Five things we learned

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
1:08
AM ET
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After an exciting doubleheader at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, featuring knockout victories from a pair of unbeaten titlists on the rise, here are five things we learned from the card titled “Mexican Style”:

1. Golovkin is ready for true crossover stardom

Although Gennady Golovkin’s second-round knockout of veteran middleweight Marco Antonio Rubio on Saturday proved somewhat anticlimactic, it was no fault of the “Kazakh KO King.”

Golovkin’s 18th consecutive knockout and 12th straight defense of his 160-pound title only escalated American boxing’s love affair with the grinning, humble fighter wielding dynamite in both hands. Golovkin (31-0, 28 KOs) has not yet fully made the leap into the conscious of the general sports fan, but he doesn’t appear to be far off.

Plain and simple, he delivers on the action promised in a time when fans haven’t consistently received an equal payout for their money spent. With the brands of boxing’s incumbent kings growing tired due to factors such as age and unwillingness to make the best fights available, Golovkin, 32, is a breath of fresh air to the sport.

While his few remaining critics are quick to remind that he has yet to face true A-level competition, his insistence on staying busy and being willing to fight anyone over a span of three weight classes has more than compensated. The Tysonesque buzz that has followed Golovkin from one devastating knockout to another is real. It won't be long now before the rest of the American sports world begins to fully take notice.

2. California debut proves GGG’s brand has closed the gap

Mixing his danger with his lack of a native fan base made it an easy justification for Golovkin to become boxing’s most avoided fighter. But prospective opponents can no longer make the excuse that GGG is not a marketable draw.

[+] EnlargeMarco Antonio Rubio, Gennady Golovkin
AP Photo/Alex GallardoGennady Golovkin, left, scored his 18th consecutive KO victory by stopping Marco Antonio Rubio in Round 2 on Saturday.
Golovkin made his West Coast debut in front of a sold-out crowd of 9,323 at a venue that repeatedly opened extra seating in the lead-up to the fight. Three months earlier, he made his debut in the big arena at New York’s Madison Square Garden to spectacularly knock out former titlist Daniel Geale in front of more than 8,500 fans.

GGG is ready to fill the big arenas and make the leap onto the pay-per-view level for the right fight in 2015. What that will do is dramatically enlarge the name-value of his potential opponents.

With Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez signing a long-term deal to return to HBO, along with his promoter Golden Boy showing a newfound willingness to play nice with others, big fights are on the horizon at middleweight.

By the time the winner of a possible spring 2015 showdown between Alvarez and middleweight champion Miguel Cotto has his hand raised, Golovkin -- who became Cotto’s mandatory challenger in winning a vacant interim title Saturday --- should see his brand further developed.

Although that won’t make him any less dangerous for the winner to face -- especially if his knockout streak continues -- potential Golovkin opponents can no longer contend fighting him isn’t a smart move, financially.

3. Bad weekend for Rubio

Despite entering the fight as a heavy underdog, Rubio (59-7-1, 51 KOs) was expected to challenge Golovkin in ways other recent opponents were unable to do.

Rubio, 34, entered the fight with height and reach advantages over Golovkin, along with respected durability. With 51 knockouts in 59 victories entering the fight, he also represented arguably the hardest puncher Golovkin had seen.

But the native of Mexico lost both his interim belt and his ability to challenge Golovkin for his full title the day before the fight, when he weighed in over the middleweight limit at 161.8 pounds. Despite having two hours to shed the extra weight, Rubio never made it back to the scales and forfeited $100,000 of his $350,000 purse.

To make matters worse for Rubio, along with his unprofessionalism, he failed to live up to his end of the bargain inside the ring. Despite a solid opening round in which he pressured Golovkin and landed a mixture of left hooks and body shots, Rubio folded quickly once he tasted GGG’s power in Round 2.

Golovkin set up Rubio’s exit with a perfect right uppercut that sent him reeling and running for cover along the ropes. Golovkin swooped in and capped off a flurry with an overhand left to the top of the head that sent Rubio to the canvas.

