For the second consecutive week, the boxing schedule is highlighted by a fight that took three attempts to launch. But another long-awaited title fight will finally happen — knock on wood — this Saturday night inside the Top Rank bubble at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas (ESPN+, 7:30 p.m. ET) as Jamel Herring defends his WBO 130-pound title against Jonathan Oquendo.
Much like last week’s Jose Ramirez-Viktor Postol bout, this is a fight where one boxer is in a position for a much bigger and lucrative battle down the line but must first handle his business. Ramirez eked by the difficult Postol, taking one huge step toward a full unification bout at junior welterweight against Josh Taylor. Will Herring be able to do his part to line up a fight against Carl Frampton?
Before Herring and Oquendo finally touch gloves, prodigy Xander Zayas will fight on the night before his 18th birthday, and see if he can continue moving up the ranks early on in his career.
Here’s a deeper look at what’s on tap this weekend:
The fight before the fight for Jamel Herring
Sometimes the toughest fights a boxer engages in are the ones before the big ones.
That’s the dynamic that WBO junior lightweight champion Herring is facing Saturday. Herring finally faces Oquendo after two prior dates were scrapped earlier this summer due to him testing positive twice for COVID-19.
Should Herring win, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum stated that he would face former two-time world champion Carl Frampton in the fall. That would be Herring’s highest-profile fight, and the reason why there’s more than just a title on the line this week for Herring.
With a more prominent opponent on the horizon, Herring still insists that nothing else is on his mind other than what is directly in front of him.
“It’s funny because I’ve just been totally focusing on this fight which has been postponed so many times,” Herring said to ESPN. “It’s to the point I’m just tired about hearing about this fight. I’ve been so focused on just this fight with Oquendo, get it out of the way so I can have that sigh of relief of just looking at Frampton.”
Frampton did his part by dispatching Darren Traynor in seven rounds on Aug. 15. The 34-year-old Herring was certainly an interested viewer.
“It motivated me to outdo him with my own performance against Oquendo,” he said.” It’s not a stretch to say he was as jubilant as Frampton was about this victory.
There have been instances in the past when megafights have been short-circuited by what were supposed to be tune-up fights. One of the most memorable examples took place Oct. 29, 1993, when Tommy Morrison faced Michael Bentt in what was expected to be a prelude to a Morrison showdown with then-heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. Fighting near his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Morrison was shockingly knocked out by Bentt in one round.
Tony Holden, who promoted Morrison, recalls that for the Lewis fight, which was already signed, his man was set to receive in the neighborhood of $8 million. After the loss, Morrison’s next bout was for $60,000.
In the beginning of 1997, Pernell Whitaker had a spring fight lined up against Oscar De La Hoya, and all he had to do was get past the relatively unknown Diosbelys Hurtado. For much of the night, Whitaker struggled with Hurtado’s awkward style — hitting the canvas twice — and he had to rally late to stop the Cuban in the 11th round, by which point he was down on all three scorecards.
A disaster was averted.
Later that year, Terry Norris also was set to face “The Golden Boy,” but between him and that big bout stood the rugged Keith Mullings, who was considered a sizable underdog after winning only one of his previous six fights. Norris faded badly in the Mullings fight and was stopped in nine rounds.
So that’s the challenge that Herring has in front of him: Don’t let what might be in the future impact the task at hand. He must make sure he doesn’t play it too safe in there as he tries to get to his pot of gold.
“Fighters can get ahead of themselves,” said Brian “BoMac” McIntyre, Herring’s trainer. “And Jamel can be one of those fighters who can get ahead of themselves because he’s excited about moving forward.”
McIntryre, who is best known for his work with three-division world champion Terence Crawford, says he believes that these trap fights are often the trickiest to navigate for a fighter.
“Because the guy that’s getting the opportunity to fight for your title, he’s the hungry one, he wants to disrupt all your plans,” McIntyre said. “Oquendo is no easy walk in the park, I promise you that.”
Oquendo (31-6, 19 KOs) is a veteran, having faced the likes of Juan Manuel Lopez (lost by TKO3), Wilfredo Vazquez Jr (lost by TKO7), Abner Mares (L10) and Jhonny Gonzalez (W10). Last year, Oquendo gave Lamont Roach all he could handle in what McIntryre described as a ”tough-ass fight” in a 10-round loss. In his last bout, Oquendo defeated Charles Huerta over 10.
