When a Knicks employee approached Edgar Berlanga, the boxer felt his heart start racing, a reaction born of nervous energy and an inkling that this was the recognition he’d been yearning for.
The unbeaten, and largely untouched, Brooklyn-raised super middleweight was sitting along Madison Square Garden’s vaunted Celebrity Row during the Knicks game March 21 against the 76ers, when he was approached and told he would be featured on the jumbotron during a timeout.
Moments later, the highlights that have made Berlanga such an enthralling figure flashed across the big screen at MSG, and then the screen revealed the 23-year-old in his seat, sporting red shades and a Yankees mask as he threw a few playful jabs at the camera.
Later in the game, Philadelphia’s Dwight Howard sought out the knockout artist to share a few words and throw a couple of fake punches his way, mimicking a boxer. As Berlanga walked to his car on his way home, he was rushed outside The Garden by a crowd anxiously pleading with him for autographs and pictures.
Berlanga admitted his first Celebrity Row appearance gave him butterflies, but said it also completed a plan he spoke into existence. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Sports Illustrated Prospect of the Year insisted to his wife, Genesis, that when things opened up again, the two of them would be given courtside tickets to NBA games and be shown on the big screens. Genesis didn’t exactly believe him, often laughing it off or assuming it was a joke.
A year later, Berlanga’s vision came to fruition.
His prescience was no joke. Neither is his road to stardom.
Nobody who has entered the ring with Berlanga throughout his professional career has made it to the second round — he is 16-0, all via first-round knockout. As his reputation has grown inside the ring, his celebrity has exploded outside of it, making him one of the sport’s most intriguing and attractive young stars.
Berlanga wants to be the next great fighter out of Brooklyn, citing Zab Judah, Danny Jacobs, Riddick Bowe, Mark Breland, Sadam Ali and, of course, Mike Tyson as stars whose legacies he hopes to emulate.
“You got these types of guys that became champions and that’s special for Brooklyn,” Berlanga told The Post after a training session. “These are special fighters that came out of Brooklyn and I’m one of them now. I’m just young, but I’m on the verge of becoming one of the biggest fighters coming out of New York, coming out of Brooklyn, and coming out of Puerto Rico.”
As Berlanga continues to rise through the super middleweight rankings, he and his team consider each bout to be a “step up” in competition. Berlanga’s last two opponents, Lanell Bellows and Ulises Sierra, had never been KO’d throughout veteran careers, but both of their nights ended before the first-round bell could be struck.
Berlanga’s next “step up” will come Saturday in the form of 28-year-old Demond Nicholson (23-3-1). The bout will be Top Rank’s co-main event, live on ESPN from Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Fla.
The plan was for Berlanga to then be center stage at Madison Square Garden on June 12, but that Garden debut will likely be pushed back to the fall, when COVID-19 capacity restrictions are expected to be eased. Before then, Top Rank wants to keep him busy with one or two more fights over the summer.
Berlanga’s bout against Nicholson will be his first co-main event with Top Rank, marking a leap toward what he wants to be — the main attraction. Though he’s just 23, Berlanga feels like he already has been exactly that for Top Rank, with viewership spikes during his last three fights, including 2.2 million viewers for his bout against Sierra.
Berlanga emanates a sense of self-understanding regarding exactly what type of fighter and celebrity he strives to become. Yes, earning title fights and becoming a world champion are at the top of his list, but being an entertainer and growing the sport are core to Berlanga’s ideology as well. He has a belief, and a commitment, not just of being a great boxer, but also of being a star.
With each new first-round knockout, Berlanga’s recognition grew in athletic and celebrity circles. He’s particularly close with comedian Tracy Morgan, did some dance moves with rapper Snoop Dogg and has hung out with musicians 50 Cent and De La Ghetto. Berlanga has caught the attention of various athletes, including Saquon Barkley and Damian Lillard, who have lauded his boxing exploits on social media. These stars are reaching out to him, not vice versa.
“Everybody wants to be around a fighter. … Everybody wants to be around a man that can fight,” Berlanga said.
During Saturday’s fight against Nicholson, Berlanga will be walking out with hip hop megastars Lil Wayne and Fat Joe.