Rubio sat up quickly but took his time getting up, as referee Jack Reiss counted him out with Rubio appearing to not want any more.

4. A featherweight star is born in Walters

Secondary beltholder Nicholas Walters entered Saturday’s bout against 126-pound titlist Nonito Donaire known mostly for his power, which stopped 10 of his previous 11 opponents.

But the native of Jamaica left the bout with a memorable knockout against the biggest name in a loaded, red-hot division.

Walters (25-0, 21 KOs), 28, announced himself to the boxing public in his first appearance on American television by outworking and ultimately stopping Donaire in Round 6.

Out-jabbing Donaire to the tune of 44-4 according to CompuBox, Walters set the stage for his devastating power. Donaire was floored in Round 3 for the first time in his career on a beautiful uppercut that opened a cut above his right eye.

By Round 6, Walters was simply wearing him down as the bigger man and finished him with a right hand to the side of the head that sent Donaire to the canvas face first, moments before referee Raul Caiz Jr. called off the fight.

The victory also showcased Walters’ humility and the respect he held for Donaire during their postfight interview. Walters not only doesn’t lack for confidence, but he’s also a potential handful for any of the other titlists in the division, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Vasyl Lomachenko.

5. The end is near for Donaire

Donaire gave Walters full credit for the victory and said he entered at his best and never trained as hard for a fight in his career.

But what Donaire’s loss illustrated was that, at 31, the former four-division titlist is no longer the guy who captured fighter of the year honors in 2012. It also gave credence to the thought Donaire had moved up one weight class too big.

Either way, the future of his career, at least against elite opponents, appears to be over. While Donaire refused to take the bait when HBO’s Max Kellerman suggested retirement after the bout, his comments spoke volumes.

“I have to go back to the drawing board,” Donaire said. “I know I can’t compete with guys like Walters. He was just overwhelming me. I succumbed to his size and power and his overwhelming aura.”

Golovkin in his own words

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
3:13
PM ET
After a dominant victory over Daniel Geale in July, Gennady Golovkin is ready to take his act to the West Coast to face Mexico's Marco Antonio Rubio on Saturday, Oct. 18 (HBO, 10 p.m. ET) at the StubHub Center in Carson, California.

Golovkin (30-0, 27 KOs), a middleweight titlist since 2010 -- when he beat Milton Nunez in Panama -- faces Rubio (29-6-1, 51 KOs), who owns an interim title in the 160-pound division.

For this fight, Golovkin is back training in the mountains of Big Bear in California.

In his own words, Golovkin talks about training and fighting in California and the opportunity to build a fan base on the West Coast.

Discuss what it feels like to be fighting in California for the first time.

“I first came to Big Bear to train over four years ago with my coach, Abel Sanchez. I liked that it was quiet and peaceful and a good place to work and prepare for my fights.

“The other fighters in camp made me feel welcome right away, as did Coach’s family. I missed my wife and son back in Germany, but knew this would be best for my career. And I would see my family when I go back home in between fights.

“Along with training, I’ve been able to attend other fights and have always been approached by fans who wanted my autograph and picture. While they see me fight on HBO in New York City, they also always wanted to know when I would be fighting in Los Angeles.

“The StubHub Center I’ve been to many times for other fights, and each time the support from the fans increases. Also, when I go into Los Angeles for other events, fans are very supportive as well.

“So this fight against Marco Antonio Rubio is a gift to all my fans here in Southern California, everyone who kept asking about fighting here and have been so supportive. I’m very happy to be fighting on October 18th at the StubHub Center and promise a great show to those in attendance and those watching at home on HBO.”

New style suits Martirosyan well

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
2:13
PM ET

Vanes Martirosyan will never forget walking into promoter Dan Goossen’s office for the first time.

Coming off his first defeat against Demetrius Andrade in their vacant junior middleweight title bout last November -- and having recently been dropped by promoter Top Rank -- Martirosyan was at a crossroads moment of his career at age 27.

