Originally posted on The Queensbury Rules  |  Last updated 2/1/12

The early aughts saw champions-in-the-making Victor Ortiz, Steven Luevano, and Brandon Rios all begin their ascent up the pro ranks, yet it was fellow southern Californian Jose Miguel Aguiniga who many experts predicted would first reach the peak. In boxing, a fighter is not always the sum of his physical parts. Such was the case of Aguiniga.

Though he ran his record to an impressive 31-0, Aguiniga never managed to earn notoriety, nor a lucrative bout before deciding to step away from boxing in 2007. Now returning to the ring for the first time in five years as he fights veteran gatekeeper Juan Ruiz on Feb. 25 in Santa Paula, California, Aguiniga is hoping to revise his story from a cautionary tale to an inspirational one.

Signed by respected manager Cameron Dunkin just days apart from Luevano, Aguiniga quickly garnered the attention of Bob Arum and Top Rank. Less than two years into his professional career, the Oxnard, Calif.-based fighter had secured a spot on one of the more eagerly anticipated pay-per-views of the millennium: Erik Morales' rematch against Marco Antonio Barrera in June of 2002. Better still, Aguiniga found himself earning precious airtime as his 4th round stoppage of unheralded opponent Ruben Lopez was joined in progress prior to the main event.

Aguiniga's delivery was rewarded with a regular role on TeleFutura's Solo Boxeo, which documented his evolution from prospect to number one contender. Though his physical talent was undeniable, Aguiniga's lack of discipline exposed itself early on; often, he would arrive at a weigh-in not a couple pounds north of target, but a couple weight classes. Likely, it was his adeptness in the ring that afforded Aguiniga a hall pass for his seemingly lukewarm commitment.

The pressures that came with the label of being a future world champion wore on a then 20-year old Aguiniga.

“During that time there was a lot of pressure because a lot of people expected so much from me,” admitted Aguiniga in a phone interview with TQBR. “You want to do everything for your fans, your people, all that pressure got to me, especially from my family. I get more pressure from my family than anybody else because they know who I am and what I can do.”

As far as the problems with weight are concerned, Aguiniga said there was fault on more than just his end.

“I was having problems, was going through a divorce,” Aguiniga said. “The fights were coming at late notice, just one or two weeks' worth. There is no excuse because you should always be ready, but at that point I was already NABA champion and I figured at that level I would get two or three months.”

His marquee victory, a June 2005 stoppage of Hugo Ramirez for the NABA bantamweight strap, was succeeded by a few lackluster wins in which he was extended the distance.

Through 2005, Aguiniga maintained an active schedule of at least four fights per year. The steady clip then slowed to a snail's pace as he fought only once both in 2006 and 2007 before stepping away from the sport indefinitely. Whispers among the fight community suggested him a possible adversary for one Manny Pacquiao (at a reported purse of $275,000), despite ultimately losing out to Jorge Solis for the opportunity.

“They called me about the fight when there was that rumor,” Aguiniga noted. “They were about to send me a contract within a week of that phone call but they found Solis instead. It was going to be a good payday, he was fighting at a higher weight and I was going to move up.”

As Aguiniga's name faded to obscurity, contemporaries Ortiz, Luevano, and Rios clawed their way to the top of the heap. In July of 2007, Steven Luevano saw seven years' worth of dedication come to fruition when he won the vacant WBO 126-pound title with an 11th round stoppage of Nicky Cook in London. While Luevano exceeded all expectations, Aguiniga fell short.

“During that time, we were both moving up,” recalled Aguiniga when discussing Luevano's and his parallel career trajectories. “A lot of people were expecting me to be a champion and not him. I knew Steven for a long time. We came up in the amateurs, we both signed with Cameron. Sometimes, you make bad decisions. He didn't do the stuff I was doing, I was out partying and making bad choices. I started messing up and he didn't, and he became a champion.”

While Luevano handily defended his crown, division mates Victor Ortiz and Brandon Rios both cleared several hurdles before earning titles in 2011. Aguiniga, on the other hand, ballooned up to 180 pounds before participation in recreational soccer leagues deflated the gratuitious weight.

