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Canelo vs Kirkland preview: Frankie Gomez looks to take next step against Humberto Soto

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Frankie Gomez takes on Humberto Soto in a solid prospect-veteran matchup tomorrow night on HBO. Can the young "Pitbull" live up to his promise on the big stage?

Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions

One of the classic matchups in the boxing game is taking a hot prospect who appears on the doorstep of reaching his potential and putting him in the ring with a grizzled veteran who still has something to give. That will be the case tomorrow night on HBO World Championship Boxing, when 140-pound blue chipper Frankie Gomez faces former two-division titleholder Humberto Soto in the co-feature to the Canelo-Kirkland main event from Houston.

Gomez, 23, has had his ups and downs already in his young pro career, which began in April 2010 at the age of 18. The East Los Angeles product was a standout amateur, and won the US Amateur Nationals in 2009 at 17, beating Jose Benavidez in the final. At the 2009 Worlds, Gomez won silver, losing to Cuba's Roniel Iglesias in the final. Iglesias won bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and gold in the 2012 London games.

His March 2010 signing with Golden Boy Promotions was an event, with Oscar De La Hoya giving him serious hype. "I've seen him spar, I've seen him train. He has that 'it' factor. He has what it takes to really be special," De La Hoya told Doug Fischer.

De La Hoya continued, "The power that he possesses with both hands, the footwork that he has -- he has very fast footwork. The ring generalship that he shows inside that squared circle is unbelievable. When I saw him spar for the first time, he sparred 12 rounds with all pros, and handled them with no problem. That shows me that he is a dedicated fighter. That shows me that he does have the tools to really go far in this sport."

Gomez lived up to the hype early, stopping his first six opponents while fighting constantly in 2010 -- twice in April, then once each in May, June, July, September, and October. But he ran into trouble in 2012, as he was cited for failing to appear in court on traffic tickets, and then was arrested for driving under a suspended license and felony possession of narcotics.

Richard Schaefer and De La Hoya knew they had to get his attention quickly, with a career potentially hanging by a thread. "I was hanging around with my friends," Gomez told the Los Angeles Daily News this week. "I was young and made some mistakes. The choice was whether to focus on boxing or keep seeing my friends. I chose boxing."

Frankie Gomez Media Workout

Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions

He was out of the ring between December 2011 and November 2012, an 11-month layoff for a young fighter who needed to stay busy. When he returned, he stopped veteran Manuel Leyva in three rounds, followed by a 48-second knockout of Pavel Miranda a month later. In the last two years, he's gone 4-0, including a pair of fights that did go the 10-round distance against Lanard Lane and Vernon Paris, a couple of tricky veterans who should have the talented prospect, now 18-0 (13 KO), as ready as he's going to get for Saturday's fight with Soto.

That said, there's no question that Humberto Soto, a 34-year-old vet who has held world titles at 130 and 135 pounds, as well as an interim title at 126, will be Gomez's toughest test. Though "La Zorrita" is a small fighter at 140 pounds, he's proven plenty capable of taking shots and holding his own at the weight.

We last saw Soto in September 2014, when he faced another hard puncher, John Molina. Molina's game plan was to box and not take big risks, and Soto was able to secure a decision win over 10 rounds because of that. Had Molina pressed more, or used his physical advantages more, it may have been a different fight.

Gomez, a natural 140-pound fighter, will likely look to use aggression and power to overwhelm Soto (65-8-2, 35 KO), once considered a fighter at 126 pounds who was kept away from Manny Pacquiao. Soto retains the technically sound style he had then, but fighting heavier, has lost a good chunk of his power, which began when he moved up to lightweight in 2009.

But Soto has been successful at the heavier weights. He beat David Diaz in 2010 to win the vacant WBC 135-pound title, and his fight nine months later with Urbano Antillon was arguably the Fight of the Year. Outside of a bogus disqualification loss to Francisco Lorenzo in 2008 and a 2012 defeat against Lucas Matthysse, Soto hasn't lost a fight since 2007, going 23-2 in that time. Pretty much all of those wins have come against second- or third-tier opposition, but he stays active and remains a tough out. In fact, before Matthysse's natural power beat him down, he was up on the scorecards through five rounds.

Humberto Soto v John Molina Jr. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Does Gomez have the sort of power that Matthysse displayed that night? He might, which is what has to be expected to give him the edge in this fight. Even if Soto can set traps and get Gomez to make mistakes, it's unlikely that the Mexican veteran will be able to too severely punish his precocious opponent for those mistakes. To make it through 10 rounds, he's going to have to make the young "Pitbull" miss, frustrate him, and beat him mentally more than physically.

So far, Gomez hasn't been easy to deter. Even when he hasn't stopped opponents, he has been able to shut them out, winning every round of 10 against Paris and Lane. His lone serious test as a pro came in 2011 against Adrian Granados, a fighter who is still known to give prospects a tough time. (Granados took Brad Solomon to a 10-round split decision last weekend on the Mayweather-Pacquiao card.)

With American boxing set to experience some pretty heavy turnover as one generation will be passing and giving way to a new crop of top stars, Gomez stands as one of the top American prospects, having seemingly learned from his early mistakes and turned his attention fully to his bright future. The networks are well aware that they need to start finding new star fighters, and Gomez is getting a crack on HBO against a known fighter. This is his audition to wow a wider audience, one that will likely tune in in large numbers to see the big fight main event, as well as a bump from the Mayweather-Pacquiao replay that will precede the live fights.

Gomez is well aware of what Soto brings to the table, but believe he's got the edge. "He has a lot of experience, but I think I have the youth and I'm stronger," he said at a media workout this week. "Soto also has good combinations and is a veteran with more than 60 fights, so he'll be ready too."

Soto was pretty quiet at the final press conference on Thursday, saying only that it's a fight of youth vs experience, and that the fans will be the real winners.

And in many ways, Gomez is fighting not just to beat Soto, but indeed to impress the fans who may not have seen him before. He's shown a style and skill set that could make him a star fighter. But there's certainly some danger here, and many a blue chip prospect has found himself mentally or tactically overmatched in a matchup like this one. Young fighters have to be tested. This is the right fight at the right time for Frankie Gomez. Will he pass or fail?