Omar Figueroa Jr. vs. Robert Guerrero: Two layoffs equal one true comeback
Like much of the entertainment industry, boxing is an unforgiving master. If you leave the spotlight for an extended length of time, there is a good chance you’ll become yesterday’s news, despite previous successes. Just ask Mike Myers, Lauryn Hill, Guns ‘N’ Roses (the “Chinese Democracy” album, in specific) or even the Washington Wizards-era Michael Jordan. Omar Figueroa Jr. will attempt a triumphant return on a much smaller scale tonight, as the main event on the big FOX network (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT) but with no lesser sense of urgency to refocus a national – and personal – spotlight after a 19-month absence. The former WBC lightweight champion, whose aggressive volume-punching style earned many fans and lots of television exposure, gets a tough test from fellow former world champion Robert Guerrero (also coming off a 12-month layoff), who is a loss away from steppingstone status himself. Given previous performances, the duo has earned a big stage for this crossroads battle and should deliver a fan-friendly fight as long as their layoffs have refreshed them instead of adding a layer of rust.
Unlike other bright prospects whom have endured time away from the ring, Figueroa’s problems have nothing to do with promotional or managerial difficulties. Instead, hand and elbow injuries have stopped the 27-year-old from entering a ring at 100%. Figueroa, 26-0-1 (18), spoke of his frustration to local reporter Greg Luca, shortly after fading badly in a victory over former champion Antonio DeMarco in his most recent outing, “My body, I felt, was just breaking down before my eyes. It was kind of sad and horrific to see it sometimes.” He used the downtime to decompress and spend with his two children, “I’ve enjoyed my time, mainly for the healing process. I hope my body has taken advantage of this time I’ve given it away from the gym.”
As Figueroa matriculated through the ranks, I saw him as an overachiever who found ways to win but modified that opinion on closer inspection and repeated viewings. Initially trained by his father and aided by former junior lightweight world champion Jesse James Leija, he signed a five-year deal with Golden Boy Promotions before moving to Al Haymon when Golden Boy’s stable was broken up by lawsuits. It should be noted that Figueroa did not initiate or force that move but was part of a larger, mutually agreed-upon deal between the two entities. By all accounts, Figueroa is a humble and likable person, who has the right idea about boxing, “I don’t think there’s anything that will beat a brain.”
The Weslaco, Texas product is aptly nicknamed “Panterita” (“Little Panther”), for his mix of aggression and lithe movements that put foes off balance with their unconventionality. Started boxing age seven but never won more than regional titles, with no national or international victories of note in the amateurs. He hurts opponents by keeping good distance, rarely smothering punches and getting full extension with the aid of solid footwork. Shown an uncanny ability to time switches to southpaw for long or short stretches to confuse opponents. Admired Shane Mosley growing up but lacks the hand speed to emulate his hero.
Not only is this a return to action for the two main event boxers but also a homecoming for boxing to Long Island, New York’s Nassau Coliseum. Promoter Lou DiBella says the venue may become a boxing hub, “As a Long Islander, I am proud to promote the first fight card at Nassau Coliseum in 31 years. This’ll be the first boxing event on Long Island – first major boxing event at the Nassau Coliseum – in 31 years. The last event was on March 10th, 1986; it was headlined by Mike Tyson.” DiBella views the main event as a great rechristening, “Both these guys are warriors. Both of them come forward and throw; neither one of them is a runner. They’re both really, really true warriors in the historic sense of the great Mexican and Mexican-American fighters.” The card features regional and ethnic boxers who fit the local identity, with Long Island’s own Seanie Monaghan, New York City-based Marcus Browne, and Polish fan favorite Artur Szpilka.
Figueroa is intent on opening the venue with a bang, “New York is one of the places that has held historic fights. Being on that same stage as great fighters from the past is amazing. It’s one of those things that makes you feel like you made it. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to how excited I am to be back and I’ve missed everything that has to do with this. I’ve been on the big stage before and, at the same time, it’s something that I crave. I’m not about the whole spectacle about boxing. I feel like I enjoy it in a pure form. I like the challenge. I like the adrenaline rush that I get.”
As stated before, Figueroa’s preexisting issues were injuries that he addressed at the opening press conference: “I couldn’t put more behind my punches because my hands were just a wreck, so I had to make up for that lack of power with volume. Everything has to have this sort of equilibrium, so I wasn’t able to put the power behind my punches, so I made up (for it) with work. I worked harder to get the points that I needed to win the fight.” Figueroa admits to lingering doubts, “I don’t know how my hands are going to feel. I am reluctant to go 100%. We’ve debated different things that we could do so that I can mentally just feel comfortable and let go of my hands. My hands feel great and I can punch a wall right now with full force but mentally I won’t allow myself to do so.”
Robert Guerrero, 33-5-1 (18), used to be an insurmountable wall for opponents but has lost three of his last four fights and the one victory over Aron Martinez was debatable. The 34-year-old’s father/trainer Ruben says an 11-month layoff will prove beneficial, “We’re going to be super ready for this fight. It’s going to be a great fight, a tremendous fight. They both can fight. This is going to come down to a war, so we’re doing what we got to do.” This may not really a great Plan A for Guerrero, who was at his best when he boxed and used his feet. Perhaps now, with age and miles on his body, Guerrero is reduced to toiling and warring.
There are no doubts or lingering mental trauma for a war horse like Robert Guerrero, “I’m ready to go. I’ve just been training hard, been doing what I got to do, been studying a lot of film. Omar’s a tremendous fighter; he’s a barnburner. He comes to fight all the time and he’s very awkward, the way he switches positions, his footwork, the type of pressure he puts and the volume of punches he puts out, so he’s one of the guys you got to be super-ready for.” It all comes down to preparation in Guerrero’s thinking, “If you’re not ready for him, he’s just going to pound you down into the mat. With that being said, I’m that same type of fighter.”
The matchup has all the features DiBella sought when he was in charge of HBO’s matchmaking, the correct combination of complimentary skill sets and career points to drive a narrative, “These are two guys that really can fight and two guys that need this win. Two guys that are going to throw down really, really hard and, frankly, Robert Guerrero’s never done anything his whole career but throw down. He’s a 110-percenter, as I call them, the kind of guy that never gives less than everything he has and has always been in good fights, a true champion.”
In a very real sense, despite their current career trajectories, Figueroa is trying to get where Guerrero in his prime and is not afraid to say so, “I want to prove that I can be in the big fights that Guerrero has already had. I know how hard Robert Guerrero has worked to get to this point in his career.” That tiny bit of extra respect may be what Guerrero is counting on for a winning edge, aside from preparation, “You have to prepare for everything for a guy as awkward as Omar. If I can stay focused, I know I can get the victory. I’m ready to turn the page to the next chapter of my career and that starts with this fight.”