By Jake Donovan
“He was the best raw boxing talent I had ever seen.”
Such sums up the thoughts of veteran boxing manager Henry Foster the first time he spotted Luis Franco in a boxing gym.
Foster has been around the block and back in the fight game and has managed his fair share of top talent coming through south Florida, including his longtime association with Glen Johnson. Living in his corner of the world, he’s witnessed some spectacular boxing talent, much of which is comprised of decades worth of Cuban defectors who eventually surface in Miami and the surrounding areas.
There’s no convincing him that he’ll ever work with anyone more gifted than Franco (11-0, 7KO), a currently unbeaten featherweight prospect whose star continues to rise.
Franco’s tale is a familiar one – standout Cuban amateur, boasting more than 400 fights in the non-paid ranks; Olympic tour; in search of a better life, splits from his squad and leaves everyone he knows and everything he has behind as he works his way to the United States.
Not every boxing story has to be an original script. Franco doesn’t try to pretend to be something that he isn’t. His introduction to the sport is no different than his countryman. The Cuban government caught a peek of his in-ring capabilities and placed him into its training program at age nine.
That would make Franco either a 16-year or 20-year veteran of the fight game, depending on which set of birth records are accurate.
His list of achievements point to a 1986 birth, claiming to be an 18-year old when he fought for the Cuban squad in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Other records point to a 1982 birth, which would currently place him at age 29, hence the aggressive push towards a world title so early into his pro career.
When you boast blinding hand speed and pure athleticism like Franco, age is nothing but a number. Talent and discipline are enough to carry you along for as long as you’re willing to work at it, which is where Franco begins to separate himself from the rest of the pack.
“We have put Luis in with various styles, all with opponents vastly more experienced in the pros,” states Foster of what he seeks to accomplish early in Franco’s career. The manager boasts enough confidence in his fighter’s work ethic that he was willing to throw him to the wolves right out the gate.
The tactic wasn’t all that different from what was experienced by countrymen Yuriorkis Gamboa and Odlanier Solis. The differences, however, were two-fold; first, neither fighter has ever shown the in-ring – or in Solis’ case, the training – discipline of Franco. Also, while both Gamboa and Solis were facing more experienced fighters on the way up, they weren’t facing a variety of styles.
The latter part will only benefit Franco in the long run, and is truly a lost art on this generation of fighters. Most matchmakers are terrified of getting their fighters beaten early in their career, or putting them in a fight that makes them look like anything other than a knockout beast.
So far, the biggest challenge for the former amateur star was simply shifting his style to properly adapt to the pro game.
“The training is much harder in the pros. Of course, the gloves are smaller, there is no headgear, and there are more rounds. Also, the object in the pros is to hurt your opponent, not just score points.”
Franco has shown the ability to do both, whenever the situation calls for it. He’s offered enough variety already in his young career that the plan is to get him ready for a title run by 2012, just his third year as a pro and with only 11 fights under his belt to date. How he gets there is more important than just racking up soft wins and an underserved ranking.
It was the plan Foster had in mind from the day Franco arrived in the United States. The manager had the leg up on everyone else in the game, first catching rumors that the fighter would defect after being declared ineligible to campaign for the 2008 Cuban Olympic boxing squad.
From there, the wheels were set in motion to have him turn pro in south Florida, and hit the ground running. Aside from a brief scare in suffering the lone knockdown of his career against Yogli Herrera (coming back to drop him twice and eventually stop him in the fifth), Franco’s career was smoothly moving along as planned.
The Cuban hit a bit of a rough patch, though coming out unscathed. He was introduced to the scrappier side of the game, surviving a foulest battle with Eric Hunter to win via disqualification in the eighth round of their regional title fight in Dec. ’10. Two months later, he had a tougher-than-expected time against Leonilo Miranda, settling for a split decision win.
The feat wound up paling in comparison to what fellow unbeaten prospect Gary Russell Jr. was able to do to the same opponent and in front of an HBO audience no less. The slot could’ve gone to Franco himself, but his team turned down the fight when the opportunity arose to fight a title eliminator.
Franco was to face Eduardo Escobedo, in a bout to determine the mandatory challenger to newly crowned titlist Billy Dib. The bout used to belong to Gamboa, whom Franco faced in the amateurs as well as current super bantamweight contender Guillermo Rigondeaux. It didn’t matter who holds the belt once he’s ready to make his challenge; Franco will get in the ring with anybody.
“I fought both guys in Cuba,” says Franco.” I would have no problem fighting either again if they were at my weight.”
He also had no problem fighting Russell Jr., but his management felt taking on Escobedo – in a fight where a win guaranteed a title shot – was the better move.
The logic in theory sounded better than what was actually executed. Plans for an Escobedo bout fell apart when games were played with where the fight would be staged. Franco wound up settling for a tune-up fight against Leopoldo Gonzalez earlier this month on Telemundo, where his fast hands surgically tore apart the journeyman, slicing him up in two rounds.
Considering the changes in his corner, such a fight served its proper purpose. Franco was working with trainer Miguel Diaz for the first time in his career, and the uncertainty of the who, when and where for his next fight allowed for the featherweight and his new cornerman to develop chemistry.
“I am very happy with my last performance,” Franco insists of his televised co-feature bout. “It marks my first fight with my new trainer, Miguel Diaz. He has trained me very hard but I trust his experience and we proved in the fight it was the right thing to do.”
Not much was lost when all was said and done. Russell Jr. didn’t exactly set the world afire with his HBO debut against Miranda, winning a ho-hum – albeit dominant – decision and seeing his next bout limited to the highlight reel, though a highlight moment it was as he knocked out Heriberto Ruiz inside of a round.
Still, it was a productive year for Franco, who is still in position to fight for a championship, which keeps him directly on pace with the plan his handlers had in mind when he turned pro two years ago.
“Franco’s hand speed is second to none. I have moved him quickly because of his background and capabilities,” Foster states. “He will be a world champion in 2012. He is the highest rated available boxer in the IBF featherweight division and will be requested by the IBF to fight an elimination bout for their #1, mandatory position, in his next fight. We are fast tracking with the WBO, and are available for a big fight with anybody who is interested, voluntarily.”
That doesn’t necessarily rule out a rescheduling with Russell Jr., should it come to that. Whoever the opponent, it will be 126 or possibly lower.
Whereas other fighters start low in hopes of picking up a cheap belt before ballooning up in weight, Franco is content with where he presently fights.
“I definitely have no plans to move up in weight in the near future. I have no problem making 126 lbs. which I have fought at my whole career. Working with Miguel Diaz and my strength and conditioning coach, Willie Delsol of Somi Fitness, I could even make 122 lbs. So maybe I will go down in weight, like my team mate, Glen Johnson did.”
What he won’t do – or so he insists – is attempt to emulate the careers of his countrymen before him. Joel Casamayor has enjoyed his day in the sun. Gamboa remains on the cusp of pound-for-pound talent, but remains inconsistent in the ring. Rigondeaux has enjoyed early success but a difficult time converting fans. Solis is still trying to find himself while putting too much heavy into heavyweight.
Franco will always fly his country’s flag every time he steps into the ring. Just don’t expect him to stand and applaud the achievements of others while there’s work to be done in his own career.
“I feel no pressure at all (to live up to the other successful Cuban fighters). We all have our own careers. I trust myself, my manager and my entire team to guide my career. It is unimportant to me what the other Cuban boxers do.”
What is important to Luis Franco is how he can continue to separate himself from the rest of the pack.
Just being himself is a great place to start, which already puts him ahead of the curve.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]