A quick glance over the junior lightweight division’s top ten boxers reveals a weight class in transition, one without a clear frontrunner. Just as Yuriorkis Gamboa seemed poised to campaign at 130 pounds after growing out of the featherweight class, talk has suddenly popped up about the unbeaten Cuban dynamo skipping the division en route to a clash with lightweight titlist Brandon Rios next year.
Looking to fill the void at the top of the division are a number of young rising contenders like Adrien Broner, Diego Magdaleno and Luis Cruz, the last of whom will see action this Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on the undercard of one of the biggest shows of the year, the third Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight.
Cruz (19-0, 15 knockouts), a 26-year-old boxer-puncher from Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, will open up the HBO Pay-Per-View telecast in a ten-round bout against recent featherweight title challenger Juan Carlos Burgos (27-1, 19 KOs), of Tijuana, Mexico. Cruz may be what you call “the house fighter,” as he’s in his second fight with the Top Rank promotional outfit, the show’s promoter, which handles his career along with Miguel Cotto Promotions.
That doesn’t mean this fight is a “gimme” at all.
Burgos, 23, has just one blemish to his record, which was a Fight of the Year candidate for 2010 against Hozumi Hasegawa in Japan for a vacant title belt. Burgos, despite being vastly overshadowed in experience, matched the former bantamweight champion punch-for-punch, stunning him with a left uppercut in the seventh and cutting the favored Hasegawa over the right eye. Hasegawa’s superior accuracy in the final rounds enabled him to pull out the competitive decision.
“Burgos on paper appears to be the best fighter that I have faced,” admitted Cruz, through Cotto Promotions attorney Gaby Pe├▒agar├¡cano. “But I’ve had an incredible camp and am ready to make a statement in this fight. I’m certain with my preparation that I’ll be able to win and win convincingly.”
Cruz, who is trained by Freddie Trinidad (who is related to Felix Trinidad), has the backing of two of the most powerful Puerto Rican boxing clans and, with top five rankings in all four of the major sanctioning bodies, Pe├▒agar├¡cano says the plan is to put him in a world title fight in the second half of 2012.
Cruz’s upbringing wasn’t the typical hardscrabble existence that typifies many boxers. He was born in Philadelphia, Penn., but moved with his family at the age of three to a small town 45 minutes outside of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, and liked socializing with friends and going to parties. At the age of 12, the first boxing gym opened up in his town, and heading down there became the thing to do in the sleepy town.
Within a month Cruz would perform in his first amateur fight, and went on to have over 70 bouts before turning pro in 2007. The lanky 5-foot-9 orthodox fighter with a hard right hand continued to mow down opposition en route to a showdown with former WBO super featherweight champion and fellow Puerto Rican Roman Martinez, which was set for the co-featured slot of the Juan Manuel Lopez-Orlando Salido featherweight title bout in Puerto Rico on Showtime.
Martinez, who was favored due to his edge in experience, withdrew a week before the bout with injuries, and in his place was Martin Honorio, a lanky, aggressive Mexican not unlike Burgos, who had spoiled the undefeated records of Steven Luevano, John Molina and Wilton Hilario. Honorio proved to be a very sturdy challenge, but ultimately gave Cruz his first notable win.
Cruz’s most recent performance just two months ago in Atlantic City, N.J., produced a sixth round TKO of a three-time title challenger Antonio Davis, who at 39, was past his best days.
If recent pay-per-view events have proven anything, it’s that “step-up fights” aren’t always as safe as billed, and that the preliminary bouts are where you get your money’s worth. This fight has the potential to either approach, or reach those standards.
“I know Burgos very well, and all the champions as well,” said Cruz. “I know after this fight that the fights that are coming will potentially be against the champions. I feel I am sufficiently ready to fight and beat any of them. That is precisely what I want to show this Saturday.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.