Miguel Berchelt’s relentless quest for a place at the top level

For most of his childhood, Miguel Berchelt wanted to become a soccer player. But his ambitions changed and a boxing dream was born with just a glimpse of a WBC belt that belonged to Rodolfo Lopez, a fellow native of Cancun, Mexico.

Coming into Saturday’s non-title fight in Mexico City against Eleazar Valenzuela (ESPN and ESPN Deportes, 11 p.m. ET), the WBC champion at junior lightweight has a belt of his own. But one isn’t enough to satisfy the 28-year-old’s current ambitions. A collection of trophies might not cut it, either.

Berchelt, the No. 1 junior lightweight in ESPN’s divisional rankings, wants to be more than another champion from Cancun. After being overlooked early in life, he wants to join fighters like Julio Cesar Chavez, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez — as Mexican icons in the sport.

“I believe when you dream, you have to dream big,” Berchelt told ESPN through a translator. “My first dream was to become a champion. I did that. Right now, I know that there’s another level, there’s a top level.”

Growing up, Berchelt (37-1, 33 KOs) thought he was destined to become a soccer star. He idolized Hugo Sanchez, another sporting icon in Cancun. Berchelt wanted to play for Pumas de la UNAM — Sanchez’s team — but after he failed to impress in a tryout, he was sent packing back to his youth team.

Soon enough, he found a new sport altogether and started full-time training as a boxer when he was 16.

“I’m a believer that when God doesn’t permit for you to achieve a dream or a goal, he gives you another dream,” Berchelt said. “And I’m not a soccer player, but I’m a world champion right now.”

Even when he started out, he had visions of being great. As a fledgling 16-year-old, Berchelt climbed into the ring at the Casa de los Guerreros gym in Cancun (which translates to “House of the Warriors”) and pretended to be a ring announcer in Las Vegas, declaring Berchelt the champion of the world. His friends watched and laughed.

But less than nine months into his young career, Berchelt showed he was no joke. In 2009, he finished second in a national amateur tournament. The next year, he won the whole thing.

In 2013, he made his lone appearance in Vegas and scored a first-round TKO victory on an undercard that also featured Terence Crawford, another budding star at the time.

One of the same friends who had mocked Berchelt a few years ago sent him a congratulatory text, admitting he was wrong about his friend’s boxing outlook.

“That was one of the biggest satisfactions in my life,” Berchelt said.

After staking his claim as arguably the best 130-pounder in the sport, Berchelt is on the verge of proving himself yet again. While Saturday’s fight against Valenzuela (21-13-4, 16 KOs) should be a walkover, it will be Berchelt’s first foray at 135 pounds.

The titlist said if he feels good, it will cement his decision to move up to lightweight. If everything goes well this weekend, he says he wants to have one more fight at 130 pounds against Oscar Valdez before the end of 2020. Valdez, also promoted by Top Rank, more than welcomes the challenge.

“The fans love him,” Valdez said in the ring after he beat Adam Lopez in November. “He’s a champion. That’s the one I would want to fight.”

Berchelt said Valdez, a former champion at featherweight, is a name he wants on his record before he moves up to lightweight, where he hopes to face the winner of the unification fight between rising star Teofimo Lopez Jr. and Vasiliy Lomachenko, ESPN’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter.

Berchelt said he has the frame to make the move and be successful. If he wins on Saturday, defeats Valdez and knocks off Lopez or Lomachenko, it will put Berchelt in the mix as one of boxing’s top pound-for-pound fighters.

Berchelt’s conviction in his ability to be great has been unwavering, even before his talent became apparent in the ring. It’s why he’s more than ready for the next stage of his career, one that he hopes puts him alongside some of boxing’s Mexican icons.

“No matter what I thought of me at the beginning of the sport, I’ve always had belief in myself,” Berchelt said. “I’ve always seen myself getting those big fights, like the fight with Valdez and a fight with Lomachenko [or Lopez]. I always knew I was ready for those kinds of fights, and I think that’s really the key.”