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Returning to the ring

Philly native Miguel Cartagena returns after four years to battle Carlos Maldonado in main event of Xcite Fight Night 2

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Mini-me: For the first time in four and a half years, Miguel Cartagena is returning to his hometown to compete in Xcite Fight Night 2 at Parx Casino. He’s pictured with his 4-year-old son, MJ, who serves as his tiny shadow during workouts. Source: Michelle Rosado

Flyweight Miguel Cartagena is far from your average boxer.

“I come with a little bit more style. A little bit of salt. Some spice. I have a lot more fire,” the 25-year-old said.

But when you’ve fought on some of the biggest stages in the world the majority of your career, from California to Japan, your technique is obviously going to have some flare.

Now, for the first time in four and a half years, the Philadelphia native is bringing that fire back to his hometown as the main fighter in Joe Hand Promotions’ Xcite Fight Night 2 at Parx Casino on Friday, June 29, where he’ll take on fellow flyweight Carlos Maldonado of Los Angeles.

Ahead of his highly-anticipated return to the local fight scene, The Times caught up with “No Fear” Cartagena in his natural habitat at UFC Gym in Cherry Hill to talk Philly roots, fatherhood, and the entertaining whirlwind of emotions attendees can expect when he jumps in the ring.

Cartagena is a city boy through and through. Born and raised in the Juniata area, he later transitioned to Nicetown before settling in the Northeast, where he currently resides. Unlike many young boxers, who follow in the fighting footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers, Cartagena was the first in his family to enter the ring at 7 years old.

“I was a very hyper little kid and my dad wanted me to have something to do,” he recalled. “Obviously, you see my size. I was too small to do any other sport, so boxing was one of my only options.”

Given the passion he exudes today for the sport, one would never know he quit after a single month. Cartagena had every intention of putting the gloves down for good, but after a mere two weeks, he found himself desperately missing it. With a newfound spark, he picked up where he left off, and hasn’t looked back since.

The next several years saw Cartagena progress at lightning speed. In 2008, he won a number of national tournaments as an amateur and in 2009, at only 16 years old, became one of the youngest fighters to earn the coveted titles of both U.S. National Light Flyweight Champion and U.S. Golden Gloves.

“I thought, you know what, let’s keep on pushing forward. Maybe there’s a bright future for me,” he said.

But what would that future look like? At 18, Cartagena began to seriously contemplate the sort of career he wanted to pursue. He realized he had no aspiration to fight in the Olympics and take home gold medals. For him, it was all about the flashier side of the sport.

“I like the lights, I like the camera,” he explained. “I said, let’s not even wait. I’ll turn pro.”

There was just one issue — because of Cartagena’s size of about 5 feet, 5 inches, it was nearly impossible for him to get matched in Philadelphia.

“All of the guys my size and my weight were either out west or overseas,” he said. “It’s hard finding little guys out here.”

Still, he wasn’t about to let that stop him from chasing his dreams. He said goodbye to the City of Brotherly Love and, for the past four and a half years, has been traveling the world to make a name for himself. Now, he’s home and ready to rebuild his fanbase of day one supporters.

“I feel like I gave people so many great fights in the beginning of my career and then I left,” he said. “All of my fights have been everywhere else but my hometown.”

Though the pressure of living up to his long-awaited return is certainly high, Cartagena is feeling nothing but excitement as the big night draws near.

“It’s kind of like turning pro all over again,” he said.

Countless friends and family will be in attendance, including Cartagena’s 4-year-old son MJ, who serves as his tiny shadow during workouts and training. Does this mean we’ll have another Cartagena fighter on our hands?

“I want to say yeah because he follows everything I do. But I want to also say no because I don’t want him to fight,” he said.

Some weeks, MJ will join his dad at the gym every single day. Other times, he wants no part of it. Either way, Cartagena leaves it up to him.

“If he wants to come, cool. If he doesn’t want to come, even better. I don’t want him to fall in love with the sport and then he’s in it for good,” Cartagena said, reflecting on the stress, time and money he and his family put into getting him where he is today.

Though he would support MJ if he did embark on a professional boxing career, Cartagena is keeping his fingers crossed his son will choose an educational route. After graduating from Stephen A. Douglas High School in Port Richmond, he explained how he didn’t pursue additional studies.

“I want him to become something different. Not because I don’t want him to be a boxer, but because I also want to learn something new with him,” he said.

Thankfully, MJ still has a ways to go before he has to enter the “real world.” For now, Cartagena is focused on the task at hand — preparing for Xcite Fight Night, which he promised will be an entertaining, emotional roller coaster for attendees.

“When I’m in the ring, you see how much I love fighting, how much I love the sport. It’s not just getting in there and punching the guy. It’s me having fun and living my dream,” Cartagena said. “They see all of my emotions come out in the fight. There are times where I’ll cry in the middle of the ring, or there are times where I’m simply cracking up in tears laughing.”

So how do his opponents react to all of this? “They probably think I’m a nut,” he said. “Whatever it takes.” ••

If you go…

Xcite Fight Night 2 will take place Friday, June 29, at Parx Casino’s Xcite Center, 2999 Street Road in Bensalem. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with the seven-fight card beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets priced at $50, $75 and $100 are on sale at parxcasino.com. They can also be purchased through Joe Hand Promotions at 215–364–9000 and the Hold My Ticket Call Center at 877–466–3404.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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