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Leo Santa Cruz & Company in L.A. in February

David A. Avila

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Leo Santa Cruz

Though born in Michoacan, Mexico the lanky figure of Leo Santa Cruz was raised in the boxing gyms of Los Angeles like his brothers.

Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs) returns to his adopted home to defend the WBA featherweight world title against another Michoacan-born fighter Miguel Flores (23-2) on February 16. The co-main features L.A. fighter John Molina versus Omar Figueroa and Fox will televise from Microsoft Theater in LA.

Both of these bouts should be battles.

Decades ago, literally down the street, fighters like Santa Cruz (pictured with his young son David) and Molina would have drawn vibrant crowds at the Olympic Auditorium and front page news from local newspapers like the Los Angeles Mirror, L.A. Herald, L.A. Times or L.A. Examiner. Boxing was big business before the arrival of the Dodgers in 1958 and Lakers in 1960.

Los Angeles is firmly staunched as the entertainment capital of the world and the center of both the music and film industry. Residents have multiple options for entertainment.

But this year, the sport of prizefighting will be showcased almost every week with more boxing than ever before in the history of the sport.

Premier Boxing Champions on FOX will be bringing dozens of these shows this year kicking it off with Santa Cruz and Flores at the Microsoft Theater in downtown L.A.

Conga Room

On Thursday, Santa Cruz, Flores and Molina arrived at the Conga Room for the press conference. If you know anything about this trio it’s that all three are bangers. Big time bangers.

Santa Cruz followed the footsteps of his brothers Jose Armando and Roberto Santa Cruz who both fought at super lightweight. Leo arrived with his mouth full of braces and it seemed to cause problems whenever he fought.

But he could fight at an abnormal pace and those lanky arms would find holes in the opposition’s defense.

The first time Santa Cruz fought in California he showcased his hyper frenetic style in defeating a fighter named Elton Dharry at Morongo Casino in November 2007. A little more than a month later Santa Cruz fought on a freezing cold night at a swap meet near Los Angeles. He stopped his opponent there in two rounds.

He always showed ability but for some reason only boxing manager Cameron Dunkin saw ability in Santa Cruz. Promoters were reluctant to sign the bantamweight who never stopped punching.

Another two years passed with Santa Cruz beating everyone placed in front of him. But in August 2009, at Pala Casino, he fought toe-to-toe with an extremely durable Robert DaLuz who despite his record was a rough and tough fighter out of Providence, Rhode Island. It was a brutal affair with Santa Cruz emerging the winner.

The next three Santa Cruz fights took place at Commerce Casino and it seemed he had figured out the formula to success. He was like a fighting machine and every movement was precise and effective in winning all three fights by knockout.

Fans at the glitzy casino near East L.A. could detect a champion.

Now, 10 years later, here he is ready to defend his featherweight title a third time. He’s already captured world titles in the super bantamweight and bantamweight divisions.

“I’m not looking past Miguel Flores. I have to be positive and always look toward the future. I’m not looking back,” said Santa Cruz at the press conference. “I’m just training hard to get that win and become the best at 126-pounds. First that means beating Miguel Flores.”

Flores, who like Santa Cruz was born in Michoacan, Mexico, now fights out of Houston, Texas. He’s a self-professed slugger and plucky.

“I’m excited to be starting off the year with this great opportunity. I’m going to give the writers an easy task, because on February 16 I’m going to give them the Upset of the Year and the Fight of the Year on the same night,” said Flores, 26.

John John

Covina’s John Molina has another surefire foe in front of him next month when he faces undefeated Omar Figueroa in a welterweight showdown between sluggers.

Molina last fought a year ago in a crazy back and forth battle against Ivan Redkach that saw both fighters hit the floor. In the end, Molina scored a knockout win in the fourth round that had fans delirious.

No fight is ever over until the final bell rings with Molina.

“I saw Figueroa say that he’s not going to see me get out of the fourth round. Well he’s not going to see that, because he’s going to be asleep,” said Molina.

Don’t expect either of the featured bouts to go the distance. It’s a promoter’s delight.

