Ringside Seat: Pedraza and Navarrete set for unique opportunities

Boxing’s first week back is in the books. It began with Shakur Stevenson taking care of Felix Caraballo in six rounds and was capped off with a 10th-round disqualification victory for Jessie Magdaleno. The back-and-forth battle between young featherweights Adam Lopez and Luis Coria, which saw Lopez earn a majority decision, opened some eyes.

Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum was one of the few inside the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas to watch all of these bouts live. For him, it was one of the most unusual fight atmospheres he’s ever been a part of.

“We all sort of liked it,” Arum said. “I was sitting on one end of a bench, Carl [Moretti, VP of boxing operations for Top Rank] on the other, about 7 feet away; 6 feet in back of us was [Stevenson’s manager] James Prince and [Stevenson’s co-promoter] Antonio Leonard. We were able to converse, but from a distance.”

Arum added that as the night went on, everyone got acclimated to their setting.

“Once you got used to it, it was OK,” said Arum. “Particularly me — I had a monitor next to me, so I could see what they were doing on TV.”

For now, this is the new normal, and it continues into Top Rank’s second week of fights. After highly touted bantamweight Joshua Greer was upset by Mike Plania on Tuesday, there are two more cards on tap — Thursday night in Vegas, and a Saturday card from Mexico City.

Here’s what you need to keep up with a busy week in boxing:

Thursday

In boxing, there really isn’t such a thing as a definitive “must-win situation,” but for former two-time champion Jose Pedraza, the stakes are certainly high.

Pedraza (26-3, 13 KOs) finds himself at a crossroads in his career entering Thursday’s main event against Mikkel LesPierre (22-1-1, 10 KOs). Coming off a rather listless decision loss to Jose Zepeda in September, he enters this 10-round junior welterweight contest in a fight to stay relevant.

“I have to win this fight to keep my status as a world-class fighter. But not only this fight — I have to keep on winning because I want to fight for a world title at 140,” said Pedraza through a translator.

Pedraza said he felt that the loss to Zepeda, who will face former IBF 140-pound belt holder Ivan Baranchyk in July, was just a bad night at the office.

“Two days before that fight, I felt great,” Pedraza said. “I had great conditioning, but I think I may have overtrained a little bit. That’s not an excuse, though — Zepeda was the better man that night.”

Pedraza said despite being locked down in Puerto Rico, he had a full, productive camp. At 31, he isn’t old, but he can ill afford another loss at this stage of his career. A victory cements Pedraza as a very serviceable opponent at 140 and opens the door for bigger opportunities.

“I’m looking for a world title shot. Maybe it’s not going to be right away, but that’s what I’m going for,” said Pedraza, well aware of the landscape dominated by two unified titlists. “I really don’t care which champion I face: Jose Ramirez — he’s WBO, WBC champion; Josh Taylor — he is WBA, IBF champion. They’re both with Top Rank.”

Pedraza’s hope is that both Ramirez and Taylor, should they get past their upcoming mandatory defenses, will meet to crown an undisputed champion. Chances are they could both move up to welterweight soon after that fight, and if Pedraza keeps winning, he could put himself in the mix.

“It doesn’t matter who I face,” he said. “The reason I moved up to 140 was to become a three-division world champion.”

Fighter to watch: Gabe Flores Jr.

The city of Stockton, California, is near and dear to the heart of Gabe Flores Jr. (17-0, 6 KOs) and his father. It’s their hometown, and it’s part of their core identity. When Artur Beterbiev and Jerwin Ancajas — two world champions — were the headliners at the Stockton Arena last May, Flores was the real attraction to that audience.

Even before Thursday’s fight against Josec Ruiz (21-2-3 ,14 KOs), the Flores family moved to Las Vegas in February. The reasoning was simple: They didn’t want to be big fish in a small pond. While it was difficult to get quality sparring in Stockton, there’s a much deeper talent pool in Vegas.