“One thing that I do is I put those butts in the seats,” Berlanga said. “That’s the most important thing that promoters look at — how many tickets can you sell? That’s very important. You can be the best fighter in the world, but if you can’t sell tickets, if you can’t sell your birthday dinner out, then, it’s sad to say, but you mean nothing to the sport because you’re not generating any kind of money. That’s the type of fighter that I think I am. I know I deserved to get paid, whether I have a title or I don’t have a title, I’m going to bring that [energy] back to boxing.”
Coupled with his self-assurance is a sense of patience. Both Berlanga — ranked No. 8 in the WBO rankings and No. 10 in the Ring rankings — and his trainer, Andre Rozier, know that if they really wanted to, they could try to sign deals to fight some of the division’s top dogs, such as current or former title holders Canelo Alvarez, Caleb Plant and David Benavidez.
Berlanga, Rozier and Dave “Scooter” Honig, Berlanga’s strength and conditioning coach, share a common dedication to bringing him along the right way and not rushing the process. Berlanga has the division’s top fighters in his sights, but he wants to meet them when he’s ready, working his way up and proving himself along the way. Rozier and Honig said they’ve seen that maturity flourish in Berlanga recently. He knows he has gained the attention of the top fighters as well, and they will be waiting for their chance to reckon with “The Chosen One,” Berlanga’s nickname of choice.
The team of Edgar Berlanga Sr., his father, and Rozier, who is also Berlanga’s uncle, keep him focused and out of trouble. They point to Berlanga’s good heart and good nature. If there’s ever any “extra energy” from him, as Rozier put it, the pair certainly know how to keep him in line.
“That’s why his father and myself — he has a bat in the right hand and I have a bat in the left, and we meet in the middle,” Rozier told The Post. “He’s kept in check. He’s being taught to be that special person.”
Berlanga’s community and family shape much of who he is. He grew up in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn as well as the Lower East Side of Manhattan, started boxing at age 7 and compiled an amateur record of 162-17. Berlanga now resides in Glen Cove on Long Island, a suburban environment he finds ideal to start his new family.
His training at Competitive Edge Athletics in Port Washington, L.I., is a family event, incorporating Edgar Sr., Genesis and even a toy poodle named Simba. During his pre-fight session, Berlanga held and kissed Simba between sets, delicately playing with the dog in the same hands that have wreaked so much damage to his opponents. Genesis, who poured water into Berlanga’s mouth during breaks in training, and Berlanga are soon expecting their first child.
“My dad has always told me that’s going to change my life and it’s going to make me more of a man,” Berlanga said.
In attendance as well, at the session The Post was invited to observe, was David King Garcia, an 11-year-old boxer ranked No. 1 in the 65-pound division. Berlanga and Garcia, who lives in Arizona, have struck a bond, regularly FaceTiming, hanging out and training together. Garcia, who considers Berlanga “like a brother,” will join Lil Wayne and Fat Joe and walk out with Berlanga for Saturday’s fight, an experience Berlanga hopes will give Garcia a taste of the big leagues — something Berlanga said he never had growing up.
Tied in with his Brooklyn persona, Berlanga is motivated to represent his Puerto Rican heritage as well. Berlanga and his team recently took a trip to the island, where his recognition has grown exponentially. While there, Berlanga got the chance to meet and spend time with Felix “Tito” Trinidad, his childhood idol. The boxing legend had a message for Berlanga to carry with him: “Always be loyal, always be humble, and the world will be yours.”
In Berlanga, Rozier said he sees “that Latin soul for fighting.” The original plan was for the MSG fight to coincide with the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan. Whenever he does get to fight at The Mecca of Boxing, Berlanga vows to bring back the type of energy that Puerto Rican stars Miguel Cotto and Trinidad provided.
When that big day comes, Berlanga won’t be sitting courtside, and the jabs that he throws certainly won’t be playful for the camera. He’ll be the main attraction.
“There’s so much more that has to get done, with me and my career,” Berlanga said. “This is like 20 percent out of 100 that we gotta get done. I’m just getting started. I love that, I love the light, I love the cameras, I love to entertain. I just love everything about being an entertainer, about being a professional fighter and being the center of attention.”
Original posted at nypost.com