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Canelo vs Kovalev undercard preview: Ryan Garcia returns, women’s grudge match, more

Saturday’s undercard isn’t filled with blockbusters, but some interesting personalities and talents are on deck.

Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos/Golden Boy

This Saturday night, streaming live on DAZN from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena, Canelo Alvarez takes a risky and/or calculated move up to light heavyweight to face Sergey Kovalev in the main event.

The undercard isn’t filled with marquee matchups, but the main card, starting 9:00 pm ET on Saturday evening, will feature a a top rising lightweight prospect, a notable women’s flyweight fight, and a welterweight who’s going to be pretty polarizing if more people find out who he is.

Ryan Garcia vs Romero Duno

21-year-old Garcia is one of boxing’s most notable young names, and one of its more controversial. He’s a major social media name — 3.6 million followers on Instagram at this moment, with another 214,000 on Twitter.

Young guys like Garcia are always met with resistance from the boxing fan base. Let’s not dance around it or try to put it in a gentler manner: this is a fan base largely filled with stereotypical meathead dudes, to one degree or another, and “pretty boys” always struggle to gain respect. Boxing is not unique in this, either, this goes across all sports, where the fan bases are largely meathead dudes. Any male athlete that women might be naturally drawn to, dudes are more likely to dislike instinctually. I’m not a science man, I do not claim to be certain of the reasons behind this, but I’ve watched sports all my life, been around sports fans, and it’s the way it is.

Ryan Garcia v Jose Lopez Photo by Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images

But here’s the thing with combat sports, maybe even more than any other sport: if the guy in question turns out to be the real deal, if he can fight, the respect comes to him. Even if we might not say, “Yeah, I’m a fan of (x),” the respect will be there. It’s a little dumb to think of any fighter having to “earn” the respect of some yokel or dummy, but life isn’t always fair or logical.

Garcia (18-0, 15 KO) has a ways to go before he has fully earned that respect, and his issues with Golden Boy this year probably didn’t help the way some people see him. He’s now also seen as greedy and asking for more than he’s earned, but another way to look at it is that Garcia, who has the ability to bring non-traditional fans (mainly women) to boxing, knows what he’s worth, and is willing to fight for it. In the end, he and Golden Boy got back on the same page, at least for now, and he’s got this fight on a Canelo Alvarez card.

Garcia has also grown closer with Canelo, which some scuttlebutt says may be part of the “problem,” as there are also loud whispers that Alvarez isn’t always particularly thrilled with Golden Boy these days. But if a young fighter of the modern era might look for a role model in an unforgiving and cruel profession, Garcia or anyone else could do worse than looking to DAZN’s $365 million man. (And, in the interest of total fairness, Golden Boy helped Canelo get to that level, too, and are still his promoter.)

That’s all outside the ring stuff. Inside the ring, Garcia has thus far been up to the tasks given him. He’s yet to face anyone world class — and that’s not changing on Saturday — but he’s a young kid learning his trade, and for that level, his résumé so far is solid. Two fights in particular stick out, and both came in 2018.

The first was a meeting with Jayson Velez in May of that year. Velez was once a prospect himself, but is more a solid professional opponent at this point. Still, the Puerto Rican had been in tough in his career, and fought to a draw with Evgeny Gradovich in a 2014 world title shot. Garcia outclassed Velez, winning a dominant 10-round decision and snapping a three-fight winning streak.

The second was a tougher outing against Carlos Morales, a regular on Golden Boy’s California “B” shows. Morales, known as “The Solution,” started his career with a loss and then fought to three straight draws in 2012, but then went on a win streak that lasted until a 2017 loss to Alberto Machado. After a win over Dardan Zenunaj, he was matched with Garcia in Sept. 2018.

Morales, as usual, was tough and tricky, a guy who still in his 20s fights with a very “veteran” style. Garcia survived and won a 10-round majority decision. Two of the cards came back 98-92 for Garcia, who disagreed with those scores, saying he felt the bout was much closer than that, and it was. But it was the sort of test you need to see a prospect pass, and for all intents and purposes, Garcia passed it. His last two outings, stoppage wins over Braulio Rodriguez and Jose Lopez, have been easier.

Thursday Night Fights - Duno v Rodriguez Photo by Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images

Opposing him on Saturday will be Romero Duno, a 24-year-old Filipino based in Los Angeles, who has started to make a name for himself as a reliable action guy for televised cards.

Duno (21-1, 16 KO) is going to be giving up three inches of height and a couple inches of reach against Garcia, who is also faster and more skilled. On paper, it’s a miserable matchup for the Filipino battler, and if Garcia is what he’s supposed to be, one expects he thrashes Duno, who has a leaky defense and pretty much always finds himself trading sooner or later.