Now, almost five years removed from the squared circle (and all possibility of what might have been), Jose Miguel Aguiniga will usher in his thirties with the intent to claim the glory he felt was meant to be his all along. With the help of friend and promoter Armando Renteria, Aguiniga (31-0, 14 KOs) returns to the ring as a junior lightweight on Feb. 25th against gatekeeper Juan Ruiz (23-8, 7 KOs) in an eight-round main event at Santa Paula, Calif.'s Community Golf Course.

In regards to the gray area that comprised his hiatus, Aguiniga was just trying to, in his own words, survive.

“I was working for awhile, doing some work with some friends who do electrical,” Aguiniga said. “Anything to get some money for my kids and myself. I started playing soccer with a local league out here and it was just a bunch of friends that did it for fun. I was playing just to stay somewhat in shape and to get all the stress out, from boxing and from life.”

The once-top contender has been in training camp with Ortiz, as well as David Rodela and Indian Banuelos, both of whom will see action on the 25th, in separate bouts. Together they've been sparring and training at Ventura, Calif.'s Knuckleheadz Boxing & MMA. The card, organized by Renteria's own El Dorado Entertainment, marks the first live boxing in Ventura County in half a decade.

When the prospect of producing a card materialized, Renteria, a general contractor, affirms he always had Aguiniga's return in mind.

“My idea was always to make Jose Aguiniga the main event,” Renteria said in a phone interview on Friday. “He's a good friend of mine, I've known him for a lot of years.”

“When Armando told me about doing a show, I said, 'If you want to put me on, I'm here. Tell me whenever you're ready',” explained Aguiniga. “What better way, it is going to be near my hometown of Oxnard, on a local show against someone that is going to be a tough opponent.”

“He had to work and take care of his baby,” noted Renteria when asked about the nature of Aguiniga's hiatus. “Some people are involved with boxing for so many years and lose it. That is all that he has done since he was a little kid.”

“He didn't know what he wanted to do,” continued Renteria. “When he started seeing Ortiz and 'Bam Bam' Rios, guys he slapped around in the gym, coming up and being world champions, he was thinking, 'What am I doing? I gotta get back in there!'”

Trained by his brother Mario and supervised by strength-and-conditioning coach “Hoss” Janik, who both also works the corner of Victor Ortiz, Aguiniga's attempt to resuscitate his career is underscored by good old-fashioned elbow grease.

Despite a five-year layoff, Aguiniga's first assignment is far from a gimme. Though six of his last seven bouts have ended in defeat, 33-year old Juan Ruiz of Santa Clarita, Calif. has proven very competitive and difficult to conquer.

“To me, it is better for me to fight a tough opponent,” Aguiniga said. “That way I will know if I still have what I had. Why not get somebody that is going to give me a tough fight so I can see what I can do?”

Having just turned thirty, Aguiniga's remaining potential will be apparent from the outset. Ring rust will afford him some leeway in the eyes of the audience, but with only eight rounds, Aguiniga will need to find himself quickly.

Some say that boxing, not unlike riding a bicycle, is a skill once learned and never forgotten. This may hold true, but nobody is trying to deck you in the face while you are pushing pedal. Given Aguiniga's long absence from the ring, he is, understandably, excitable.

“Getting back, now I feel more nervous than I did in my pro debut," he said. "I got a lot more experience than before, but I am nervous. It has been five years, I am 30 years old. When you get older, it gets harder. When I step into the ring, hopefully I feel the way I have felt in the gym. I shouldn't have any problems because I know what I can do and I know what I have been doing in sparring. Hopefully, it will translate.”

Though his career to date has been comprised of a myriad of left turns, with a newly rejuvenated sense of discipline added to even a sliver of the talent he displayed as a rising prospect, the ring may again see Aguiniga's hand raised come the 25th.

Mark Ortega can be reached via e-mail or followed via Twitter at @MarkEOrtega. Mark also contributes to notable British boxing publication Boxing Monthly as well as Ring Magazine.

This article first appeared on The Queensbury Rules and was syndicated with permission.

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