By Jake Donovan
Robert Easter Jr and Rau'Shee Warren were already in preparation for the first defense of their respective titles. The gym stablemates now have opponents to go along with such training plans.
Headlining the February 10 PBC on Bounce TV, Easter Jr. enjoys a homecoming for his first title defense as he faces Puerto Rico's Luis Cruz. The bout tops what will likely wind up as a triple header live from the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio.
In the televised co-feature, Warren - the only U.S. boxer to compete in three different Olympics games (2004, 2008, 2012) - will square off versus mandatory challenger Zhanat Zhakiyanov, a streaking contender from Kazakhstan whom fights under Ricky Hatton's promotional banner.
"Being able to headline a big fight in my hometown after winning a championship is a dream come true," said Easter. "My first dream was to win the world title and now I get to defend it in front of my people. I had great fan support at my last fight in Pennsylvania and I know everybody is even more excited to see me at home. A lot of people felt involved in helping me win that world title, and now we get to have a homecoming celebration. This is going to be big for the city. I can't wait to showcase my skills."
"This is a great opportunity for me and I'm planning on putting on my best performance," said Cruz. "I am going to fight for my home of Puerto Rico and become another world champion from the island. I know that Easter is a good fighter and he will have the fan support, but I am already training harder than I ever have. This is going to be an exciting fight, but I don't expect it to go the distance."
"I'm ready to get back in the ring," said Warren. "I'm happy the fight is three days before my birthday because defending my title for the first time and winning will be the best birthday present. We've been checking out Zhakiyanov. I think it's going to be a good show because he definitely isn't a slouch. I'm just going to enjoy being a champion, defending my title and showing what I'm capable of."
"I'm very happy to be fighting in the U.S. with a chance to become a world champion," said Zhakiyanov. "I want to thank Warren for taking this fight, but it will be a big mistake. I'm coming to win and win impressively. This is going to be my statement that I am one of the best fighters in this division."
One bout that is in advanced talks and potentially the third leg of a tripleheader - should three fights air on the telecast - is an intriguing crossroads clash between Easter's stablemate Jamel Herring and former 130 lb. titlist Artemis Mendez. The matchup is pending official approval from Mendez - who suffered a knockout loss to Easter Jr. in their title eliminator last April - but has received the all clear from the other side.
The appearance will be the first for Herring (15-1, 8KOs) since suffering a stoppage loss to Denis Shafikov this past July. Fittingly, Shafikov is now the mandatory challenger for the lightweight title after scoring a 12-round decision win earlier this month over Richard Commey, whom Easter Jr. (18-0, 14KOs) bested to win the belt in September.
Meanwhile, Herring - a highly decorated Iraqi war veteran with the U.S. Marines and team captain of the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing squad that competed in London - looks to bounce back strong and challenge for a title of his own in 2017.
It was a big year for his teammates Easter Jr. and Warren (14-1, 4KOs), the latter a Cincinnati native whom claimed a bantamweight crown with a 12-round decision over Juan Carlos Payano in their NBC-televised rematch this past June. Their first hour headlined the inaugural installment of PBC on Bounce, an event that set network viewership records.
The diminutive boxer now returns to the network - and to his home state - for his first title defense.