SAN ANTONIO – It has been 25 years since a boxer from the Alamo City was crowned a world champion. Before fans got used to multiple NBA titles from the Spurs, the champ we all rooted for was "Jesse" James Leija.
Raising championship banners to the rafters of the Spurs home was not yet commonplace. We were used to cheering on Leija as he was lifted in the air as one of the best in boxing.
Now we have a new champion to support. A new champion to root for. A new champion who is proud to represent the 210.
Two weeks ago, Mario Barrios fulfilled the promise he made as a younger professional boxer. He was determined to bring a world title back to the city of San Antonio. It's been a goal for many young boxers through the years who were born and raised here. "El Azteca" was the one to actually do it.
Accomplishing such a feat was no easy task. Barrios faced Batyr Akhmedov at the Staples Center for the WBA World Super Lightweight title. Akhmedov, the older of the two boxers but who had far less professional boxing experience, was no ordinary challenger. He was fighting for a world title for a reason.
"I was preparing for the hardest 12 rounds of my life and that's exactly what he brought," Barrios told KSAT 12 Sports this week. "The second half of the fight, he was gaining the momentum, but I was happy I was able to show everyone I'm a warrior. You have to knock me out in order to try to get me out of there. I took his best shots for 12 rounds, and he couldn't even drop me. When it mattered most, I was able to put him down and that really solidify the decision."
That decision didn't come without controversy. Barrios won the first half of the fight but the bout quickly turned around. Akhmedov continued to press his attack but Barrios managed knockdowns in the fourth and 12th rounds; knockdowns that were crucial on the judges scorecards.
They were also crucial in answering Akhmedov's attack.
"In the last round, my trainer (Virgil Hunter) said, 'We need a knockout, or if you can, put him down,' said Barrios. "I really had to gather my thoughts and pull everything together in that championship round. I knew what was on the line. When it mattered most, I was able to make something happen. And I knew once I caught him with that straight right, when I saw his gloves touch the canvas, that was it. I was taking the belt home to San Antonio."
When the scorecards were read, Barrios raised his hand as the new WBA World Super Lightweight champ. The crowd at the Staples Center didn't necessarily agree, and that doesn't bother Barrios one bit.
"It doesn't matter what their reactions are. The crowd don't care if we even make it out of the ring alive or not. They're there to see a fight. A lot of times in these fights, they forget what happened at the beginning rounds. They forget all the work that was done on the other guy, they just remember the last couple of rounds where I was losing. Me and my opponent gave the fans a very action-packed fight.
"I feel good about myself," Barrios continued. "My corner was happy, my managers and my adviser, everyone was happy that matters to me. The crowd wasn't. I wasn't bothered by it."
There was no time to dwell on the crowd's reaction. Immediately following the fight and claiming the world title belt, Barrios received five stitches to close the cut her suffered above his left eye. He was then advised to visit a local hospital as a precaution and to make sure the swelling on the left side of his face was nothing serious. Barrios and his family were there until 3 a.m.
"It was emotional especially going to the hospital," said Barrios. "I was telling my mom and everybody, 'Nah, I'm good, I'm okay,' but the way I looked, it didn't look like I was okay. I think everyone thought there was some major damage. For my sisters during the fight, they were real emotional. But as soon as all the tests came back, and they told me 'There's no breaks. No you're fine, it's just swelling,' it was a big relief for everybody."
Barrios was not allowed to fly back to San Antonio until Tuesday, three days after the fight. The following day, Akhmedov's team began to make claims that Barrios was under a six-month medical suspension due to his injuries and could not fight.
KSAT 12 Sports confirmed with Team Barrios those claims turned out not to be true.
After reviewing the fight footage, Akhmedov's team claimed they won the fight.
"It's a little bit of hate, a little bit of jealousy on his team's part but they have no reason to be," Barrios told KSAT 12 Sports. "For him, getting that kind of fight, they should be proud. They're going to try to run with how the crowd reacted. They feel they won. Of course, his manager, his team, they're going to do whatever they can to make him look good. At the end of the day, I won the early rounds, he touched the canvas twice. If you know professional boxing and how it's scored, I won that fight."
Akhmedov's team also said they would request an immediate rematch. Over the weekend, news got out that the WBA had in fact ordered a rematch between Barrios and Akhmedov for Mario's new world title.
"I would love a rematch," Barrios said." That was always the type of fight I've wanted to give the crowd. If it did happen, there is no doubt in my mind we would make the necessary adjustments. There wouldn't be no doubt in me going into that fight. I took his best shots, he couldn't put me down. He would be the one having all the doubts because he knows whether it's the first round or the last, I could put him down at any time."
Now we wait for the rematch for San Antonio's newest world champ. Until then, Barrios is enjoying time with family and friends after being away in California for two months training for the world title shot. He and his team has been all business through the years and have shown a lot of class when dealing with the sports media and fans alike.
That doesn't seem like it will change now that we call Barrios "Champ." He's happy just knowing we all get to see the kind of fighter he is.
"I always knew within myself I'm a warrior. I know what I'm capable of. I was able to show everybody, to show my city, to show the boxing fans that I'm a warrior. There's going to be fight in me the whole distance of a fight, whether it's 10 rounds or 12."
Daniel P. Villanueva has worked with KSAT 12 Sports for over 16 years and is an award-winning sports producer. To submit story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org