“Southern California has long been a hotbed of slugfests between great Mexican-American fighters, and with Leo Santa Cruz and Miguel Flores, plus Omar Figueroa vs. John Molina Jr., we have the makings of another all-out war on February 16. This is going to be a great night,” said Tom Brown, of TGB Promotions.

Tickets begin at $30 and can be purchased through AXS.com

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Luis Feliciano and Blair Cobbs Remain Undefeated in Desert Showdowns

David A. Avila

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Luis-Feliciano-and-Blair-Cobbs-Remain-Undefeated-in-Desert-Showdowns

INDIO, Calif.-After years of honing and crafting their combat skills several undefeated prizefighters met in the desert and a pair emerged victorious – one by knockout and the other by decision on Thursday night.

Puerto Rican super lightweight prospect Luis Feliciano (13-0, 8 KOs) walked into the Fantasy Springs Casino arena to boos and hisses from the crowd, but departed the winner of the NABF super lightweight title by unanimous decision over Mexican challenger Genaro Gamez (9-1,6 KOs).

It wasn’t an easy task for Feliciano (in the black trunks) who was the naturally bigger and taller fighter. Gamez began his pro career as a super featherweight but could not make lighter weight divisions and found himself as a super lightweight.

Just using the eye test, a person could see Gamez was physically a smaller fighter. But when it comes to weight there are no true height sizes. And once the punches flowed the action was torrid.

Feliciano trains in South El Monte, Calif. with boxing wizard Ben Lira, and he learned his craft well. From the opening bell he zipped body shots underneath Gamez’s guard repeatedly. The San Diego fighter never allowed Feliciano to enjoy too much success and often retaliated every big hit with one or two of his own.

After several overhand rights and uppercut body shots by Feliciano, one connected solidly in the torso of Gamez who buckled severely but did not go down. Feliciano noticed immediately and increased the attack. It was the crucial moment of the fight.

For three ensuing rounds Feliciano controlled the fight. It looked like the Puerto Rican fighter might dominate and win easily, but in the fifth round, Gamez took a stand and reminded everyone just why he was undefeated. The San Diego fighter opened up with three-punch combinations and shots to the head and to the body. The momentum shifted to Gamez.

Perhaps Feliciano was told by his corner to stop going backwards. In round six Feliciano slipped into his most offensive mode and unfurled three-punch combinations with a steely look on his face that seemed to say whatever happens, happens, I’m not going backwards.

For the remainder of the fight Feliciano was steadfast in his attacks and refused to yield despite the many attempts by Gamez to regain control.

After 10 rounds all three judges scored in favor of Feliciano 99-91 and 98-92 twice and the Puerto Rican became the NABF titlist.

“That was a very tough fight. He came to fight,” said Feliciano. Conditioning was the difference. I was the stronger fighter in the end and no disrespect to Gamez, he was very good.”

Cobbs Wins NABF Title

Blair Cobbs (12-0-1, 8 KOs) traded knockdowns with Steve Villalobos (11-1-1, 9 KOs) then slipped into overdrive to knock out the local Indio fighter with a blinding combination in the ninth round of their NABF junior welterweight title fight.

It was slow going at first as Cobbs boxed and moved laterally from side to side and was racking up most of the rounds until Villalobos caught him with a combination and floored the Philadelphia-born speedster in the sixth round.

Cobbs got up and both fired rapid combinations with a right hook stopping Villalobos assault. But it was the best round for the local fighter whose crowd of fans roared loudly sensing a stoppage.

“I got nailed,” said Cobbs. “But when I landed that right I could sense his energy go down.”

Blair Cobbs on the attack

Cobbs returned to his box and move strategy that had worked effectively for five rounds. Then, with 30 seconds remaining in the seventh round, Cobbs unfurled a sizzling combination that took the steam out of Villalobos.

In the eighth round Cobbs stopped moving rapidly and was instead looking for openings and unloaded three successive straight left – right hook combinations. All connected and Villalobos looked for a solution to stop the Philadelphia fighter’s momentum. None could be found.

