Ivan “Iron Boy” Calderon, a former two-division titleholder at 105 and 108 pounds who helped pioneer the mainstreaming of boxing’s lower weight divisions, will later this week be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Having pushed through a difficult childhood in Puerto Rico, Calderon came to boxing at a late age and turned his speed and schoolyard scrappiness into a condensed but dominant career.

Calderon recently spoke to BoxingScene about growing up outside San Juan, deciding that he wanted to be a better man than the figures meant to set an example for him, and navigating the boxing business.

BoxingScene: You’re originally from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, yes?

Ivan Calderon: I really was born in Toa Baja, Candelaria, [Puerto Rico], but right now, I always say I’m from Guaynabo because I started my boxing in Guaynabo, I started living in Guaynabo when I was 14 years old, when I met my father. Then I got married and now I live in Caguas. But all my career, everything that I did in my career of boxing, is from Guaynabo.

BS: You landed in New York first, though?

Calderon: I was born in Toa Baja, but at four years old, I went to the Bronx. I moved to the Bronx and I came back to Puerto Rico when I was like, 11 or 12 years old.

BS: Those are big changes for a young boy.

Calderon: I can’t say it was a good experience, because I had a lot of problems – family problems. I was in my foster homes. Those things as a young kid [influenced] a lot of things in my career. So people that didn’t think I could do all the things that I’m doing right now, then I speak and show them my story. They say, “How did you get to be world champion?” I say, “I think a lot of those things help me throughout and be a better man.”

BS: Not just a better fighter, but a better man?

Calderon: Yeah, yeah, a better man. I could talk a little bit about it because I’m writing a book of my story. So it taught me how to talk to women – not hit – because my mom was abused when she was living with my stepfather. So I saw that when I was a little kid and I couldn’t defend my mother. And then we went to be in a foster home when they separated me from my mother, me and my two sisters, and all those things that I brought with me, being back in school, them putting me down a grade because I couldn’t finish … all that kind of stuff. At least I finished my fourth year grade, and I got my high school diploma when I was 26 years old.

BS: A lot of people who go through those sort of tough times go the other direction. Why do you think you took the lessons that you did from your experiences?

Calderon: Since I saw it, my mind got me to change. I said, “I want to be a better guy. I want to be something different. I want to show my family that somebody in the family could be another thing, and it could change everything.”

Nobody in my family is in sports. I started when I was 17, and when I started, I never liked boxing. I started because my stepmother told me that my brother wanted to go to the gym and to just walk him to the gym, and the next day I was the one going to the gym. I stayed on. I lost my first two fights. When I won my third fight as an amateur, I had girls asking me for photos, other people asking me. I thought, “Whoa, being famous must be like this.” Now I wanted to be a famous guy. That’s why I started falling in love with boxing and sports.

BS: Seventeen is a late start in boxing, right?

Calderon: That’s what people say. But when you’re a fighter and you can learn quick, in three or four years … some guys take too long to learn, six, 10 years. But you can learn in three or four years. All depends how quick you are – a fighter who can learn or get something quick. Depends how you are as a student.

BS: So you weren’t really a boxing fan growing up. You didn’t have any idols in boxing or even sports?

Calderon: You know, when I saw boxing my first time on TV, it was when Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas. That was my first fight. That was my first time that I saw boxing on TV. Wow.

BS: Did it maybe help you to come into the sport with a blank slate, no expectations, a little bit older, a little more mature?

Calderon: Maybe I could say I thought that way, but it [happened] so quick. I used to fight a lot in school – not boxing, but fighting a lot in school. And when I started boxing, the first day, I remember my trainer – it was Juan Laporte, the ex-world champion, his brother – and he saw me just throw a jab and move. He came to me, he asked me, “You boxed before?” And I say, “No, this is my first time.” And he said, “You know, you move good. You know how to move.” So he showed me one step, I kept on looking at the [other fighters], and I just kept on doing it. … I remember I went to the gym, and on the third day, they were already taking me to the fights. That’s why I lost my first fight. Then they took me quick again to fight. And by then, I had a little bit more experience, and then I won my third fight.

BS: But you stayed an amateur for a while, even after your late start? How many amateur bouts did you have?

Calderon: A hundred and thirty. Because I was gonna sign pro, but then I waited. I said, “I’m gonna sign pro and nobody who’s gonna sign me is gonna pay me. I need a name. I need international competition. So I needed the Olympics, the Pan Americans, the Central Americans, and I knew my name was gonna be a little bit better to do business. So that’s why I waited until I was 26 years old.

BS: Was it the right decision to wait after such a late start?

Calderon: That’s what we all think, that we’re late for the game. But for me, in 10 years of my career, from 26 years old – almost 27 – I retired when I was 37. Almost 11 years as a pro, and what I did in 11 years … you still see boxers who’ve got 13 years and they haven’t even been a world champion, haven’t even been near a world title fight. I did everything: I did two divisions, 18 defenses of my title – I did everything in 10 years. It all depended on my promoter and my manager and me, and always being prepared every time they used to call me for a fight. Discipline.

BS: You always kept yourself in shape and ready?