“[Dan] looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You have so much talent -- let me help you out.’” Martirosyan told ESPN.com. “I believed him because he looked me straight in the eye when he talked to me. Then I got with [Dan’s brother and trainer] Joe [Goossen] and it was the same with him. It’s all a family with 100 percent honesty.

“When you get people that are 100 percent, you are going to get 100 percent of the results. Nobody believed in me after my loss, except for Dan.”

Less than a year later, Martirosyan scored his second straight win under the Goossen banner -- and the biggest of his career -- on Saturday when he outdueled Willie Nelson by unanimous decision in an action-packed bout at the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

Not only was the victory an integral one for Martirosyan (35-1-1, 21 KOs) in terms of his future as a title contender at 154 pounds, but the bout took on substantially more meaning following Dan Goossen’s death less than a week earlier after a short battle with liver cancer.

Martirosyan (35-1-1), a native of Armenia who fights out of Glendale, California, entered the bout unsure if going on with the fight was the right move. But it was a message relayed to him from Dan Goossen shortly before his death that spurred him on.

“What motivated me the most was that Dan, before he left, told Joe to make sure that we do good Saturday,” Martirosyan said. “So we had to grant his wish and we had to make him proud. That was one of the most motivational things that he said, and it helped me a lot.”

The combination of a heavy heart and a new attitude under the tutelage of Joe Goossen helped Martirosyan put forth a performance against Nelson that was atypical to what we have seen from him in the past.

This was an all-new Martirosyan -- a fighter focused on seizing the moment and bursting right through it.

[+] EnlargeVanes Martirosyan, Willie Nelson
Ed Diller for ESPNVanes Martirosyan, right, scored a much needed win against Willie Nelson last Saturday.
After suffering a cut above his right eye in Round 4, he never wilted. Martirosyan not only hurt Nelson (23-2-1, 13 KOs) with a series of uppercuts and straight right hands late in Round 8, he came out of his corner the next round like a man possessed.

“I wanted to get into a brawl, to be honest,” Martirosyan said. “After Round 8, I thought about Corrales-Castillo for some reason having Joe in my corner.”

Joe Goossen was in Diego Corrales’ corner when he rallied to dramatically stop Jose Luis Castillo in their legendary first bout in 2005. He was also the trainer of record when John Molina did the same in the final round against Mickey Bey last year.

So the marriage between fighter and trainer would appear to be a perfect one when you consider Martirosyan, once a standout amateur who represented the United States at the 2004 Olympics, has had difficulty fulfilling his potential on the pro level.

Both in his loss to Andrade, in which Martirosyan scored a first-round knockdown, and his 2012 draw with Erislandy Lara, he was plagued by stretches of passive inactivity. That has changed under the influence of Joe Goossen, who has long preached an attacking style.

“It’s all Joe Goossen. I used to just box and move, but Joe is making me become a complete fighter,” Martirosyan said. “I think working with Joe is going to make me more action-packed and smarter, with more knockouts.

“One thing he always talks about is [fighting with] balls. He always asks me, ‘Do you have your mouthpiece? Do you have your cup? Do you have your balls?’”

Martirosyan’s turn to a more exciting style should also help him get him the fights he desires against the very best in the division. His short list includes Austin Trout, rematches against Lara and Andrade, or a showdown with Canelo Alvarez.

“This is boxing, and we are warriors. People pay to see us fight and want to see a good fight,” said Martirosyan, who is managed by Al Haymon. “[Canelo] comes forward to fight and, as you guys saw Saturday, I come forward. It will be action-packed and something the fans would love -- something like Castillo-Corrales, maybe.”

There’s a reason why Martirosyan has referred to his new alliance with the Goossen family as a second chance for his career. He claims the loss to Andrade showed him “who my true friends are, including some family members,” leading him to keep a much smaller inner circle these days.

