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Mario Barrios is the Express-News 2019 Sportsman of the Year

By John Whistler –

The requests became so frequent Mario Barrios decided to carry around his championship belt in the trunk of his car.

The reason? Easy access every time someone – friends or even perfect strangers – wanted to pose for a picture with San Antonio’s newest boxing champion.

Barrios took the belt with him when he was honored by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and members of the San Antonio City Council, then again during a special recognition by Bexar County Commissioners Court.

Barrios, 24, has been at the center of a whirlwind of activity since late September, when he became the first local boxer to win a major world title in 25 years.

For his accomplishment, Barrios is the Express-News 2019 Sportsman of the Year.

«If you had told me when I first turned pro that I’d be in this position this early in my career, I never would have believed you,» he said. «It’s been surreal.»

Barrios becomes only the second boxer to win the newspaper’s top annual award for a male athlete. The late Robert Quiroga won it in 1991 after his epic world title defense against «Kid» Akeem Anifowoshe at HemisFair Arena.

Barrios won the vacant WBA world super lightweight title by beating Russia’s Batyr Akhmedov on Sept. 28 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The last San Antonio boxer to win a world title was «Jesse» James Leija, who defeated Azumah Nelson on May 7, 1994, to win the WBC world super featherweight title at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Quiroga became the first local fighter to claim a major title when he defeated Juan Polo Perez on April 21, 1990, in Sunderland, England, for the IBF world super flyweight championship.

John Michael Johnson was next in line, defeating Junior Jones with an 11th-round TKO on April 22, 1994, to win the WBA world bantamweight title at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Barrios’ victory over Akhmedov capped a year in which he went 3-0, with wins over Richard Zamora and Juan Jose Velasco, both by knockout. In fact, until the win by unanimous decision over Akhmedov, Barrios (25-0, 16 KOs) had won eight straight fights by knockout.

The victory over Akhmedov was not without controversy. Many observers felt Barrios lost the fight after he suffered a deep cut over his left eye in the seventh round and his face began to swell.

By fight’s end, the swelling was so bad his left eye was nearly closed, the result of an unintentional head butt and constant pounding from looping right hands by the southpaw Akhmedov.

Akhmedov won most of the middle rounds after Barrios dominated the early going, which included a knockdown of Akhmedov in the fourth round.

The judges scored the fight 115-111, 116-111 and 114-112, all for Barrios.

«I even though the scores were closer than that,» Barrios recalled. «My corner told me I needed a knockdown or knockout to win entering the 12th and final round.»