Calderon: Always. And the other good thing that helped me was that I was a father when I was 23 years old. When I was an amateur, I was already a father, and I knew I had to buy Pampers, pay for a house. So I knew the importance of winning fights and winning money and being somebody in the future, to bring my family up and so my kids didn’t have to pass what I passed through, with my mother and we didn’t have money for school and none of that. I wanted them to have a better life than their father did.

BS: Countless young fighters receive fame and money at an early age and don’t know what to do with it. Was it an advantage that when those things came to you, you were a little older and knew what you were fighting for?

Calderon: Yep! So those fighters didn’t know what it was like to be a father, they didn’t know [the value of their money] because they already had everything. They had somebody that put everything in their hands and they never let them work for it. So they didn’t know how to work for something, because they already had everything in their hands.

BS: Freddie Roach brought you in to spar with Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley. How did those sessions go?

Calderon: It was good. I remember, I was in the gym. They came to my gym, they asked me, “Yo, can you help us? Can you help Oscar De La Hoya move, get some rounds, you’re a southpaw?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” And when I went up in the ring and Freddie saw me move, he saw that I was hitting Oscar with good uppercuts, moving around, Oscar couldn’t get me, he said, “Wow.” That’s why he always says that when he saw that sparring with me, he said, “Oh, that means Manny Pacquiao’s got an opportunity to beat Oscar De La Hoya.” That’s why they took the fight. That’s what he says in interviews.

BS: That was kind of your calling card – speed. Was that your most important attribute as a fighter?

Calderon: I gotta say, my boxing, my speed, my movement. Maybe I was not a power puncher, but my movement and the speed of my hands helped me a lot in my career.

BS: Smaller fighters seem to “age” a little faster, with most people in the business saying that speed is the first thing that starts to go. Do you agree? Was there a moment when you realized that you weren’t quite the same fighter as you had been, say, in your 20s?

Calderon: I gotta say, yeah. We don’t want to accept that, but yeah. When I was about 35, I started losing the speed, my vision – I was already getting hit with more punches – so I already knew my time was coming. And when I decided to retire, when I started receiving punches and my body was not responding the same way, that’s when I said, “I think it’s time to retire.”

BS: Your rivalries with Hugo Cazares, Rodel Mayol and Giovani Segura were, looking from the outside, the biggest moments in your career. Those fights are when more mainstream boxing fans became aware of you and the action in the smaller divisions. But it was also around the time you mention, when you started slowing down? Is it tough at all to look back on those fights – even just that the timing didn’t work out?

Calderon: No, not really. When I fought Hugo Cazares [for the first time, in 2007], I was in my best condition. I was just going up to 108 [from 105 pounds]. The real thing was, when I used to fight those guys, I was not really a 108. I went up to get the opportunity to get another title fight, win a little bit more money and fight with a name to get me more payment. But I used to do my weigh-in, and then the day of the fight I would walk around, like, six or seven pounds heavier, and my opponent used to walk around 15 or 20 pounds heavier. That was the difference of the fights. That’s why, people gotta understand, I can’t go toe-to-toe with them, because I know they’re gonna outweigh me. So I had to beat them by outboxing them and hit-and-don’t-get-hit.

BS: I just remember the timing being tough because, just when so many fans were getting to know you and starting to pay attention, the conditions around you changed.

Calderon: Yeah, because there was better names, bigger names there. Remember, at 105, there were not a lot of names – not even in that time. “Chocolatito” [Roman Gonzalez] wasn’t a world champion yet and didn’t have a name, and he wanted to fight me. And I said, “No, because you want to use me just to bring yourself up. No, that’s not the business for me.” There was nobody at that time. If he called me up right now, I’d say, “What do you want to do? What time?” Because now he’s got a name. But at that time, it didn’t make business sense for me.

BS: You retired in 2012. What have you been doing in the meantime?

Calderon: I’ve always been a trainer in the gym. … Now I work with pro boxers, I train people – I’ve always been training people, but this time I go with them to the fights, I’m in the corner working with them. And I’m a commentator on “ESPN KnockOut” in Spanish. So I do a lot of things, talk to the kids in school – I do a lot of things.

BS: Any promising prospects?

Calderon: Most are not pro level right now. I got a girl, Kiria Tapia, she was a gold medalist at the Pan Americans [in 2011]. Right now, she’s 3-0 [as a pro]. She’s giving me hope that I’ll have my first world champion, in the women’s [ranks]. In the men’s, I got a few guys, they are growing, but they still need a little bit of work. 

And I got an amateur – that’s the guy that I want to bring, like if he was my kid. He’s a 108, a strong fighter, I want to give him all my experience. He’s already 19. He couldn’t make the Olympics this year, so I could maybe sign him next year. But he’s training, because I want him to be an age that he can understand the contract. He don’t need his mother. He don’t need his father. He could sign a contract – he’s already an older guy. But I want him to have that experience. I don’t want them to sign when they’re 17 or 18. They’re still young. I want them to enjoy the amateurs, get experience and go around the world – free – with boxing and learn everything, and then turn pro.

Jason Langendorf is the former Boxing Editor of ESPN.com, has contributed to Ringside Seat and the Queensberry Rules, and has written about boxing for Vice, The Guardian, Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. You can follow him on X and LinkedIn, and contact him at [email protected].

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