico-U.S. border illegally. It was a risk, but it was a risk to Beltran to stay in Mexico.

Even as a teenager, with drug violence and poverty everywhere, he knew Los Mochis didn’t offer much hope for him.

“It’s way more complicated than what people here understand,” said Beltran, who fights Bryan Vasquez at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Saturday in a bout that will be televised by ESPN. “You see the news and you hear about the terrorism and all that kind of stuff, but not about what happens in Mexico. I don’t want to go back over there. There’s no security. There’s no life. It’s kind of scary.”

Beltran now has a P1 visa which, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, an athlete qualifies for a P1 if he or she is “coming to the United States to participate in individual event, competition or performance in which you are internationally recognized with a high level of achievement; evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered so that the achievement is renowned, leading or well known in more than one country.”

Beltran has satisfied that requirement. He’s 33-7-1 with 21 knockouts, was the primary sparring partner for the legendary Manny Pacquiao and has twice fought for the world title. He’s ranked No. 2 at lightweight by the WBC, WBO and IBF and No. 6 by the IBF.

A win over Vasquez will put him in position to fight either WBO champion Terry Flanagan, WBA champion Jorge Linares or WBC champion Mikey Garcia.

He has a little more than two-and-a-half years on his P1 visa. If it’s not renewed – and he’ll be around 39 when it expires – he’d have to leave the country. But after the fight, he plans to apply for his green card, which would make him a permanent resident of the U.S.

His fight with Vasquez is, quite literally, a battle to remain in the U.S. His application is likely already strong enough, but Beltran, manager Steve Feder and immigration attorney Frank Ronzio are taking nothing for granted.

According to the DHS website, an immigrant worker would get first preference for a green card if he has “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics … ”

If he beats Vasquez, and then goes on to fight for or win a world title, it would be more than enough evidence of extraordinary ability in athletics. Given his family’s future is quite literally riding on his back, it could be an enormous burden, but Beltran isn’t phased.

“It’s a motivation for me, not pressure,” Beltran said of knowing his green card could rely upon the outcome of one sporting event. “It all depends on how you set your mind. I want my wife and my children to have the kind of life I didn’t have and there are so many opportunities here they didn’t have in Mexico. But I can’t look at it as pressure.

“The best way I can explain it is by talking about cancer. If you think you have cancer, it’s not a good day. If you think about getting it and you start obsessing, it’s going to take over your life. That’s the negative way to view it. I look at the positive side. If I do this and I win this fight, I am doing something great for my family.”

Beltran’s career turned around when he hired Feder as his manager several years ago. Beltran is 7-1-1 with a no contest since getting together with Feder, though two of the fights in there they didn’t work together.

Before meeting Feder, he didn’t have a manager, had trouble getting fights and was largely viewed as a journeyman. Feder, a writer, director and producer of television shows and movies, saw far more in him.

“I had known him for about 10 years before he came to me, and you could see he had a lot of talent and could do things, but he didn’t have the direction or the guidance,” Feder said. “He was at a frustrating point in his career. He couldn’t get the fights he wanted and he wasn’t getting the decisions he deserved in some of them. In order to turn him around from journeyman to contender, he needed to take and win a fight to put him on the map.”

Feder came across the perfect opportunity. Hank Lundy was 22-1-1 and regarded as a prospect. He needed a fight to stay busy and his team reached out to Feder.

Beltran won a majority decision that night to begin his turnaround. Feder then commenced a campaign to get a title shot against Ricky Burns that paid off spectacularly when Burns’ promoter Eddie Hearn came calling.

The fight was a split draw – One judge had Burns, one had Beltran and the other had it a draw – though the consensus was that with the eighth-round knockdown he scored, Beltran had done enough to win.

“When I was thinking of signing Ray, there were people at Top Rank, including [Hall of Fame matchmaker] Bruce Trampler, one of my dearest friends, who told me I was wasting my time. But when I’m looking at taking a guy on, I always ask, ‘Is he in the gym even when he doesn’t have a fight?’ That’s the sign I look for first, because it tells you how committed he is to getting better. And this kid was. He was there all the time. I saw talent in him, but things didn’t seem to be working out.

“We spoke and he didn’t want to give up and still believed he could reach the top of the mountain. He wanted boxing. The real question was, ‘Did boxing want him?’ ”

The biggest question is if the U.S. wants him. Team Beltran is confident that it has a solid case and that he’ll be able to obtain the green card and cement his status.

“I’ve been here more than 20 years now and I love this country and I love the opportunities that I have had here and that are there for my family,” he said. “I know the tough life in Mexico. When I was a kid, we had nothing and every day was a struggle.

“I have something to fight for, more than just a paycheck. It’s about the way of life and the kind of life my kids could have, and my family could have. That’s where the motivation comes from to train and work every day, because I know how close we are now.”

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