Cobbs increased his attack and connected with a three-punch combination and a follow up right hook that floored Villalobos. The Mexican fighter got up and Cobbs returned with a right uppercut and left cross combination that sent Villalobos violently down near the ropes. Referee Eddie Hernandez didn’t bother to count and wisely stopped the fight at 1:20 of round nine for a Cobbs knockout win. He also retains the NABF junior title in the welterweight division.

“I tried to place my shots and once I found it, boom. game over,” said Cobbs. “Villalobos came and brought his A game and I respect him. I wish nothing but the best for him.”

Other Bouts

A super welterweight battle between undefeated Richard Acevedo (5-0-1, 5 KOs) and Connecticut’s Jose Rivera (8-4-1, 5 KOs) ended in a split draw after six back and forth rounds. Acevedo started quickly against the southpaw but Rivera could not miss with the right hook and rallied back into the fight. No knockdowns were scored but each had their moments in the six-round fight. Scores were 59-55 Acevedo, 59-55 Rivera, and 57-57 for the draw. Rivera looked much better than his record indicated.

Mexico’s Raul Curiel (7-0, 5 KOs) upper-cutted his way to victory over Florida’s Alphonso Black (8-7-1, 4 KOs) by knockout in the sixth and final round. Though Black was never knocked down Curiel was unloading six-punch combinations with impunity. Referee Eddie Hernandez stopped the super welterweight fight at 51 seconds of the sixth round.

“I felt good today, very strong,” said Curiel. “My opponent was honestly strong. He had a heavy hand.”

Curiel is trained by Freddie Roach and has shown obvious improvement in his combination punching and timing. Black showed a sturdy chin but was absorbing multiple combinations. In the fifth round Curiel connected with four consecutive left hooks to the body and head. The fighter from Tamaulipas is managed by Frank Espinoza.

“It was my first fight at 154, but I knew how to handle his punches,” Curiel said.

Nicholas Sullivan out of Norfolk, Virginia won his pro debut in a tug of war type of fight with Mexico’s Jose Palacios (1-4) by unanimous decision after four rounds in a lightweight match. Sullivan cruised through the first round with his speed, but subsequently Palacios began timing the attacks and the fight got closer each round. Both fighters connected but Sullivan was more accurate and won on all three cards 39-37 and 40-36 twice.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Remembering Jose ‘Mantequilla’ Napoles (1940?-2019)

Arne K. Lang

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Remembering-Jose-Mantequilla-Napoles-1940?-2019

The passing of Jose Napoles last Friday (Aug. 16) caused hardly a ripple in the English-speaking world. This says something about the current state of boxing — how it has slipped out of the mainstream, at least in the United States – and something about how quickly important fighters of yesteryear fade from view and become little more than a footnote in the sports pages when they leave us.

The record book says that Jose Napoles was born on April 13, 1940, but that may warrant an asterisk. Like many Cuban exiles who made their mark in sports, Napoles was widely considered to be older than his listed age. A 1974 article in Sports Illustrated said he was 34 going on 40. But regardless of his true birthdate, there is no question that Napoles was a special talent. The noted Scottish boxing historian Matt McGrain named “Mantequilla” the fourth best welterweight of all time, surpassed only by the two Sugar Rays, Robinson and Leonard, and Jack Britton. He was ushered into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1990.

Purportedly 113-1 as an amateur, Napoles turned pro as a featherweight and had his first 21 pro fights in Havana. Then Fidel Castro came to power and outlawed professional sports which he associated with the depredations of capitalism, a plaything for the wealthy. To profit from his talent, Napoles would need to go elsewhere. He defected to Mexico, settling in Mexico City.

In Mexico he found an appreciative audience. In time he developed a following that surpassed the top native-born fighters. His two bouts with Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez attracted crowds of 17,000-plus to the LA Forum including thousands from Mexico, many arriving on chartered planes. Lopez, born on a Utah Indian reservation, had a good following too, but nothing like Napoles. When he fought at the Forum, cries of “may-he-co, may-he-co” drowned out the ring announcer.

Capture 1

Napoles sported a 54-4 record when he made his U.S. debut at the Forum underneath a non-title fight between Jesus Pimentel and Chuchu Castillo. Overall he fought 10 fights at the LA sports palace, six of which were sanctioned for the WBA and WBC welterweight titles at a time when these were the only world sanctioning bodies with a significant footprint.

