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Pacquiao vs Thurman undercard preview: Caleb Plant, Ugas-Figueroa, Lipinets, Nery featured on Saturday

There will be five undercard fights Saturday, two on FOX and three on pay-per-view.

Manny Pacquiao v Keith Thurman - Press Conference Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman are the main event this Saturday from Las Vegas, headlining on FOX pay-per-view, but there will be five undercard fights televised, two on FOX and then three more on the pay-per-view broadcast.

Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Caleb Plant vs Mike Lee

This will air as the main event of the FOX broadcast before the PPV. Plant (18-0, 10 KO) will be making the first defense of his IBF super middleweight title, which he won in January, beating Jose Uzcategui by decision in Los Angeles.

The 27-year-old Plant, nicknamed “Sweethands,” is a Tennessee native now based in Nevada, a talented fighter just entering his prime. He’s a stylist with some slickness, has enough pop to keep opponents honest, and has a personality, too. He’ll be the heavy favorite in this fight.

Lee (21-0, 11 KO) is a 32-year-old Chicago fighter and the underdog for a reason. Lee attended Notre Dame and did some low-level amateur boxing while at the school, so Top Rank signed him up with the intention to market him to the large and nationwide Notre Dame sports audience. It wasn’t the worst idea, but it never much went anywhere, even after they got him — a total unknown to the mainstream — in a Subway commercial with actual recognizable pro athletes.

Lee’s had some setbacks outside the ring over the years, but the base fact is this: he’s never fought anyone. For all intents and purposes, Lee is no different than a popular local club fighter in West Virginia or whatever, running up a record against weak opponents. The only reason he’s not seen that way is Top Rank hyped him up from the get-go.

Lee’s never actually fought at 168 pounds before, and will be coming down from 175 for this fight. Frankly, this is a shameful world title fight that the IBF have sanctioned, and should amount to little more than a showcase for Plant.

Efe Ajagba vs Ali Eren Demirezen

Victor Ortiz v John Molina Jr. Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

This will also air on FOX. Ajagba (10-0, 9 KO) is a promising heavyweight on the rise, a 25-year-old Nigerian now living in Texas, where he trains with the highly-respected Ronnie Shields. He took up boxing in 2011, and by 2014 was a bronze medalist at the Commonwealth Games, then won gold at the 2015 African Games. He qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where he lost in the quarterfinals to the experienced Ivan Dychko of Kazakhstan, who won Olympic bronze in both 2012 and 2016.

Ajagba is still a bit of a raw prospect, a work in progress, but he’s got a terrific trainer who raves about his work ethic and natural gifts. He’s got power for sure, only going past the second round once. But he’s probably most famous for being the winner of the shortest boxing match in history, when opponent Curtis Harper left the ring as soon as the opening bell sounded last August.

Demirezen (11-0, 10 KO) will look to upset the apple cart and make his own name at Ajagba’s expense. The 29-year-old fighter from Turkey was also a solid amateur and competed at Rio 2016, losing in the round of 16 to Filip Hrgovic of Croatia. He could be a live dog here, but Ajagba is considered the serious prospect, not Demirezen.

Luis Nery vs Juan Carlos Payano

Luis Nery v Shinsuke Yamanaka - WBC Bantamweight Title Bout Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

Nery (29-0, 23 KO) is maybe even more of a wrecking ball than his record would indicate. The 24-year-old Mexican bantamweight has had a rocky run in recent years, but there’s no doubt he can fight and that he’s a dangerous man.

Nery broke out about two years ago, when he went to Japan and stopped Shinsuke Yamanaka in the fourth round to win the WBC title. The win wasn’t without controversy, though, as Nery failed a post-fight drug test. Eventually, the WBC ruled that the test was failed due to contaminated food, and Nery kept the belt, but a rematch was ordered. Nery went back to Japan in March 2018, but failed to make weight for the defense. The fight went ahead anyway, with Nery stopping Yamanaka in two this time.

After two fights back home in Mexico, Nery made his US debut on March 16 as part of the Spence-Garcia pay-per-view card, where he dominated McJoe Arroyo and stopped him after four rounds.

Payano (21-2, 9 KO) is a former titleholder, too, a 35-year-old Dominican veteran who still has a bit left and remains relevant in the division. He beat Anselmo Moreno for the WBA bantamweight belt in 2014, then lost it in 2016 to Rau’shee Warren in a rematch. Both Payano-Warren fights were very competitive.

In 2018, Payano entered the World Boxing Super Series but was trounced in 70 seconds by Naoya Inoue in the opening round. It looked like maybe Payano was finished there, but he returned in March and routed prospect Damien Vazquez over eight rounds. Nery is no question the big favorite here — he should be able to overpower the vet — but Payano is no joke or anything.

Sergey Lipinets vs John Molina Jr

Lamont Peterson v Sergey Lipinets Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Lipinets (15-1, 11 KO) won the vacant IBF 140-pound title in Nov. 2017, beating Akihiro Kondo by decision in a competitive and entertaining fight, but he lost it in his first defense against Mikey Garcia in March 2018.

That said, he wasn’t totally uncompetitive with Garcia, having his moments despite genuinely losing the fight. After the loss to Garcia, though, he moved up to 147, and he struggled in an Aug. 2018 win over journeyman Erick Bone, taking a majority decision on scores of 95-95, 98-92, and 99-91, with the only one of them even close to reality being the even score of judge Robin Taylor.

It seemed as though maybe Lipinets wasn’t quite built for 147, but he looked better, sharper, and stronger in his March 24 win over Lamont Peterson, stopping Peterson — also a former 140-pound titleholder — in the 10th round of a highly entertaining battle.

The question now is how much that win really meant. Was it Lipinets settling in at 147? Did he just have an off-night against Bone? Or, given that Peterson announced his retirement immediately after that fight, was Lamont Peterson simply done, despite a good effort that night?

Molina (30-8, 24 KO) is no world-beater by any means, but at 36, he’s still the sort of fighter who can make it a difficult night for anyone but the real top fighters. He’s just 3-5 in his last eight, but he’s been competitive in most of those bouts, and he scored a big upset in 2016, beating Ruslan Provodnikov. He was soundly beaten in 2015 by a dialed-in Adrien Broner, and by Terence Crawford in 2017, but Lipinets has a style that Molina has seen many times, and one he’s comfortable against.

If nothing else, this should be an entertaining scrap. Lipinets is best when he’s attacking, and while Molina does often try to box before brawling, he has no problems throwing down, either.

Yordenis Ugas vs Omar Figueroa Jr

Yordenis Ugas v Ray Robinson Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

This one is the most interesting fight of the undercard, at least on paper. Ugas (23-4, 11 KO) and Figueroa (28-0-1, 19 KO) have very different styles, very different approaches, and very different pro experiences.

Ugas, 33, is a Cuban now based in Miami, and had some buzz as a 140-pound prospect in the early part of this decade, but that crashed down after a shocking ShoBox loss to Johnny Garcia in March 2012. He got back on the horse with a few wins, but then in 2014 lost back-to-back fights to Emanuel Robles and Amir Imam, and he looked like a totally busted prospect.

After sitting out just over two years, Ugas got the call to face undefeated welterweight prospect Jamal James. It was expected that James would win, and without much trouble, and go about his climb up the ladder, while Ugas would settle into the role of journeyman and pro opponent.

Instead, Ugas won a convincing decision. Six weeks later, he was called on to face another undefeated prospect, Bryant Perrella. He stopped Perrella in four. Suddenly, no one wanted to match their prospects with Ugas — quite understandably, mind you.

So Ugas stayed busy, racking up six more wins through 2018 before landing a title shot in March of this year against WBC titlist Shawn Porter. Ugas gave Porter hell that night, and very, very easily could have been declared the winner and the new titleholder. But two of the three cards went to Porter. Still, it was a clear sign that Ugas wasn’t just a guy feasting on lesser opposition. He had to be taken seriously at 147.

Ugas isn’t getting any younger, certainly, and is at what should be the tail end of his real prime years. But he’s also got further motivation now, as the Porter fight proved he can hang with top guys at welterweight.

Leo Santa Cruz v Rafael Rivera - Media Workouts Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

That said, Figueroa could be a whole other ball of wax. The 29-year-old from Weslaco, Texas, has been something of an enigma in his boxing career. There’s long been talk behind the scenes that he simply isn’t a dedicated fighter, that this is something he’s good at and does as a job far more than it is any great passion, that he lacks the burning desire to even attempt true greatness.

And yes, he’s had some weight issues over the years that seem to speak to that chatter. Originally a lightweight, he picked up a world title at 135 and never lost it, instead vacating to move up to 140, then he missed weight for a 2015 fight with Ricky Burns. That fight went on anyway, and Figueroa won the decision. Seven months later, he weighed in at 151 pounds for a win over Antonio DeMarco.

And then Figueroa didn’t fight again for about a year and a half, returning in July 2017 to beat Robert Guerrero at welterweight, trouncing the veteran in three rounds. And then he didn’t fight again for about a year and a half, returning in February of this year to win a decision over John Molina Jr.

So this is a pretty quick turnaround by Figueroa’s recent standards. The other thing is, and this has to be noted to balance the other thing: watching him fight, you’d never simply guess at the talk about him. He’s all action, knows one way to fight, and that’s coming straight at an opponent. He rarely appears to be giving anything less than a truly full effort.

Style-wise, you’ve got Ugas’ skills against Figueroa’s aggression, and that can make for a good fight. It’s also an important one at 147 — a win could very easily lead to a title shot for either guy.

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