The last two or three excruciating pounds felt like losing 20 for Oscar Valdez. Making the 126-pound weight limit was becoming a more arduous grind than the fights themselves. But Valdez, despite the physical and mental battle that had left him dried out and fatigued, had done it.
Valdez headlined a card for the first time in June and scored a knockdown of Jason Sanchez in the fifth round of his featherweight world title fight. He cruised to a 12-round decision victory, but on that night in Reno, Valdez was far from spectacular and never came close to stopping Sanchez. He looked like a car that couldn't get out of second gear.
"The last couple of fights, I was going through hell just trying to make weight," Valdez said. "I was nothing after the fifth or sixth round in the fight [against Sanchez]. I wasn't feeling myself. I felt like I had no more power. I felt like I hadn't trained enough. I didn't have the stamina. I put that on the weight."
Valdez (26-0, 20 KOs) turned pro in November 2012, and for parts of his career, he campaigned above the featherweight limit, moving up as high as a 129.5 pounds. But since his 2016 bout with Evgeny Gradovich, he has been at 126.
He won a featherweight world title -- the same one he defended against Sanchez -- in his next fight, against Matias Carlos Adrian Rueda on the undercard of the Terence Crawford-Viktor Postol card. Valdez kept making the weight, but the struggle reached its apex in 2019.
Leading into the Sanchez bout, Valdez knew it would be far from easy. Beginning Monday of fight week, he basically starved himself to hit the number, and then he hit the sauna and worked out in a plastic suit to sweat out whatever was left.
"I only started eating a couple of berries, four to five grapes a night," Valdez said of the week before his fight with Sanchez. "I know it was nothing healthy. There were times I thought I was going to faint.
"No water at all since Monday or Tuesday [of that week]," he said. "Just rinsing my mouth and spitting it back."
Valdez was losing the battle with the scale.
"We just did everything we could and tried everything, and when your body says no, that's it. There's nothing else to do. It was my body telling me I was too big for the featherweight limit." Oscar Valdez
"One of the most embarrassing things for me as a fighter would be stepping on the scale and not making weight. [But] I wasn't healthy making 126," Valdez said. "I had trained very hard, I was very disciplined on what I'd eat and in the gym, and I shouldn't be getting that tired so fast inside the ring.
"It was clear for me that it's time to go up in weight."
Valdez will start his full-fledged junior lightweight campaign against Adam Lopez on Saturday at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas (ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET).
If he's looking for an ideal model for how his move up in weight can go, Valdez can look to the experiences of other fighters, including four-division world titleholder Mikey Garcia, who jumped from 126 to 130 in 2013.
Garcia's move didn't happen under ideal circumstances, either. He won the WBO featherweight title against Orlando Salido in January 2013 but quickly lost the belt when he couldn't make weight for his first defense against Juan Manuel Lopez five months later.
"When your body is maturing and growing, it's not difficult to move up -- you're naturally growing. It was sad because I knew I was losing my title without even defending it," said Garcia, who came in at 128 pounds for that contest.
"It was a sad moment, but I knew, 'OK, this is the last time we try to do 126.' We just did everything we could and tried everything, and when your body says no, that's it. There's nothing else to do. It was my body telling me I was too big for the featherweight limit."
In his next bout, Garcia moved up to junior lightweight and knocked out Roman Martinez in the eighth round to capture the WBO belt. Although it was an easier task to make weight than it was in a lower weight division, it still wasn't easy.
"There was still a lot of training and dieting, just like it was for 126," Garcia said.
Garcia believes that although boxers who move up feel stronger, they then face naturally bigger fighters who have long since settled into the weight class. In the past, Valdez was more physical than his opponents. That dynamic might change as he moves up in weight.
"You see the height and reach advantages right away," Garcia said. "At 26, I was naturally the bigger guy, especially with some of these guys who were moving up from 122 or bantamweight. So when you're at 126 and fighting guys who are formally bantamweights or super bantamweights, you're naturally the bigger guy. They feel the difference."
But Garcia thinks Valdez is making the right move.
"I think he's doing it at the right time. I don't think he's moving up just to try a different weight class," Garcia said. "I think his body has matured enough, he's grown into a bigger body with muscle mass. And that's the natural thing to do."
"Sugar" Shane Mosley also knows a thing or two about moving up in weight, having won titles at lightweight, welterweight and junior middleweight. Mosley took the bold step of moving up two full weight classes, completely bypassing the junior welterweight division after successfully defending his IBF 135-pound title eight times.
"The last time I fought at 135 [against John Brown], I didn't eat for two days," Mosley said.
He used a makeshift sauna to put into his hotel bathroom and turn up the shower, using the hottest water available and letting the steam gather to help him shed the last few pounds. Before he weighed in, Mosley went to extremes to lose the last few ounces, including spitting into a cup continuously.
"I had to do anything I could to get the last pound -- and I wasn't even sweating," Mosley said.
During that era in the late '90s, Mosley trained at the LA Boxing Gym, and one of his sparring partners was the late Genaro Hernandez, an accomplished professional prizefighter.
"I remember Genaro telling me -- when I was at lightweight, and I would spar him -- he told me, 'I always know when you were close to weight because you're not as fast or hit as hard,' and that's when I was at lightweight, even though I was knocking everybody out."
As Mosley went to welterweight, everything seemed to change for the better.
"I felt so much better, I felt so much faster, I was so much stronger, I hit harder," Mosley said.
After struggling in his first fight at 147 against Wilfredo Rivera, Mosley went on to stop four of his next five opponents, including a split-decision victory over Oscar De La Hoya to win two world titles in a memorable battle in 2000 in Los Angeles. (Mosley admitted to taking EPO before the De La Hoya rematch in 2003).
One thing that Valdez, Garcia and Mosley have in common is that they were in their mid-to-late 20s when they moved up to a heavier weight class for the first time. Garcia was 26 as he went from featherweight to junior lightweight, Mosley was 28 as he moved up two divisions, and Valdez is 28.
Mosley believes that it's around this age that boxers should start to campaign in larger classes.
"I really believe that, yes. You probably should go up in weight because your metabolism is different. You don't burn off weight like you used to when you're younger," Mosley said.
Valdez felt the strain even before his last fight -- as far back as when he was getting set to fight Scott Quigg in March 2018.
In that fight, Valdez suffered a broken jaw and was sidelined for 11 months. It would've been easier for him to make the transition upon his return in 2019, but he punished himself to make 126 again because he thought that was best for his career.
Ahead of the Sanchez fight, he felt the pressure not to let himself, his team or his promoter down.
"I was scared because if I faint, the fight's off," Valdez said, in terms of how he was feeling just before the weigh-in last June. "That would mean me losing three months of training camp over just one day of trying to make weight. I know it wasn't healthy for me."
Valdez pulled through but vacated his title and is now ready for his next challenge. After a full camp, he will enter the ring at 130 pounds on Saturday, and the results would speak for themselves. The stakes are high, as the winner will likely line up with 130-pound world titlist Miguel Berchelt, and Valdez thinks he's as well-prepared for a big fight as he has been in some time.
"I feel more energetic," he said. "I feel I have more strength, power, speed. I have my legs. I have everything right now to just perform better. I'm not just going to be here and talk -- I'm going to prove it in this fight that I'm going to be a better fighter at 130 pounds."