By Jake Donovan
There’s a case to be made that the lightweight bout between Omar Figueroa and Nihito Arakawa was regarded as the least significant of the three televised bouts heading into last weekend’s Showtime-televised tripleheader in San Antonio.
There’s no chance of that remaining the case in the aftermath. The pair of lightweight punchers displayed inhuman amounts of courage and resiliency in a bout that miraculously lasted all 12 rounds.
Figueroa prevailed by unanimous decision, scoring two knockdowns en route to the victory and an interim title that was at stake. Both he and Arakawa became instant cult heroes, with fans clamoring for when they next step into the ring.
Fighting outside of his native Japan for just the second time in his career, Arakawa was the least known of the six fighters on Saturday’s telecast. It’s understandable why Saturday night served as his introduction into the hearts of boxing fans.
Less forgiving is why it took fans this long to warm up to Figueroa as the sport’s next potentially great all-action star. Then again, the dynamite-fisted Texan has grown accustomed to having to fight for his place in line.
“That’s exactly the thing. Boxing is a food chain,” Figueroa (22-0-1, 17KO) recognizes of the profession that is bound to one day make him famous. “Unfortunately it’s run by money.”
The unbeaten lightweight knew of this when he was first brought to Golden Boy Promotions. His first official fight as a contracted fighter with the California-based promotional outfit came after his Aug. ’09 audition, knocking out a clubfighter named Jeremy Marts inside of two rounds.
The bout came on the non-televised undercard of Juan Diaz’ controversial hometown decision win over Paul Malignaggi; all Figueroa remembers of the night was that it was the biggest stage on which he was scheduled to fight at that point in his career – there not only to impress Golden Boy, but also the HBO cameras that would roll later in the evening.
“I was 19 years old and still a big fan of the sport. “I wasn’t star-struck but hearing (ring announcer) Lupe Contreras’ voice while I was in the ring, I have to admit it got to me a little bit.”
In true warrior fashion, it wasn’t until he felt threatened by his opponent when it kicked in that he was a prizefighter.
“My opponent came at me and my nerves were suddenly gone. That’s when it hit me, that it’s just a fight, no matter what is outside the ropes.
Figueroa went on to win by 1st round knockout, and signed with Golden Boy three months later. The union, which also includes Al Haymon serving as his co-advisor along with his father Omar Sr., came in time to appear on the undercard of the rematch between Malignaggi and Diaz, this time thousands of miles away in Chicago. The run wasn’t exactly epic; Figueroa went 6-0-1 (3KO) over that stretch, most of which was entertaining but also flying way under the radar.
The most notable bout among the bunch was an 8-round draw with Arturo Quintero in their Nov. ’10 war, which aired live on Telefutura. Three wins followed, none of which rated very high, before sustaining injuries in a car crash that kept him out of the ring for the final four months of 2011.
“The beginning of my career was rocky. I was injured and didn’t look good in my early fights,” Figueroa admits. “I knew the potential that I had. We knew it was about waiting for that opportunity.
Then came 2012 and the fight that let everyone know what he already knew.
A free-preview weekend on Showtime helped kick off the 2012 boxing season. The network began its loaded fight weekend with a Shobox card in which three of the four fighters were undefeated. Figueroa was matched up against lightweight prospect Michael Perez, who at the time was being groomed for stardom.
Figueroa, just 22 and largely unproven and unheralded at the time, was simply the other guy in the equation. It turned out to be the break his career needed, even if the matchup was never intended that way.
“It came with Michael Perez and I passed. My goal was to make him quit. They were talking smack. They called Roberto Diaz and asked if I knew who we were fighting. It was my first experience of (an opponent) trash talking and I told myself I’d make him quit. I carried out a tee.”
The fight went exactly as Figueroa expected – and that’s not revisionist history talking.
“I see him trying to outbox me. That’s the type of fighter he is,” Figueroa predicted well before the fight. It will be hard for him to outbox me for 10 rounds, and I know he won’t outbrawl me.”
Perez intended to box early, but it didn’t take long for the boxing match to transition into a dogfight. Six rounds later, a new prospect was on the rise.
More important, it served as a wakeup call for Figueroa, who knew he hadn’t given the sport his all to that point.
“After that fight, boxing hit me. This is the real deal. It’s not just a sport, where you go in the ring and beat somebody. It’s a fun ride. It’s a blessing.”
Figueroa has been blessed with eight more fights since then, though it wasn’t until earlier this year when everything clicked that Golden Boy had a potential star on its hands.
There’s no question that Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez was responsible for most of the 40,000 or so fans in attendance for his breakout win over Austin Trout this past April. The bout was one of two matchups on the show where both sides were undefeated going into the night. The other was Figueroa’s scheduled 10-round lightweight bout with Abner Cotto.
Naturally, Figueroa didn’t need 10 rounds. He didn’t even need one full round, stopping the cousin of former three-division champion Miguel Cotto just three seconds shy of three minutes. The manner in which he fought was his usual style resembling a double-parked courier. But it was just long enough to leave a lasting impression on his fellow Texans.
“Omar is still growing as a fan attraction, but the fans down here are already crazy about him,” informs Mike Battah, a San Antonio-based promoter who served as the driving force behind Golden Boy’s last two major shows in the city. The efforts of Battah’s promotional company, Leija-Battah Promotions (partnered with retired former 130 lb. titlist Jesse James Leija) led to last weekend’s show drawing more than 8,800 fans in attendance.
The majority of the crowd was on hand to watch Figueroa, who was born and raised four hours away in Weslaco, Texas. To say he didn’t disappoint is a massive understatement. His two-fisted attack – coupled with the incredible bravery of Arakawa, who never stopped fighting back – helped produce an all-time classic slugfest. Round three will come up during year-end awards season, as will the 12 rounds as a whole.
The unforgettable war came at a heavy price; both fighters were admitted to the hospital for post-fight observations. Both checked out OK and even posed for pictures together, their faces proudly bearing the numerous battle scars endured from the combined 700+ punches landed on the night.
Figueroa’s materialistic reward for the night was an interim title, one he believed prior to the bout that he would need as leverage in order to entice the other big names in and around the lightweight division.
“I’m getting big for 135,” admits Figueroa, who at 23 years old will undoubtedly grow out of the division sooner rather than later. “I would have moved to 140, but didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle with all of the big names. I didn’t want to leave 135 empty-handed. If I do move to 140, I’ll have more leverage.”
Saturday’s performance ensures there is no chance of his getting lost in the shuffle, not any time soon. There was pre-fight talk of possibly landing a spot on the potentially epic September 14 pay-per-view card headlined by Alvarez inviting the challenge of pound-for-pound and dollar-for-dollar king Floyd Mayweather Jr.
The punishment absorbed last weekend severely hampers his chances of a ring return seven weeks later. Make no mistake, though; Figueroa will be treated as must-see TV by his handlers the moment he’s ready to re-appear in the ring. Even though his style may have potentially cost him a showcase on the biggest event of the year, don’t expect this tiger to change his stripes for preservation’s sake.
“I don’t have to change anything. My goal is to punish my opponent as much as possible,” Figueroa unapologetically admits. “The hard work is finally coming to fruition.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox