Eleven months and one week after losing his undefeated record to Isaac Cruz, Giovanni Cabrera takes on another of the lightweight division’s biggest punchers when he steps in the ring with William Zepeda at the Toyota Arena in Ontario, California on Saturday.

For Cabrera trainer Freddie Roach, stepping from the Cruz frying pan into the Zepeda fire (with just one pit stop against Ricardo Quiroz on March 30 along the way) is one of those openings that a boxer has to seize.

“Chances equal opportunities,” the Hall-of-Fame trainer told BoxingScene. “You have to take advantage of them when they present themselves. We want a big win to regain the momentum we lost in the Cruz fight.”

After a difficult opening few rounds against the “Pitbull,” Cabrera (22-1, 7 KOs) found a rhythm and used his uniquely awkward style to leave the Mexican looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable. Although Cabrera lost for the first time, his split decision defeat – by scores of 114-113, 113-114, and 112-115 – felt like a moral victory in the moment and looks even more impressive following Cruz’s subsequent demolition of Rolando Romero to win a 140-pound title.

Roach, though, felt that his man probably deserved more than a sense of achievement from his tussle with Cruz.

“It was a close fight,” Roach said. “I thought we pulled it out, but I wasn’t upset with the decision.  I believe we were within one point of a split decision win or a draw on the scorecards. It was definitely a good learning experience for Gio and a good teaching experience for me.” 

Cabrera, born in Seattle but resident in Chicago, can sell a fight as well as most, with an effortless charisma and braggadocio. His style of fighting – utilizing an upright stance, chin disarmingly and invitingly in the air, and punches that come from multiple angles and generally some distance – is, on the other hand, an acquired taste. 

It is not hard to look at Cabrera’s underwhelming knockout ratio and wonder if he could do more damage if he shifted his feet a little closer to his opponent and added some torque to his punches. Roach, however, argues that his fighter’s unconventionality is an asset.

“Gio has a very unusual style of fighting which presents a puzzle to a lot of fighters,” he said. “His fighting style is a major weapon for him. He disrupts the rhythm of his opponents which is what you want to do. So far, he has been fairly successful with it. We’ll see if Zepeda has figured it out.”  

Taking on two such dangerous foes in such a short space of time is a clear risk, albeit the kind fans want boxers to take. Although Roach has attempted to smooth out some of his man’s rough edges, he acknowledges that “Gio is a free spirit. He definitely marches to his own tune.” 

What you see with Cabrera, in other words, is what you get; 22 out of 23 times as a professional, it has resulted in his hand being raised in victory, and he was just a round or two shy against Cruz of making it a clean sweep so far. 

With a record of 30-0 (26 KOs), with just two distance fights since 2017, and coming off a trio of explosive stoppages against Jaime Arboleda, Mercito Gesta, and Maxi Hughes, Zepeda may be on paper an even bigger challenge than Cruz. Roach, however, refuses to countenance the notion that falling short in a big fight for the second time in a row would demote Cabrera to gatekeeper status.

“I have never thought that way as a fighter or as a trainer,” he said. “My only concern is beating Zepeda. That is enough for me to think about.”  

And if Cabrera pulls off the upset, he’ll do it his way and in his style.

“At the end of the day,” said Roach, “that’s just the way he is.”

Kieran Mulvaney has written, broadcast and podcasted about boxing for HBO, Showtime, ESPN and Reuters, among other outlets. He also writes regularly for National Geographic, has written several books on the Arctic and Antarctic, and is at his happiest hanging out with wild polar bears. His website is www.kieranmulvaney.com.