By Thomas Gerbasi
It can’t be easy for a boxer knowing that at 24 years old, the two essential pieces of how he makes his living will not just give him pain, but may just give out on him altogether.
Omar Figueroa doesn’t shy away from the subject though. He doesn’t say woe is me, he doesn’t wish he was given a better set of hands, ones that allow him to ply his trade with the effortlessness he has shown glimpses of in the past. He accepts his lot and he fights, and every day that those hands work the way they’re supposed to, it’s a good day.
This week, days removed from his Saturday bout against mandatory challenger Daniel Estrada, the hands of the WBC lightweight champion are good.
“They feel a lot better,” the power puncher from Weslaco, Texas said, but when asked if he worries about them not feeling better after the first shots are fired this weekend in Carson, California, he is blunt with his assessment.
“You have to prepare for something like that, and for me, it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen, so I just prepare myself mentally and I tell myself that if push comes to shove, I will do what I have to do to win the fight,” he said. “That’s the objective, to win the fight.”
24 times he’s stepped up to fight, and 23 times he’s walked away the winner, with only one bout – a 2010 draw with Arturo Quintero – marring an otherwise perfect record. He’s also scored 17 knockouts, eight in the first round, and with a resume like that, it’s no wonder that he’s seen as one of boxing’s rising stars.
But it wasn’t a quick knockout that made fight fans sit up and take notice. Instead, it was a grueling 12-round war with Japan’s Nihito Arakawa in July of 2013 that marked Figueroa as more than just a flashy kid with a big punch. Not that he was thinking about such matters in the heat of the battle.
“Honestly, I didn’t have a chance to think about anything,” he laughs. “I was trying to just win the fight. It was a tremendous fight and I watch it now and I still wonder how the hell we did it.”
How the hell, indeed. But they did, and in addition to it being a Fight of the Year candidate, it was also the kind of match that showed the fighter who he was as well. Because everybody says they’ve got that kind of heart; displaying it when your number comes up is another story.
“I feel like that fight mentally just gave me the edge over any future opponent,” Figueroa said. “I knew I could go in there and knock an opponent out in two, three rounds, but it’s different when you go through a fight like that and you show the heart and that kind of demeanor. It felt good, and I was truly satisfied. When you’re lying in bed sore, and you can barely move, you’re like ‘I did it.’ I proved it to myself.”
This is boxing though, and the good vibes faded quick. A March 8 bout with Ricardo Alvarez was scrapped due to a hand injury, and when he did return in April against former amateur rival Jerry Belmontes, he struggled to retain his title via split decision.
“It was not me in that fight,” Figueroa said. “I guess with the long layoff and everything, I shot myself in the foot. I know I wasn’t it my best fight. Heck, going in I knew it wasn’t going to be my best fight going into it because of the way I felt, but it’s something that boxers go through. We hardly ever go in one hundred percent; we try to do our best with what we’ve got, and that night, that was my best. Unfortunately I couldn’t give my fans anything better, but I learned my lesson and I feel like I’ve matured within these past few months and I’ve done things one hundred percent better as compared to how I was doing them before.”
Saturday night should tell the tale though, especially since Figueroa didn’t go out to California to train with Joel Diaz, instead opting to work with his father, Omar Sr., at home in Texas, where he can also spend time with his daughter Sophia and the rest of his family.
“Seeing them every day and them seeing my progress, it’s a constant reminder that I have to be better, that I have to do things right, and that’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to stay here,” he said. “Not taking anything away from Joel and the team in California – I loved it over there and they’re my family away from home – but I do have my Sophia here, and training wise, I wasn’t able to take advantage of the world-class training and sparring that I had available to me (in California) because of my hand. It does depress me at times that I can’t use my hands one hundred percent because I am a boxer and I work with them. It was frustrating being over there and not being able to fully train or take advantage. So I decided that if I’m not going to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are being presented to me, what am I doing there? I’m just torturing myself and being away from my family. I told myself that I have to be better in other areas. It was a lot of mental struggling, and I felt like staying home was the best decision I’ve made.”
Sometimes the mental aspect of the sport is more important than the physical one, and each fighter is different when it comes to what works best for him in a training camp. Some need to get away, others need the comforts of home. But just because Figueroa is working with his father, that doesn’t mean he’s taking any shortcuts.
“It’s never been easy for me to please my dad,” Figueroa admits. “Growing up, I had standards that were sometimes overwhelmingly high and I always either met them or exceeded them. And I had to push myself. I grew up rough and my dad was very, very tough on me. To this day, it doesn’t matter what kind of performance I put up, there’s always room for improvement and he will point that out to me before he congratulates me or does any of that.”
It’s a tough way to grow up, but in the fight game – and in life – a little tough can go a long way. I asked Figueroa if he understands his father better now that he’s a father himself.
“I always understood,” he said. “As I was going through it, I felt that he could have gone a different way about it (Laughs), but I completely understand what he was doing. Sometimes I go through something that he prepared me for and I’m like ‘dang, this old man was right.’ I love him for raising me the way he did because life’s tough and I feel like I’m more than well-prepared for it. So at the end of it all, he’s my dad and I thank him for it.”
Now it’s time to put those tough love lessons to work in the ring again on Saturday night. It’s not the biggest fight of Figueroa’s career, one against a high-profile opponent under a blinding spotlight. Those days will come. But there is no shortage of motivation in his mind and heart.
“This is what I love to do,” he said. “I could have done anything else. I could have pursued another career by going to school, or baseball, or anything that I set my mind to. That was something my dad instilled in me. But this is what I love to do, this is what I chose, this is what feeds me and my family, and this is what allows me to live the life that I do. So there’s really no more motivation that you need than that.”