It’s that family atmosphere within camp that has allowed Martirosyan to blossom and begin to find out how good he can be. There’s a feeling of trust that is tangible. For the first time against Nelson, Martirosyan entered a fight feeling like he was fully prepared, which simply wasn’t the case under former trainer Freddie Roach.

“No disrespect to Freddie, but he always had to go and train Manny Pacquiao or Miguel Cotto,” Martirosyan said. “So I never had 100 percent focus in my training. Now that I do, I see the difference. Joe puts 100 percent of his time into me, and that’s why you saw a good performance on Saturday, and you are going to see more in the future.”

End of the road for a legend in Arce

October, 6, 2014
Oct 6
1:58
PM ET
LOS MOCHIS, Mexico -- Jorge Arce kept it honest.

Despite being a fighter who lacked great technique, he routinely compensated by being a brave, fan-friendly and courageous boxer in each of his pro fights.

Arce stood by his style on Saturday night while challenging for countryman Jhonny Gonzalez's featherweight title. By using his all-or-nothing approach, Arce tried to squeeze one more win onto his impressive résumé.

But Gonzalez punished him severely, opening a cut over Arce's left eye and forcing him to slow down and focus more on surviving as Gonzalez left the Centro de Usos Multiples with an 11th-round TKO win.

"I think I achieved that, since Jhonny is one of the best fighters I've faced in my career," Arce said.

After losing the fight, Arce (68-4-2, 49 KOs) went home, where his wife Karime had prepared a party with his friends, to celebrate his career and his last day as an active boxer.

Arce, 35, won his first world title at age 19. In the end, he was involved in 28 world title fights, in six different weight classes, from 108 to 130 pounds. He won world titles at junior flyweight, flyweight, junior bantamweight, bantamweight and junior featherweight.

And boy, could Arce be one courageous fighter. Even when he was a couple of inches away from being knocked out, he was still dangerous enough to stage a comeback to claim a miraculous victory.

Every fight involving Arce was worth the price of admission. While he took some tough losses against names like Michael Carbajal, Nonito Donaire and Vic Darchinyan, he also scored some memorable victories. Hussein Hussein, Wilfredo Vazquez and Yo-Sam Choi are three of his most cherished wins.

Against Gonzalez, in front of his home crowd in Los Mochis, Arce was well aware that the odds were against him. But he tried, one more time. Despite his severely damaged eyelid, Arce tried to keep on fighting, but it all ended in the 11th round.

It was the end of the road for "El Travieso,"a true boxing warrior, who loved to defy the odds. And even Gonzalez took his hat off, to honor Arce, and admitted to taking his foot off the gas pedal late in the fight out of respect.

"I defeated a great boxer, a very courageous one," Gonzalez said. "He earned my respect. I was convinced that I would win. I had no mercy, I wanted to knock him out. But, as the fight progressed into the later rounds, and his eyelid was so damaged, the punishment was unnecessary. He had to go back home, to his family, so it was time to slow down."

Payano focused on Moreno's title

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
1:52
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Remembered for his strong record as an amateur, Juan Carlos Payano, a two-time Olympian from the Dominican Republic, is aiming high in professional boxing.

With only four years of paid experience in the sport, Payano will compete for his first world title Friday when he meets Panamanian bantamweight titlist Anselmo "Chemito" Moreno (35-2-1, 12 KOs) at the Mesquite Arena in Mesquite, Texas.

Payano (15-0, 8 KOs), who owns a pair of silver medals from the Pan American Games, is aware that this is a golden opportunity for him on a card put together by Mike Tyson's Iron Mike Productions.

[+] EnlargeJuan Carlos Payano
AP Photo/Murad SezerFormer Olympian Juan Carlos Payano of the Dominican Republic enters his first title shot on Friday against Anselmo Moreno.
"I'm in the final stages, and I'm basically ready for the fight and waiting for that time and the moment we go head to head," Payano said. "After training with my trainer Germán Caicedo in Miami, as always, and having prepared in the best way possible, I'm ready.

