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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Viloria makes triumphant return home

By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Boxing champion Brian Viloria displays his IBF world title belt during an autograph session at Servco Auto Leeward.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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WAIPAHU Kekoa Balasi would like to be a world boxing champion like Brian Viloria someday, if only so he can hoist a championship belt over his shoulder.

"It's heavy," the 11-year-old Balasi said after holding Viloria's IBF light-flyweight world championship belt. "It's nice. I wish I could get one like that."

Balasi and about a dozen other youth boxers at the Waipahu Boxing Club looked up to Viloria yesterday, even though many of them are nearly at eye level for the 5-foot-3 champion.

"He's so fast," Balasi said. "Punch, move, and punch again. Always countering. That's what we try to do."

Viloria, who won the IBF world title last month in the Philippines, made a triumphant return to his hometown yesterday. He visited the Waipahu Boxing Club, and then was the centerpiece of a parade through Waipahu.

"This is where it all started for me," said Viloria, 28. "To come back here and see all these future champions, all these past champions, all the fans, it means a lot to me. Fighting for Hawai'i, for Waipahu, that's always going to be a part of me."

Former boxing champions from Hawai'i Jesus Salud, Andy Ganigan and Ben Villaflor were in attendance to support Viloria yesterday.

"I looked up to those guys when I was young, and I feel like that helped me get to this point," Viloria said. "If I can be that same kind of role model for these kids now, hopefully it helps them."

Al Silva, the Hawai'i Sports Hall of Fame boxing trainer, taught Viloria some 20 years ago and is still training the youth boxers at Waipahu today. He said he often cites Viloria as an example for the current crop of amateur boxers.

"I knew Brian had it at a young age," Silva said. "But the thing about him, he was always smart. He knew what he wanted and he never let anything get in the way. I tell the kids now, if you want to be a champion, you gotta be smart about it."

Still, Viloria's recent world title came after a year of lows.

After losing a WBC world title fight in 2007, Viloria embarked on a boxing tour of "swap meets and parking lots" in 2008. And he wasn't even the main event on some of those cards.

"It was humbling," Viloria said. "But that whole experience changed me as a fighter and a person."

He went 5-0 in 2008, thus earning the IBF title shot against Mexico's Ulises Solis last month. Viloria defeated Solis with a spectacular 11th-round knockout.

The day after his victory, he didn't need a pinch-me moment. A kiss on the cheek from his girlfriend, Erica Navarro, was enough.

"That next morning when he woke up, he said, 'Was that a dream? Did I really win?' " Navarro said. "I told him 'Go look in the mirror. Those bruises on your face look real to me.' "

Viloria's rejuvenation in the ring coincided with a "stronger relationship" with Navarro. She lives with him in Los Angeles, and they diet together when Viloria needs to cut weight.

"I've seen him at his lowest point coming home crying, thinking he couldn't fight anymore," Navarro said. "So to see him back at the top is an amazing feeling."

Viloria said, "It was demoralizing to go through that. But it took deconstructing me as a fighter and a person to build me back into a champion again."

Now, the key is staying there.

Viloria was the WBC world champion in 2005, but lost that title in his second defense.

"This time I'm more mature and I feel like I know what it takes to stay at this level," Viloria said.

His first title defense of the IBF belt could come in August.

"They're talking either San Francisco at AT&T Park, or Las Vegas," Viloria said. "It might be a fight to prepare me for a bigger one down the line."

Specifically, there are rumblings about a series between Viloria and Puerto Rico's Ivan Calderon in what would be a showdown of the world's best 108-pound boxers.

"I heard ideas thrown around about Calderon," Viloria said. "Maybe a three-fight series one here (in Hawai'i), one in Puerto Rico and one in Vegas. I would definitely want to do a big fight in Hawai'i, so if that's what it takes, then I'm for it."

For now, Viloria has a few more days to enjoy the spoils of being a world champion ... and a Waipahu boy.

"I miss the poke and raw crab, that's what I went for first," he said. "In about a week I go back to L.A. and start training again, so I'm taking advantage of every minute I'm home."