By Cliff Rold
It won’t be the main event.
It looks like the reason to tune in.
This Saturday night, the main event on Fox (8 PM EST) will feature WBA featherweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KO) defending against late replacement Rafael Rivera (26-2-2, 17 KO). Rivera enters off a win after consecutive losses to Joseph Diaz and Joet Gonzalez. Santa Cruz rarely makes dull fights and a win could set the stage for a showdown with WBC titlist Gary Russell Jr. (29-1, 17 KO).
What might happen later doesn’t make this main event the sort of fight demanding attention. It looks, on paper, like a fairly routine title defense for one of the best fighters in the world to sharpen his tools after a lengthy layoff.
Call it a violent infomercial.
Boxing has those all the time. While the amount of time titlists spend out of the ring makes them a bit more excruciating for fans, if they end in the right place the time spent waiting always feels shorter in retrospect.
Before the main event takes place, fans may already have had their time rewarded in the now. The co-feature looks promising. If the main is about getting to the boxing equivalent of fine dining at the top of a loaded 126 lbs. class, the welterweights will be delivering some good ol’ hearty meat and potatoes.
29-year old former lightweight titlist Omar Figueroa Jr. (27-0-1, 19 KO) faces off with 36-year old former lightweight and Jr. welterweight title challenger John Molina (30-7, 24 KO). There is never a guarantee that we’ll see a battle break out.
This one certainly has the components.
Molina enters the ring for the first time since a December 2017 war that reminded why his career has been fun to follow. Molina came off the deck against Ivan Redkach to score a pair of knockdowns en route to a fourth round knockout. It was a microcosm of his thirteen years as a pro. Molina can be down, literally and figuratively, from round to round or fight-to-fight.
Molina finds ways to get up. He beat Hank Lundy in 2010, his biggest win on the way to a shot at a lightweight title. Antonio DeMarco stunned him in just one round. Molina went 3-1 in his next four, losing to Andrey Klimov but stopping Mickey Bey while well behind on the cards. He lost three in a row after Bey, starting with a Fight of the Year classic against Lucas Matthysse where he had Matthysse down twice early.
Molina rebounded again, winning his next two including a decision over the tough Ruslan Provodnikov. That set him up for a title shot against Terrence Crawford in 2016. He didn’t win a round before being stopped and yet, there he was, one year later, finding a way to win against the younger Redkach. Does he still have it in him?
Figueroa is the kind of aggressive younger man who can ask the question.
Figueroa looked like he could be a real TV star on his way up the ranks. His 2013 win over Nihito Arakawa nearly stole the show underneath Andre Berto-Jesus Soto Karass and Keith Thurman-Diego Chaves. After being lucky to get by Jerry Belmontes in 2014, Figueroa again turned heads with a frenzied decision over Ricky Burns in 2015. Later that year, he held off a late charge from DeMarco to win another crowd pleaser.
Then he was gone for over a year. When last we saw him, the former lightweight was retiring Robert Guerrero in three brutal rounds. It’s been more than a year again. Can Figueroa turn heads and sustain momentum this time?
What goes on before he steps into the ring is a big part of the equation. Figueroa showed up at Jr. middleweight for the DeMarco fight, changed the week of the fight when it was clear he couldn’t make the Jr. welterweight limit. He’s had multiple hand injuries and a shoulder injury that scuttled a fight with Adrien Broner last year. A DUI charge on the way to Broner didn’t help either.
It’s hard not to hope Figueroa can finally, fully resume his profession this time around. A volume puncher with real pop, offensive variety, and suspect defense almost always means entertainment. If he can defeat Molina this weekend, he’ll be returning at a perfect moment. The Texas native would be attractive for any of the three welterweight titlists under the PBC banner (Thurman, Shawn Porter, and Errol Spence). Danny Garcia and Manny Pacquiao would also intrigue.
Figueroa might not beat any of them but he would come to fight them. Coming to fight is something Molina has almost always done reliably. If the veteran can upset Figueroa, he extends his shelf life and could sneak into one more title opportunity himself.
This fight, like almost any televised fight, has implications for the future for both men but it’s no infomercial. Neither man is staring at the next big thing. They don’t have the luxury. They need to win now.
That need could be a full meal served before the main event this weekend.
Cliff Rod is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]