"I realize that Moreno is a tough fighter, but it makes me very proud to be fighting a great champion like him. It has always been my aim to fight against the best and become one of them myself. My goal is to reach the top, and if I'm to achieve that, then [Friday] is the big challenge."

Payano, 30, assured that a victory will open the doors to the big leagues for him and his team, something that he has always dreamed of.

"I want to be among the best," Payano said. "Moreno is in my sights right now, and I'm confident of winning on the night, although I'm expecting a tough fight. Thanks to that, I'm 110 percent ready to get in there and fight."

Known as a versatile boxer who is able to unleash the dynamite in his knuckles, Payano said that, along with the chance to compete for a world title, he is eager to be a titlist under the flag of Iron Mike Productions.

"I'm certainly delighted to be working with someone like Mike Tyson," Payano said. "I've always really looked up to him, and now he's my promoter. To have him in my corner gives me a great pride and great motivation. It makes me really happy. I enjoy being part of the firm, and I don't want to let him down."

Payano rejected the claim that fighting in the United States would have an effect on him, as he has always been used to fighting away from home.

"It's not important whether I fight at home or not," Payano said. "I'm a fighter, and I fight wherever I have to. I'm not really one for favoritism. I'm here to fight, whether it's in Panama or wherever. We're on neutral ground; he's outside Panama, and he has always fought there. The main thing in my favor is my excellent training."

Garcia to leave Mayweather's corner

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:18
PM ET
Rafael Garcia is no longer in charge of taping Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s fists and being his cutman, something he has done since 2001. The main reason: It's time to retire at 85 years of age.

Garcia's name is among those mentioned in possible changes that Mayweather will make to his team along with Maayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe. Garcia did not wrap Mayweather's hands during Saturday's rematch against Marcos Maidana.

And Garcia said that before Mayweather notifies him regarding his future, he has already thanked him.

"Yes, it's true I didn't tape him, but he hasn't fired me," Garcia told ESPNDeportes.com. "I thanked him after the fight because I retired from boxing, but I'm fine with him. Thanks to him I live how I live.

Garcia didn't find out that he had been relieved of his duties on Saturday until the last minute.

"Floyd told me to go with Mickey Bey for his fight against Miguel Vazquez," Garcia said. "When I came back they were already taping him. I didn't oppose to it, he's the one fighting, not me, and before they push me aside, I leave and thank him for everything."

With over 50 years in boxing and having worked with stars such as Lupe Pintor, Rafael "Bazooka" Limon, Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, Wilfredo Gomez and many more, Garcia will always have a special place for Mayweather.

"I know he went to Miami on vacation, when he comes back I'll talk to him and I will thank him [and] tell him it's been a pleasure to be with him," Garcia said. "But now I'm leaving.

"Maybe I'll go to the gym and watch him and the others, but I'm all grown up, I want to enjoy life."

Garcia would not comment whether he was upset at Bob Ware for wrapping Mayweather's hands before the Maidana rematch. He also said he wouldn't be surprised if unofficial camp member Alex Ariza continued working with Mayweather for other fights as a strength and conditioning coach.

He also declined to comment about Ellerbe, with whom he has a good relationship. Garcia said those are things that Mayweather and Ellerbe have to take care of and that getting involved in that issue would bring bad memories of the experiences he has had with both over the years.

Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s still got it

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
1:22
PM ET
LAS VEGAS -- It was an intense yet very different 12 rounds of action between pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Marcos Maidana in Saturday’s rematch at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

But after Mayweather (47-0, 26 KOs) defended his welterweight and junior middleweight titles via unanimous decision to remain unbeaten, here are five things that we learned from the rematch:

1. Mayweather stuck to his strengths

After how close their first fight was in May, as Mayweather stood and traded with Maidana before making adjustments and hanging on by a slim margin, we figured Mayweather would go back to the basics and use his legs to create separation.

We were right.

