ATLANTIC CITY — IBF super-bantamweight champion Jhonatan Romero bounced around the Ocean Ballroom at Revel Casino-Hotel on Thursday, flashing a smile as bright as his diamond earrings.
Romero (23-0, 12 KOs), the IBF super-bantamweight champion from Colombia, will be defending his title on Saturday night against Spain’s Kiko Martinez (27-4, 19 KOs) at Revel’s Ovation Hall and on HBO.
The bout is part of a doubleheader that will also feature IBF middleweight champion Daniel Geale (29-1, 15 KOs), of Australia, against British contender Darren Barker (25-1, 16 KOs).
“Jhonatan is the happiest fighter I’ve ever seen,” boxing promoter Gary Shaw said. “He’s always walking around with that big smile.”
The smile disappeared at the mention of his brothers.
Romero, 26, is one of Reinel and Yeimi Cristina Romero’s eight children. Romero is the only surviving son. Brothers Rene, Richard and Andres were all shot to death — victims of gang wars that erupted on the streets of Cali, Colombia.
“Some of the neighborhoods in Cali are well-known because of the violence,” Romero said through a translator Thursday. “They are the most violent neighborhoods in all of Colombia. Everyone is in a gang. Those that don’t join one are killed.”
Oldest brother Richard died in 1993. Although he was just 17, he was already in the Army reserves, which required him to carry a gun. One day, a friend tried to steal the gun, a scuffle ensued, and Richard was killed.
Ten years later, 17-year-old Rene, who was an aspiring boxer, was gunned down in a gang-related shooting. In 2011, 20-year-old Andres Romero, a former guerrilla warfare soldier who had become a pastor, was talking in the street with one of his brothers-in-law. Gang members who sought to kill the brother-in-law shot Andres by mistake.
“I didn’t just lose my brother that day,” Jhonatan said. “He was also my best friend.”
Although Jhonatan was already a decorated boxer — he fought in the 2008 Summer Olympics and turned professional later that same year — he appeared headed for the same, violent end to his life.
When he wasn’t training, he was running the streets of Cali as a member of “Hollywood” gang.
“We weren’t named Hollywood because of movie stars,” Romero said. “We were named that because it was like living in the old west. Gangs from one block would be shooting gangs from another block all the time. There were shootings every day.”
Two incidents prompted him to quit the gang.
A few months before Andres was killed, Jhonatan was also shot and suffered bullet wounds in his arm and leg. A few weeks after Andres’ death, Jhonatan stuffed his belongings in a suitcase and moved to Barranquilla in an effort to get away from the violence and focus on boxing.
A year ago, Shaw met with the late promoter/manager Billy Chams in hopes of signing three Colombian prospects. Chams said he would only agree if Shaw also signed Romero.
“I said I would take him, but I wouldn’t pay him a bonus unless he won a world title,” Shaw said. “And that’s exactly what happened.
“Sometimes you think you know boxing, you think you know everything, and you get a huge, pleasant surprise.”
Romero won the vacant IBF title in February, when he earned a 12-round, split decision victory over Alejandro Lopez in Lopez’s hometown of Tijuana, Mexico.
Now he will defend that belt against Martinez, who is managed by current middleweight champion Sergio Martinez (no relation) and trained by Sergio’s top cornerman, Gabriel Sarmiento.
“Kiko is a great fighter, but I’m very hungry for success, very hungry for a victory,” Romero said. “I’m am fighting two fights on Saturday. I’m fighting against Martinez and I’m fighting against the ghetto. My parents still live in Cali and I want to get them out.”
Punchlines: Saturday’s card is the first boxing event to be held at Revel, which opened last year. Revel entertainment consultant Bernie Dillon used to be heavily involved in the Atlantic City boxing scene. ... Tickets are priced from $30 to $125 for ringside and are available at Revel and through Ticketmaster. ... Ovation Hall seats 4,500 and officials are expecting a sellout. ... Doors to Ovation Hall open at 6 p.m. with the first undercard bout slated for 6:30 p.m. ... Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes will be signing autographs at Revel on 2 p.m. Saturday.
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