By Thomas Gerbasi
In the city of Weslaco, Texas, a place populated by less than 40,000 people, Omar Figueroa was able to get away in peace.
As he healed the injuries that kept him away from the ring since December 2015, the former world lightweight champion wasn’t bombarded with questions about his future in the ring or whether he had one at all. For a while, he was just Omar.
“Once I explained it to people, they understood, especially people from my hometown,” he said. “They saw me grow up doing this, they know I’ve been doing it for a long time, so I really didn’t have to explain things to them. I just told them that I needed some time, my body needed to heal, and they were like, ‘Cool, take your time, come back stronger,’ and that’s what I did.”
On Saturday, those Texans will watch their hometown hero return to the ring to face another former world champion in Robert Guerrero. The bout at the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum in Long Island is the main event of a PBC show televised by FOX, which makes it the kind of high-profile bout that can immediately reintroduce Figueroa to the boxing public and put him back in the mix for even bigger fights in the future. But when the 27-year-old got the green light to come back, he wasn’t concerned with anything but getting a fight.
“I didn’t care,” Figueroa said. “I would have fought anyone. My team already knows, and I told them many times that I don’t care who you put in front of me, I’m gonna go in there and fight my fight and that’s it.”
That no nonsense approach to fight night is what made Figueroa a champion and a fan favorite before his layoff. A power puncher with the ability to brawl when necessary, Figueroa won the interim WBC title in a classic war with Nihito Arakawa in 2013, was elevated to full champion and successfully defended the crown twice.
In 2015, after being stripped of his title while injured, Figueroa defeated Ricky Burns and Antonio DeMarco, but then the injuries to his hand and elbow forced him to the sidelines. It was an issue that had him wondering if his career had reached the end of the road.
“Of course, that’s something I feel would go through anyone’s mind,” he said. “It’s just something that feels natural and normal, but just like everything, time heals all, so I just needed some time. I’m back now and I feel great. Mentally I’m great, physically I’m great.”
And he missed the old grind and all that comes with it.
“The adrenaline rush, the challenges that boxing brings, and the competing,” he said. “That’s what I missed the most.”
He probably didn’t miss the heat in Indio, California, where he prepared for this fight with Joel Diaz. The day we spoke, it was 110 degrees, and that was too much, even for a kid from Texas.
“It’s a different kind of hot,” he said. “But it still sucks either way.”
At least he’s back in business, though, and once he gets this fight out of the way, he can plan his future attack, one that he says won’t be in the welterweight division he’s fighting Guerrero in on Saturday – at least not now.
“I’m just doing it (fighting at welterweight) for this fight,” Figueroa said. “Hopefully I’m going to get back down to 140 after this one.”
So all the possible megafights at 147 pounds aren’t on the radar?
“I want to win something at 140 first,” he said. “I feel like that there’s a lot of good competition at 140 and hopefully, if my body permits, I want to try that division first and try to vie for a world title. And if not, then I’ll just go back to 147 and it will be a lot easier for me.”
“Easy” is a word Figueroa hasn’t heard too much, if at all, over the last 19 months as he worked his way back to the ring. And while he’s excited to be back, he’s not about to rush in recklessly, in the ring or out. It’s the mindset of a young man who grew up in public and who now knows better than most how to navigate some rough waters.
“As a fighter, you have to learn to control yourself,” he said. “It’s exciting, I can’t wait to be back, but at the same time I know I have to take it slow and I’ve got to be sensible and responsible with everything that’s going on. I’ve got to make sure that my mind is right and that I’m able to perform at the level I want to perform at and that I need to perform at against someone like Guerrero.”