“I miss it, but to be great you have to make certain sacrifices,” Flores Jr. said. “All my family is out there, but those are sacrifices you have to make — I recognized that. So I was willing to move, and I can already see it’s going to help me.”

Originally, the elder Flores wanted to make the trek back in 2017, but his son wasn’t quite ready to leave home just yet.

“Gabe’s going to get good work out here, for sure, great work,” said the elder Flores, who trains Gabe Jr. “The altitude, the heat, everything. It’s perfect for what he needs to accomplish.”

Flores Jr. was just 17 when he turned pro in 2017 (at the time, he was the youngest fighter ever signed by Top Rank). At this stage, he is still looking to grow and mature physically. He has above-average speed and has a good boxing IQ. What’s missing is pop on his punches, which could come in time.

“This is his first 10-rounder,” his father pointed out. “We want that world title shot, soon. So we’ve got to work.”

The full card:

  • Jose Pedraza vs. Mikkel LesPierre, 10 rounds, junior welterweights

  • Gabriel Flores Jr. vs. Josec Ruiz, 10 rounds, lightweights

  • David Kaminsky vs. Clay Collard, 6 rounds, super middleweights

  • Frevian Gonzalez vs. Jose Martinez, 4 rounds, super featherweights

  • Robert Rodriguez vs. Adrian Servin, 6 rounds, bantamweights

  • Victor Rodriguez vs. Justin Horsley, 4 rounds, super lightweights

Predictions

Pedraza vs. LesPierre: Pedraza understands that a loss really sets him back, and he should be able to out-point LesPierre over 10 rounds. LesPierre is a competent fighter but doesn’t have the firepower to really threaten Pedraza.

Flores Jr. vs. Ruiz: Ruiz has a good-looking record on paper, but much of that was built up in Honduras. Given his experience and the fact that he’s still just 25, he should be durable and press Flores for a few rounds. But the boxing ability of Flores should carry him to a decision. I’ll be watching to see if Flores will start to punch with a bit more authority.

Saturday

From Mexico City, reigning WBO junior featherweight belt holder Emanuel Navarrete (31-1, 27 KOs) faces Uriel Lopez (13-13-1, 6 KOs) in a non-title bout at featherweight. It’s not clear how long Navarette, who has been one of the most active world titlists since winning his belt from Isaac Dogboe in December 2018, will be a 122-pounder.

“We are thinking about maybe fighting this year at 122, then in 2021, going to 126,” said Navarrete through a translator. “As each fight passes, I feel that it’s getting more and more difficult for me to make 122, because I’m still developing and growing physically.

“So yeah, it’s becoming more difficult to make the weight. My body is asking me to move up.”

But there is one particular thing that would keep him at junior featherweight — a fight against bantamweight king Naoya Inoue, if Inoue moves up.

“In reality, that’s one of the fights that I think would keep me at 122, but it has to be soon,” Navarrete said “I cannot be waiting around to see if he’s going to come up to 122 or not. If not, I will seriously consider moving up to 126 pounds.”

The full card:

  • Emanuel Navarrete vs. Uriel Lopez, 10 rounds, junior featherweights

  • Carlos Ornelas vs. Edwin Palomares, 10 rounds, featherweights

  • Sergio Chirino Sanchez vs. Gustavo Alan Pina, 8 rounds, featherweights

  • Ivan Armando Garcia vs. Roberto Palomares, 6 rounds, flyweights

Prediction

Navarrete-Lopez: This is a classic stay-busy/tuneup bout. Navarette, who has a world title at 122, is engaging in a non-title bout against a .500 fighter in Lopez, who comes in on a three-bout losing streak. A victory by Lopez would be a monumental upset. Navarrete by mid-round KO.

Editor’s note: this portion of the preview was published ahead of Tuesday’s Top Rank Boxing card.

Tuesday

The week kicks off with a card headlined by bantamweight contender Joshua Greer Jr. (22-2-1, 12 KOs) taking on Mike Plania (23-1, 12 KOs).

