By Keith Idec
Whenever Alex Saucedo attended events at Chesapeake Energy Arena, his mind would wander.
Whether he was watching an Oklahoma City Thunder game, a hockey game or a monster truck event, Saucedo would envision what it would be like to box inside his hometown arena. Saucedo, who grew up barely a mile away from that venue, will finally find out Saturday night.
The 24-year-old Saucedo (27-0, 17 KOs) is scheduled to battle Australian veteran Lenny Zappavigna (37-3, 27 KOs) in a 10-round, 140-pound fight that’ll shape Saucedo’s career. If Saucedo wins Saturday night in a bout ESPN will televise, it should lead him to a shot at newly crowned WBO junior welterweight champ Maurice Hooker in his following fight.
“I’m very excited,” Saucedo told BoxingScene.com. “Like I’ve been saying, it’s a dream come true. I’ve always, since I started my boxing career as an amateur, it was something I’ve always wanted to do. And I would always tell my fans and my family, ‘One day, I’m gonna make it there.’ And now it’s here, so I was very motivated throughout camp for the opportunity.”
On paper, the aggressive, rugged Zappavigna should be the toughest opponent of Saucedo’s 6½-year pro career. Zappavigna, 30, has lost twice by knockout, including a defeat to former IBF junior welterweight champ Sergey Lipinets, but he constantly applies pressure and has faced a higher level of opposition than Saucedo.
“It’s a big step up,” Saucedo said. “This is the guy with the best record that I’ve fought. It’s a big test to see where we’re at, at the top level.
“He’s an aggressive fighter who has a great knockout percentage. So he’s a dangerous fighter. I believe I have the distance, you know? I have a longer reach than him. We’ll see how the fight turns out. I can fight, too, so we’ll see how it goes.”
The 5-feet-10 Saucedo also is an aggressive fighter. That typically makes him entertaining, yet vulnerable at times.
In his last fight, Saucedo knocked out Mexico’s Abner Lopez (25-9, 21 KOs) in the seventh round March 10 at StubHub Center in Carson, California. A 12-week camp at trainer Abel Sanchez’s gym in Big Bear Lake, California, has more than prepared Saucedo to impress his hometown fans.
“I’m gonna put on a show, man,” Saucedo said. “I’m gonna put on a show like I always do. Every fight I come out aggressively. This is gonna be like that. I’m gonna be an aggressive fighter, like always, and hope to get him out of there. But we’re ready and like I said, we did a long training camp, so we’re ready to go rounds if we have to.”
Bob Arum, Saucedo’s promoter, told BoxingScene.com that another victory by Saucedo on Saturday night will make him the WBO’s mandatory challenger for Dallas’ Hooker. Saucedo already is ranked No. 1 by the WBO at 140 pounds, six spots in front of the seventh-rated Zappavigna.
Arum would like to bring a Hooker-Saucedo title fight to Oklahoma City if Saucedo can get past Zappavigna.
“It’s a really big night for Saucedo,” Arum said. “There’s a lot at stake for him in this fight.”
Unlike most boxing fans and media, Saucedo wasn’t surprised to watch the taller, sharper Hooker upset Terry Flanagan to win the then-vacant WBO 140-pound title June 9 in Manchester, England, Flanagan’s hometown. Hooker (24-0-3, 16 KOs) out-boxed his left-handed opponent and defeated Flanagan (33-1, 13 KOs) by split decision at Manchester Arena.
Two judges – England’s Phil Edwards (117-111) and South Africa’s Deon Dwarte (115-113) – scored their closely contested fight for Hooker. The third judge, Illinois’ Jerry Jakubco, credited Flanagan for a wide win (117-111).
Saucedo, who’s co-managed by actors Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg, used to drive from Oklahoma City to Dallas when he was an amateur to spar against Hooker and unbeaten IBF welterweight champ Errol Spence Jr.
“I’ve trained with Hooker and I’ve sparred with Hooker, so I know what type of fighter he is,” Saucedo said. “I knew he was motivated to get that world title. He had the reach over Flanagan, so I think he fought a good fight. Now it’s time for us to get it on.”
As if fighting in his hometown didn’t provide enough incentive, knowing a title shot awaits him has made Saucedo even hungrier entering this bout.
“That just motivates me even more to come out even more aggressively and try to get this guy out of there in a good fashion,” Saucedo said. “I believe beating him is gonna get us that shot, so that’s a huge opportunity for me.”
Zappavigna recognizes this could be his last legitimate shot to get back into title contention.
“I’m going to go in there and box, but I know Alex likes to come forward and fight fire with fire,” Zappavigna said. “I know it’s going to be a great fight here in Oklahoma, and it’s the perfect opportunity to get me another world title shot, which is the ultimate goal.”
The Mexican-born Saucedo still lives in the same neighborhood on the south side of Oklahoma City where he was raised since the age of 7. He could walk from his house to Chesapeake Energy Arena, where a crowd of roughly 4,000 is expected Saturday night.
“I expect the Oklahoma City fans to come out, not even just boxing fans, just people to come out and support us,” Saucedo said. “It’s gonna be a great event and a great night of boxing.”
Saucedo-Zappavigna will be one of three fights ESPN will televise live Saturday night, starting at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.
In the 12-round main event, Mexico’s Gilberto Ramirez (37-0, 25 KOs) will defend his WBO super middleweight title against Colombia’s Roamer Alexis Angulo (23-0, 20 KOs). ESPN also will air a six-round, 130-pound bout between Brazil’s Robson Conceicao (7-0, 4 KOs), a 2016 Olympic gold medalist, and Ecuador’s Gavino Guaman (5-2, 1 KO).
“I’m hoping to look good and gain a lot of fans,” Saucedo said. “It’s gonna be showcased on ESPN, so it’s a huge opportunity for me to look good and do good, so I can get a lot of boxing fans behind me.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.