He might not be elite, but Oquendo is solid, and that makes him a formidable obstacle for Herring to get past on his way to the most meaningful fight of his career.
Xander Zayas’ development on track
The last time welterweight prospect Xander Zayas (4-0, 3 KOs) fought was on the night of Feb. 28. In just three rounds, Zayas stopped Marklin Bailey and was eagerly waiting his next assignment But a few weeks later, the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and like everyone else, Zayas had his life and career halted for several months.
On Friday, Zayas is back, fighting at the Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida, as he faces Orlando Salgado (1-0, 1 KO).
“Not just for me, but everybody, it’s been crazy,” Zayas said to ESPN last week. “But we’ve been handling everything accordingly and we’re taking every precaution to stay away from COVID-19.”
During his time away from the ring, Zayas graduated from Plantation High School but without the traditional ceremony.
“It was a little weird because I didn’t get to see my friends, I didn’t get a chance to spend time with them,” he said. “But I’m just glad that I finished and now I can focus on my boxing and my career. But yeah, it was a little weird, overall.”
Zayas’ team spent the past few months refining his skills, knowing that the downtime offered an opportunity.
“As a team we broke everything down, we went over everything we were doing right, and everything we were making mistakes at, and we corrected it,” he said. “We went step-by-step and built everything back up to be a better boxer, a better fighter.”
Zayas said that there was a real focus on working on his defense, understanding how to control distance and becoming a better body puncher. After turning professional last October, he had four bouts quickly put on his ledger and acknowledged that the respite from fights actually gave him a bit of time to recover physically.
As Top Rank began running shows in early June, there was an itch to get Zayas into the rotation and gain key exposure on ESPN. However, certain rules that restricted how many people from a particular camp could be admitted caused some issues.
One being that the Perfecting Athletes staff, which has overseen Zayas’ weight cuts and food intake on fight week throughout his career, would not be permitted. Also, at that point, the bubble was, in the words of his manager Peter Kahn, ”an unknown entity.”
Then there was the possibility of the worst-case scenario popping up.
“So what if the trainer, or stepdad tested negative, and he tested positive?” said Kahn, going through a hypothetical situation that more than a few boxers faced this summer. “Well, they’ve been giving people keys to a rental car and they’ve been able to drive home. So he’s a 17-year-old without a driver’s license that’s going to drive home from Nevada by himself?”
The other option wasn’t much better in Kahn’s view.
“Once again, a 17-year-old can’t get a hotel room by himself in Las Vegas, let alone stay by himself,” he pointed out. “So there were just too many things that were not worth forcing that situation.”
Though Zayas might have become a bit antsy, and getting ESPN airtime was enticing, the mantra has been very consistent from the beginning with how they are going to handle this career.
“We’re not going to be in a rush,” reiterated Khan, who says that the physical development of Zayas is noticeable. “You have to look at the big picture and not lose sight of it.”
After his fight Friday, Zayas will turn 18 on Saturday and from there will be allowed to fight in every jurisdiction in the country.
“Look,” Khan said, “we might end up in the bubble by the end of the year. But we needed to see how it played out, first.”
Another WBA welterweight title in play
On Sunday night (Fox, 8 p.m. ET) PBC will put on another card at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. The main event is a welterweight battle between Yordenis Ugas (25-4, 12 KOs) and Abel Ramos (26-3-2, 20 KOs) for the vacant “regular” strap, one of the many WBA title belts that are available in every weight class.
Putting the overabundance of WBA titles aside, Ugas (who is rated No. 7 in the division by ESPN) is a legitimate world-class welterweight. Since losing consecutive fights to Emmanuel Robles and Amir Imam in 2014, he has won 10 of his past 11. Wins on his ledger include Jamal James (who is No. 9 at 147 by ESPN), Bryant Perrella, Thomas Dulorme, Ray Robinson and Omar Figueroa. No, there aren’t any elite names there, but that’s a solid set of victories.
Ugas’ lone defeat was a highly debatable decision last spring versus Shawn Porter, who at that time held the WBC title.
From a career on the brink, the Cuban has regained a bit of momentum in recent years and has transformed himself into a formidable fighter. On any given night he can give the elite in the division a difficult time with his long frame and smooth boxing skills.
So while that WBA belt he’s fighting for might not be legitimate, Ugas as a fighter, certainly is.