Napoles won the title here with a dominant performance over Curtis Cokes who was unfit to continue after 13 rounds. The rematch in Mexico City was a carbon copy, only three rounds shorter. Among his other victims were Emile Griffith and Hedgemon Lewis who he defeated twice.

About that nickname: “Mantequilla” means butter in Spanish. Napoles, who methodically dismantled his opponents, never changing his stone-faced expression, was said to be as smooth as butter. But he was more than a technician. He flattened Ernie Lopez with a vicious uppercut in their second meeting. Indian Red was unconscious before he hit the canvas.

A “butter knife” would have been a more appropriate nickname, a very sharp butter knife, said some of the wags, but actually Napoles was often more sliced up than the men he beat; his one flaw as a fighter was that he was prone to cuts.

He lost a fight in Mexico to the capable L.C. Morgan on cuts, a loss he avenged with a second-round knockout. Not quite four years later, he lost his title to Billy Backus on cuts. He was bleeding from cuts over both eyes, and bleeding badly over the left, when the fight was stopped in the fourth round.

Canastota’s Backus was Carmen Basilio’s nephew. The fight, which some say was stopped prematurely, was held in Syracuse, Backus’s backyard. This was one of the great upsets of the 1970s. A few years earlier, Backus had retired on the heels of three straight losses, returning to the sport after being laid off from his job as a construction worker.

Napoles, a ladies man, had a reputation for being lax in his training. “He liked to observe the dawn at the end, not the beginning, of the day,” wrote Tex Maule. But he trained fiercely for his rematch with Billy Backus who was a bloody mess when the referee interceded in the eighth round. In hindsight, said several reporters, Napoles didn’t lose his title to Backus when they first met; he merely let Backus borrow it.

Napoles’ propensity to cut prompted his management to reach out to Angelo Dundee who worked Napoles’ corner in several big fights including the rematch with Backus. In his early days, before he established his bonafides as an elite trainer, Angelo was primarily known as an elite cutman. He acquired this reputation working with the aforementioned Basilio, one of the great bleeders of all time.

In February of 1974, Napoles moved up in weight to challenge Argentina’s renowned middleweight champion Carlos Monzon. This was too big a reach for an aging fighter who had begun his career as a featherweight. The bout, held in Puteaux, a suburb of Paris, ended with Napoles sitting glassy eyed on his stool after six rounds.

There would be four more successful defenses of his welterweight title before it was sheared from him by England’s John Stracey (TKO 6) in what would be his final fight. He finished 81-7 with 54 KOs.

In retirement, Napoles regularly attended WBC events even as his health deteriorated. In his end days, noted Robert Ecksel in an obit for the International Boxing Research Organization, he suffered from an assortment of maladies including diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, and consumption. Moreover, as is common with so many ex-boxers of an advanced age, his behavior had become increasingly erratic. “In his days of crisis he becomes impulsive and it’s difficult to stabilize him,” his wife Berta said in a 2017 interview with a Mexican paper.

Jose Angel “Mantequilla” Napoles died with his children and grandchildren at his side. Among the mourners at his memorial service were the family of the late, great Salvador Sanchez. Napoles had attended his memorial service; they were reciprocating. John Stracey sent a floral arrangement and a note that said it was an honor to have shared the ring with him.

May he rest in peace.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 61: Puerto Rico vs Mexico and a Weekend Look-Ahead

David A. Avila

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Avila-Perspective-Chap-61-Puerto-Rico-vs-Mexico-and-a-Weekend-Look-Ahead

Southern California loads up with multiple fight cards this weekend.

It’s Puerto Rico versus Mexico when Luis Feliciano (12-0, 8 KOs) meets Genaro Gamez (9-0, 6 KOs) in the main event at Fantasy Springs Casino on Thursday Aug. 22. It can be seen on RingTV.com and Facebook Watch via the Golden Boy Fight Night page.

“I know all about the rivalry,” said Feliciano who trains in South El Monte, Calif. “I’ve heard about it all my life.”

As long as I can remember, whenever you put standout Boricuas against standout Mexicans, it’s like adding gasoline to a fire. Just stand back. This year alone two Puerto Ricans with world titles were tripped up by Mexican challengers.

But the opposite can happen just as easily.

The first time I actually saw this heated rivalry in action was back in 1981 when Puerto Rican great Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez met Mexico’s equally great Salvador Sanchez in a featherweight duel in Las Vegas.

Gomez, at the time, was considered by many as the best fighter pound for pound. He walked into the Caesars Palace indoor arena with 32 consecutive knockouts in 32 wins. After fighting to a draw in his pro debut in Panama, he made sure that his fights did not end in a decision by brutally knocking out everyone in front of him.

Sanchez was the featherweight champion defending against Gomez who was moving up a weight division after cleaning out the super bantamweights. The Mexican fighter from the small farming town of Tianguistenco trained in Mexico City with several of the top fighters of his country. One of his teammates, Carlos Zarate, was wiped out by Gomez two years earlier by getting hit after the bell for a knockdown. He never recovered and it left ill feelings with Mexican fighters, including Sanchez.

The stage was set when they met on August 21, 1981, exactly 38 years ago today. Gomez walked in with a salsa band and Sanchez with a band of mariachis. Both bands dueled with each other. I laughed when I saw that.

Sanchez walked in as the underdog and the two warriors erupted at the opening bell. It was Sanchez who floored Gomez in the first round and looked like he would finish the Boricua. But Gomez got up and would not quit. Still, it didn’t look like the Puerto Rican champion would make it through the second round. He did and more.

Both fighters exchanged punishing blows, daring the other to take each other’s big shots. In one round they exchanged left hooks as if challenging the other to see whose punches were more powerful. Slowly the fight developed in Sanchez’s favor, and in the eighth round the Mexican fighter connected with a combination and down went Gomez. Though Sanchez would win by knockout that day and go on to gain more victories against three more fighters, he would die in a car crash almost a year later in Mexico.

Gomez would go on to knock out several Mexican fighters, including Juan Meza, Juan Antonio Lopez, Roberto Rubaldino and then the coup de grace, the epic knockout win over Lupe Pintor. Gomez would go on to win featherweight and super featherweight world titles. But his fight with Sanchez further ignited the future battles between Puerto Rico and Mexico.

Here we are 38 years later and the wars between fighters from these two countries are still captivating.

Puerto Rico vs Mexico

Feliciano, 26, ironically trains in the heart of Mexican style boxing and is trained by Ben Lira. Though he was raised in Milwaukee, he has spent the past two years in Southern California getting familiar with the pressure style that Mexican fighters impose on their opponents. He’s sparred and fought numerous times against all styles in California, New York and Puerto Rico.

“I feel I’m more than ready for this fight,” said Feliciano recently at the South El Monte boxing gym. “Gamez is a good fighter and that’s what I want to prove myself against, good fighters.”

Gamez, 24, began his pro career as a super featherweight but grew into the lightweight and now super lightweight division. Despite the changes in weight divisions, the San Diego-based prizefighter remains undefeated. He had a strong amateur career and, despite the varying weight divisions, Gamez (pictured with his promoter Oscar De La Hoya) has shown good boxing skills and a sharp boxing IQ.

Both fighters are undefeated and eager to move to the next level. On paper it’s a dead even fight. But you never know when Puerto Ricans fight Mexicans. It can end suddenly.

In a co-main event, Las Vegas-based Blair Cobbs (11-0-1, 7 KOs) meets undefeated Steve Villalobos (11-0-1, 9 KOs) of Mount Vernon, Washington in a 10-round welterweight clash.

Cobbs, a southpaw, has endured a virtual gamut of opposition and the Las Vegas-based fighter, originally from Philadelphia, has emerged unscathed. He signed with Golden Boy and continues to show improvement aside from natural toughness.

Others on the fight card are Mexico’s Raul Curiel (6-0) fighting Alphonso Black in a super welterweight match and lightweights Kevin Ventura (10-0) battling Brian Gallegos (6-1) in a six-round bout. Several other fights are planned.

Carlos Zarate, the great Mexican bantamweight world champion, will be a special guest at the fight card. Zarate, who had 63 knockouts in 66 wins, will also be available for photos and autographs at 6 p.m.

