This Saturday night on FOX pay-per-view from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the heavyweights headline with Deontay Wilder defending his WBC title against Luis Ortiz in a rematch, following a pretty epic brawl last year in Brooklyn between the two big boys.
But the pay-per-view undercard is serving up a look at fighters in the lower divisions, with featured matchups at 118, 122, and 130 pounds, with notable names involved in each of the bouts, two world titles of varying legitimacy on the line, and plenty of potential for good action.
Leo Santa Cruz vs Miguel Flores
Santa Cruz, now 31, has won world titles at 118, 122, and 126, and now goes for a title at 130 in this matchup, which was supposed to happen at 126 in February. It didn’t deserve to be a world title fight then and doesn’t know, but we’ll get to that.
Santa Cruz (36-1-1, 19 KO) takes some criticism for his opposition sometimes, and when you examine his run — which started seriously in 2012, when he beat Vusi Malinga for the vacant IBF bantamweight title — it’s not hard to see why. He’s had a lot of meticulously curated events, so to speak, and whenever he’s asked who he wants next, he always smiles and says it’s up to his team. And he means it. Leo is very appreciative of all that Al Haymon and Co. have done for he and his family, and bottom line is he’s a company man.
But, it’s not as if Santa Cruz has never had a tough opponent, and nobody he’s faced has ever “exposed” him as truly less than advertised. Victor Terrazas was a good fighter anda titleholder at 122, Santa Cruz stopped him in three. And if you could form an argument at that time that Terrazas maybe shouldn’t have had the title, as he’d won a controversial decision over Cristian Mijares for that belt, Leo fought Mijares, too, and dominated him over 12 rounds.
At 126, Santa Cruz beat Abner Mares in 2015, then in 2016-17 took back-to-back fights with Carl Frampton, losing the first by majority decision and winning the rematch by majority decision. In all reality there should have been a third bout, but Santa Cruz’s team seemed to steer him away from that — he’d gotten even, and he won the last one, so there was no reason to press the issue. He beat Mares again in 2018, but around that fight he faced Chris Avalos, who is a gatekeeper, and Rafael Rivera, who was a late sub for Miguel Flores, who is back now.
Flores (24-2, 12 KO) is a 27-year-old fighter originally from Mexico, now fighting out of Texas. He lost back-to-back fights in 2017 to Dat Nguyen (TKO-6) and the aforementioned Avalos (RTD-5). The bout with Nguyen was very competitive, and he was leading Avalos on the cards but got stopped on a cut that came from a legal punch. It happens. His best wins have come over guys like Ryan Kielczewski, a fun but limited fighter, and Alfred Tetteh. Only sanctioning bodies — in this case the WBA — would rank this guy in the top 10 at 126 or 130.
There’s one thing about this fight that I’d say without question, truly sucks out loud, and that is, in fact, the WBA. Santa Cruz was “super champion” at 126 pounds, so he’s getting to fight for a vacant “super champion” status at 130, against a guy they ridiculously have ranked No. 2 contender at 130. Andrew Cancio, who also fights on Saturday, is their “world” champion, and he’s facing a mandatory challenger, No. 1-ranked Rene Alvarado.
I know the WBA and boxing in general have some stupid and mind-numbing title situations quite often, but how the WBA have handled the belts at 130 in recent years has displayed a complete disregard for fairness in favor of pretty obvious favoritism. Let’s take a look at it, for “fun”:
- April 2016: Jezzrel Corrales goes to Japan, upsets Takashi Uchiyama for “super world” title.
- Oct. 2017: After two successful title defenses, Corrales misses weight for a fight with Alberto Machado, but it goes on, with the “super world” title on the line for Machado only. Machado does win, so he is the new “super world” champion. Except later they decide he’s not, and it is retroactively changed to a “world” title fight to make room for...
- April 2018: ...Gervonta Davis to fight Jesus Cuellar for the “super world” title, which he wins. If you want to argue that maybe the WBA demoted the belt Machado won because Corrales had missed weight, first of all that’s dumb, and second of all it would be double dumb because Davis was fighting for the WBA belt because he’d lost his IBF belt on the scales in his previous fight. So the idea of punishing Machado for Corrales’ failure while rewarding Davis after his own doesn’t really hold water.
Machado went on defending the “world” title until losing it to Cancio this year. Does Cancio get the bump when Davis vacates to move up to 135? No. Santa Cruz — like Davis a PBC fighter — gets the shot at the “super world” title, while Cancio actually fights the mandatory on the same damn night. I try not to get that bogged down in this stuff anymore because it’s pointless and probably never going to change, but it is important to occasionally remind yourself of how utterly ridiculous it can be.
Take it away, Nick Nolte in Blue Chips (NSFW, there is a cuss):
Luis Nery vs Emmanuel Rodriguez
Nery, 24, is probably the No. 2 bantamweight in the sport behind only Naoya Inoue. An unbeaten (30-0, 24 KO) former titleholder, he’s been a controversial figure in the sport for the past few years, but with PBC affiliation his image is being rehabbed.