Greer hails from Chicago and is certainly well aware of the current world events and civil unrest that has taken place throughout the country. But he says it hasn’t been difficult to focus on his upcoming assignment.

“I’m a person that tries to adapt to any situation that I’m in,” Greer said. “People are fed up; the pandemic put a lot of people into depression — it took away jobs. It has people financially unstable, on top of the things that happened against African Americans.

“In the midst of everything, I continued to stay focused, do what I’ve got to do because I believe the way I can help my [community] is through success,” he explained. “I’ve got a mission, and I’m going to do that, so I can be a help to my people and not just talk.”

Greer’s past two bouts have been close affairs versus Nikolai Potapov (which he won by majority decision) and Antonio Nieves (which he won by unanimous decision). While he came out victorious, those two fights offered a bit of a reality check for Greer, who had knocked out his previous seven opponents.

“I learned a lot,” Greer said. “I watched those fights over and over. I listened to the commentators. I listened to what Tim Bradley had to say, I listened to what Andre Ward had to say, and I learned from those things. A lot of it was very true — they had key points that I needed to work on, and I worked on developing those things.

“Not everyone is going to say everything in a nice way; I didn’t even grow up like that. My family didn’t talk to me in a nice way, so I have no problem with that,” Greer continued. “I have to humble myself and take the lesson out of what they’re saying.”

Greer is rated No. 1 by the WBO, whose titleholder is John Riel Casimero. Greer also is ranked second by the IBF, whose belt is held by Naoya Inoue. Inoue and Casimero are expected to meet in a unification bout — which was initially scheduled for April — but everything about fighting and matchmaking is complicated by the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“Casimero’s in Vegas, right now, he’s waiting on Inoue. We don’t know how the world’s going to work. I feel like waiting around — it’s pointless,” Greer said. “Right after this fight, me and Casimero should fight for the title.

“But I understand what [Casimero’s advisor] Sean Gibbons and his team are thinking. If they’re going to take a risk, they’re going to take a risk for a bigger fight — and for more money. They’re holding out hope for Inoue, or whatever, but if he wants it, let’s get it on.”

Catching up with: Giovani Santillan

The co-feature on Tuesday has undefeated welterweight Giovani Santillan (25-0, 15 KOs) facing Antonio DeMarco (33-8-1, 24 KOs) in a 10-rounder. For Santillan, a southpaw from San Diego, this is his first fight under his new co-promotional agreement with Top Rank and Thompson Boxing.

Santillan is a well-rounded fighter with solid fundamentals and above-average power. He hopes to make a statement versus DeMarco, who has faced some of boxing’s best and has proven to be incredibly durable. Only Adrien Broner and Edwin Valero have stopped him. In DeMarco’s last fight, he went the distance against Jamal James, who, like Santillan, is a young contender at 147.

“This is a chance for me to start something new,” Santillan said. “I’m happy for this opportunity — the sky’s the limit. I think the goal for us is to show that we deserve to be there.”

Santillan stayed in shape during the quarantine by setting up a heavy bag in his backyard. He also had enough space to do mitt work and shadow box with his coach. Now 28 and at his physical apex, he hopes to land a title shot at 147 as soon as possible. He has no preference on whom he faces for a belt.

“I think it would be amazing to fight any one of them. It would be a great opportunity. I think I’m ready to show the world that I’m there.”

The full card:

  • Bantamweight: Mike Plania def. Joshua Greer Jr. by majority decision (96-92, 97-91, 94-94)

  • Welterweight: Giovani Santillan def. Antonio DeMarco by majority decision (96-94, 96-94, 95-95)

  • Supper middleweight: Nikoloz Sekhniashvili def. Isiah Jones by unanimous decision (60-54, 60-54, 59-55)

  • Welterweight: Bobirzhan Mominov def. Cameron Krael by unanimous decision (58-55, 58-55, 57-56)

  • Heavyweight: Hector Perez def. Juan Torres by unanimous decision (60-54, 59-55, 59-55)

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