Doors open at 4:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25.

Costa Mesa

On Thursday, Aug. 22, a Roy Englebrecht Events boxing card at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, Calif. features several young prospects including a middleweight showdown between Malcolm McAllister (9-3) and Rowdy Legend Montgomery (5-2-1) in the main event.

Others on the boxing card include Sergio Gonzalez, Jorge Soto, Israel Mercado, Mike Fowler and several others.

Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information call (949) 760-3131.

Corona

On Friday, Aug. 23, Thompson Boxing Promotions presents a summer outdoor event at Omega Products International. In the main event, bantamweight prospect Saul Sanchez (12-0) meets Edwin Rodriguez (10-5-1) in a 10-round fight.

Sanchez, 22, returns to the site of his last battle that took place this past May and ended in a knockout win for the Pacoima, Calif. prizefighter. He’s trained by Joel Diaz and Antonio Diaz and has shown improvement in each of his fights since February 2016.

“I think it’s great that I’m fighting in the same place as such great champions,” Sanchez said. “I put in a lot of work for this camp to make sure I win convincingly. I know Rodriguez is looking to pull the upset, but it’s not going to happen.”

Rodriguez is a tough Puerto Rican who has toppled a couple of undefeated fighters and has never been knocked out. He also briefly held a regional title and has never been an easy foe for anyone.

A welterweight showdown pits Kazakhstan’s Bobirzhan Mominov (10-0, 8 KOs) against Puerto Rico’s Javier Flores (14-2, 12 KOs) in an eight-round fight.

Mominov, 27, fights out of Florida and his last fight was in Costa Mesa this past March.

Flores, 33, is a southpaw slugger who has fought some tough competition. It’s an interesting welterweight matchup.

Others on the fight card that begins at 8 p.m. are heavyweight prospect Oscar Torrez, welterweight Luis Lopez and super featherweight Sebastian Salinas. For more information call (951) 737-7447.

Pico Rivera

Red Boxing International presents another lengthy boxing card at Pico Rivera Sports Arena on Saturday, Aug. 24.

In a lightweight headliner, Angel Flores (5-0, 4 KOs) risks his undefeated record against veteran Roberto Almazan (9-11, 4 KOs) in a six-round bout. Both Flores and Almazan previously fought at the outdoor arena located by the San Gabriel River.

A flyweight matchup pits Axel Aragon Vega (12-2-1, 7 KOs) against Giovanni Noriega (2-4-2) in a six-round fight. Vega, 19, fights out of Ensenada, Mexico and Noriega, 24, hails from Tijuana, Mexico.

Seven other pro bouts are scheduled on the fight card. Doors open at 5 p.m.

San Diego

Middleweights clash on a Roy Jones Jr. Boxing Promotions fight card on Saturday Aug. 24, at Viejas Casino and Resort in Alpine, Calif.

Connor Coyle (10-0) and Rafael Ramon Ramirez (21-4-2) meet in a 10-round middleweight contest. UFC Fight Pass will stream the fight card.

Coyle is an Irishman who now trains in Florida. San Diego’s Ramirez is a fighter who actually fought at the Olympic Auditorium and left boxing for seven years before returning in 2013. He hasn’t lost since losing at the now retired boxing venue in 2004.

Six pro bouts are scheduled for Saturday.

Fights to watch

Thursday Facebook Watch 5 p.m. Luis Feliciano (12-0) vs Genaro Gamez (9-0).

Fri. Showtime, 10 p.m. Shohjahon Ergashev (16-0) vs Abdiel Ramirez (24-4-1).

Sat. ESPN+ 9:30 a.m. PT Sergey Kovalev (33-3-1) vs Anthony Yarde (18-0).

Sat. DAZN 4 p.m. Juan Francisco Estrada (39-3) vs Dewayne Beamon (16-1-1).

Sat. UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. Connor Coyle (10-0) vs Rafael Ramon Ramirez (21-4-2).

Sat. Fox Sports1, 7 p.m. Brandon Figueroa (19-0) vs Javier Nicolas Chacon (29-4-1).

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