Nery broke through in Aug. 2017, when he went to Japan to face Shinsuke Yamanaka, the long-reigning WBC titleholder and considered the true champion of the division at that time. Nery overpowered Yamanaka and won by fourth round stoppage when Yamanaka’s corner stopped the fight.
Nine days after his big win, Nery tested positive for zilpaterol, which is largely used for cattle. Nery claimed it was due to contaminated food, which is what we hear every time someone pops for clenbuterol, and the WBC dragged out actually making a decision for over two months. Eventually, they sided with Nery, but did order him to do a rematch. The second time around, he stopped Yamanaka in two, but he also missed weight by three pounds and dropped the title on the scales.
Nery remains suspended in Japan, but he doesn’t seem to have any plans to go back there, either. He fought twice in Mexico in 2018, then made his US debut in March of this year on the Spence-Garcia PPV undercard from AT&T Stadium in Texas, dominating McJoe Arroyo over four rounds. He returned in July on the Pacquiao-Thurman PPV undercard, and while former titleholder Juan Carlos Payano gave him a decent fight, he eventually got to Payano and stopped him in the ninth round.
On the one hand, Nery is an exciting fighter with knockout power and should be pretty easy to market even as a bantamweight. If nothing else, his fights are going to be welcome presences on PPV undercards, which PBC seem to have designated as his role.
On the other hand, he’s kind of a classic villain for most boxing fans. Many will just not forgive failed drug tests, at least not for PEDs — even if he were able somehow to present indisputable proof that he popped due to contaminated food, you’d have plenty of skeptics remaining because of boxing’s carny nature. And missing weight is treated by some as nearly as big a crime, too. So he’s got all that going for him.
But he’s back here, facing another former titleholder in Rodriguez (19-1, 12 KO), which will also add another chapter to the storied Mexico vs Puerto Rico rivalry. The 27-year-old Rodriguez won the vacant IBF title in 2018 with a one-sided decision win over Paul Butler in London, then entered the World Boxing Super Series and edged past Jason Moloney in a fantastic fight in Orlando five months later.
Most recently, Rodriguez went to Glasgow for a fight with Naoya Inoue, and there was plenty going on there. Rodriguez’s team accused Inoue’s team of a whole lot of stuff before the fight, but they got in there and Inoue trucked Rodriguez in two rounds, dropping him three times.
Rodriguez remains a contender at 118, but Nery will be the clear favorite here, and if Nery is in shape and focused, it seems likely he’ll get to Rodriguez sooner or later in this fight. Rodriguez is a good fighter, but Nery is thought to be more than that.
Brandon Figueroa vs Julio Ceja
Here’s an interesting matchup at 122 pounds that could steal the show, at least on the undercard. Figueroa (20-0, 15 KO) is a rising star at super bantamweight, someone PBC are understandably quite high on at the moment.
The 22-year-old “Heartbreaker” has the looks and friendly, charming personality of a fan favorite, and he fights his ass off, too. In the ring, he’s got the determination and ferocity of his older brother, Omar Figueroa Jr, without any of the whispers that he doesn’t have the dedication outside the ring to be great.
Figueroa’s already had a good 2019, beating Moises Flores, Yonfrez Parejo, and Javier Chacon, all via stoppage. Parejo quit after eight rounds, and he’d been at least a little competitive, as Figueroa is good and exciting but still flawed, particularly defensively. The win over Parejo gave Figueroa the interim WBA title at 122 pounds, and now he’s been bumped to “world” champion status with Daniel Roman elevated to super title.
Ceja, 27, is a nice next test for Figueroa to close out a busy year. The Mexican fighter is a former titleholder, having beaten Hugo Ruiz for the interim WBC belt in 2015, after which he was elevated to full titleholder status for the rematch, where he was stopped standing in the first round.
But Ceja has remained a player in the division. He beat Anselmo Moreno via third round knockout in 2017 and became mandatory challenger for Rey Vargas’ WBC belt, but lost that standing when he was upset by Franklin Manzanilla in May 2018, suffering a broken nose that stopped him after four.
Most recently, Ceja went to war with Guillermo Rigondeaux in June, and actually led on all three scorecards after seven rounds of action before Rigondeaux stopped him in the eighth.
What makes this matchup interesting, even with Ceja having two straight losses and being 2-3 in his last five, is that Ceja isn’t old, and he always comes to fight. Figueroa, again, is still a flawed, young fighter developing his game. How much further he can or will develop it remains to be seen, but right now he’s still a vulnerable guy as he climbs the ladder.
Ceja can punch, he comes to fight, and Figueroa will have to be ready for that. If Figueroa has maybe gotten ahead of himself, this could be a banana peel matchup. Figueroa’s big advantage will be in height and reach, which is something that served him well against Parejo, along with his incredible volume of punches thrown.
Figueroa, at 5’9” with a 72-inch reach, looked notably bigger than Parejo, who was listed at 5’8” with a 67-inch reach. Ceja is listed at 5’6” with just a 63½-inch reach, so obviously he’s going to want to get inside on Figueroa and make it a phone booth battle. If he doesn’t get close, the sheer amount of punches coming at him could make for a miserable night.