But Duno is a rugged, come-forward aggressor, too, and Garcia still has to really show he can handle guys like that, even at a sub-elite level. In May, Duno won a very close and hard-hitting technical split decision over Juan Rodriguez, and in September he stopped Ivan Delgado after seven rounds. Garcia’s a good step up, talent-wise, from those guys, but Rodriguez in particular is another relentless sort of fighter, one who’s tough to deter.

Duno’s chance is to get into Garcia’s grill and stay there, to not let the prospect use his length and speed at any distance, to not get pieced up with combinations. Much easier said than done, and Duno is the underdog because frankly he shouldn’t be able to do that. But if he can, it could get interesting for Garcia.

Seniesa Estrada vs Marlen Esparza

For about a year and a half or so, flyweights Seniesa “Superbad” Estrada and Marlen Esparza have been tied as future in-ring rivals, and they talked a pretty good game.

“I don’t think that she’s anything that I haven’t seen before,” Esparza said at one point. “I’ve fought better people than her in the past, I’ve beat better people than her in the past. I’m not saying that she’s not a good fighter, by any means. I’m not saying that. But I am saying she’s not better than me.”

“She’s always saying negative stuff about me in interviews, so I’m not going to keep my mouth shut anymore,” Estrada responded. “We both want the fight to happen, so it’s gonna happen. She’s always saying I’m not on her level, which, that’s not true at all. I’m not the opponents that she fights.”

Ryan Garcia v Jayson Velez Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

At that moment, Estrada was being interviewed during an Estrella-televised fight between Esparza, a former Olympian, and Loetizia Campana. Estrada bashed Esparza for fighting a 40-year-old opponent with a 2-4 record who hadn’t fought in nearly two years.

Truthfully, she probably had a point. But at the same time, Estrada herself would fight just a few weeks later against a 38-year-old opponent with a 1-6 record who hadn’t fought in nearly two years. Such is women’s boxing a lot of the time.

But Estrada (17-0, 7 KO) and Esparza (7-0, 1 KO) are both well-trained fighters with some talent, and Golden Boy has built up to this fight.

Esparza, now 30, won bronze at London 2012 in the flyweight division, and was a 2014 World Championships gold medalist before going pro in Dec. 2016, signing with Golden Boy ahead of a spring 2017 pro debut. More recently, Esparza was out for about a year as she had a baby. She returned in April and has fought twice in 2019, beating Jhosep Vizcaino and Sonia Osorio.

Marlen Esparza v Aracely Palacios Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Esparza has the edge in amateur accolades, but Estrada, 27, was fighting pro by 2011, winning a pair of fights in California, then was out until 2014 for one fight, before really getting her career going in 2015. Like Esparza, her level of competition hasn’t exactly been great, and this should be the toughest fight for either woman to date.

This fight has the interim WBA flyweight title up for grabs. The full title is held by Naoko Fujioka, the 44-year-old Japanese wonder who has won titles in five weight classes during her career, so a matchup with the veteran may or may not come to the winner of this fight. But it’s worth noting that Estrada is coming up from 108 for this fight, too, and she’s had her sights set on a fight for the WBC title at junior flyweight, where the green belt is held by Yesenia Gomez, and the interim by Kenia Enriquez.

Blair Cobbs vs Carlos Ortiz

This fight is not remotely about competition. This is about introducing Blair “The Flair” Cobbs to a wider audience.

While Tyson Fury is the latest in a long line of boxing stars to take the boxing game to the pro wrestling world, Cobbs is bringing the pro wrestling game to the boxing world. He mimics Ric Flair’s “WOOOO!” He takes entrance music from the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. He cuts pro wrestling-style promos before and after fights.

Thursday Night Fights - Feliciano v Gamez Photo by Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images

Truth be told, however, it’s a little tough to get very excited about a supposed prospect who is 29 years old without some big amateur background, and is still fighting the likes of Carlos Ortiz (11-4, 11 KO), a 35-year-old Mexican with three straight losses, including a shutout over a year ago to young Alexis Rocha, who is someone you should likely take more seriously as a prospect than Cobbs, to be honest.

Furthermore, we’ve seen Cobbs have some struggles already. He went to a four-round draw with club fighter Mario Esparza in March 2018, and narrowly beat Ferdinand Kerobyan in March of this year. He has the style and approach of a slick, flashy talent, but he may not have the actual skill of one. His last two wins, over Robert Redmond Jr and Steve Villalobos, weren’t much to write home about, and this fight doesn’t figure to be any tougher.

The world is going to either love or hate Cobbs (12-0-1, 8 KO), and it will come down to — as we discussed with Garcia earlier, but in a different way here — whether or not he can actually fight. No matter how he might win on Saturday, he’s not really going to prove anything we don’t already know.

He’s getting this sort of tightly-managed push because Golden Boy are hurting for star power on cards, and Cobbs at least plays the part for the cameras. But if he can’t cut it at a higher level, he’s not going to be the star they might hope he can be, and may have to settle for being an attraction at the Fantasy Springs doing a Triple H water-spitting entrance routine.