Mayweather largely avoided confrontations and spent the whole night backpedaling and circling away from Maidana’s advancements. But that doesn’t mean Mayweather wasn’t brilliant in his execution.

Outside of a few dangerous situations early on, Mayweather stuck to the basics of hit and not be hit, never allowing himself to get pinned for too long against the ropes or in the corner. Mayweather sought preservation over retaliation and by doing so showcased the clear gap in ability between the two fighters.

2 Floyd had some help too

It was easy to predict that the change in referees from Tony Weeks in the first fight to veteran Kenny Bayless would have an impact on the rematch. And boy did it.

Weeks’ liberal stance on dirty tactics from both fighters in the first meeting clearly favored Maidana’s strategy and gave him a distinct advantage. In the rematch, Bayless’ conservative handling of clinches did exactly the opposite, and Mayweather was the beneficiary.

The fight was still plenty dirty, with Mayweather claiming he was bit on the left hand in Round 8 and Maidana losing a point in Round 10 for shoving Mayweather to the canvas. But the quickness with which Bayless separated the two fighters at even the first sign of a clinch had a major impact on how the fight played out. As did the blind eye he appeared to turn by failing to police -- or even warn -- Mayweather for his constant holding.

3. ‘Money’ was all business

Gone was Mayweather’s elaborate ring entrance from their first fight in May. There weren’t any dollar bills with Mayweather’s face on them falling from the sky or celebrity rappers performing by his side during the ring walk. We didn’t even see Justin Bieber.

Instead, Mayweather entered the ring with a stoic look and his head down. With two fights left on his lucrative Showtime/CBS deal and the potential of retiring undefeated, there was little room for error. Even though Mayweather helped build up the fight’s promotion by talking about wanting to stop Maidana in recent weeks, his mentality turned to that of surviving and advancing when he entered the ring.

Considering the dangerous and unpredictable nature of Maidana, it was a mindset he needed to have. But credit Mayweather for blocking out the many distractions that have followed him in recent months and removing any lingering doubt created by the first fight.

4. Mayweather showed his age in subtle ways

Checking the pulse of social media after the fight, it was clear Saturday’s rematch was deemed a disappointment by many looking for a repeat of the drama and uncertain ending from the first fight.

Mayweather took home a much wider decision in a fight mostly void of two-way exchanges. But that doesn’t mean the second fight lacked for intensity to those watching from ringside.

A case could be made that Mayweather, who largely avoided getting hit cleanly to head and face in the first fight, had to work much harder in the rematch, finding himself in specific situations that were much more dangerous and compromising.

Maidana landed a flush left hand at the bell in Round 3 that clearly appeared to hurt Mayweather. Maidana followed it up with a brilliant Round 4 in which he routinely backed Mayweather up to the ropes and landed clean and heavy shots from close range.

Although Maidana was never able to quite duplicate that level of success later in the fight, he created a real sense at times that Mayweather was one clean punch away from real trouble. It’s a feeling that is foreign to most fans of Mayweather fights and one that didn’t show up as much in their first fight despite the close nature of the scorecards.

Mayweather may have proved Saturday that, at 37, he’s still got it. In fact, he connected an astounding 51 percent of his punches overall and 58 percent of his power shots. But he appeared legitimately vulnerable to Maidana’s pressure and rarely put forth a posture that screamed of poise and control.

Clearly we hold Mayweather to a different standard than others due to his greatness. But there were times he appeared to be surviving as much as he was thriving in the later rounds.

5. Floyd is (somewhat) open to a Pacquiao fight

It was sure nice to hear Mayweather handle questions about a fight against Manny Pacquiao without instantly shooting the idea down. But does this mean the fight actually happens in 2015? Based on the history between the two (not to mention the ongoing beef between Al Haymon and Top Rank’s Bob Arum), I wouldn’t be so sure.

But Mayweather didn’t dodge Pacquiao’s name when asked by Showtime’s Jim Gray after the fight, saying, “If the Pacquiao fight presents itself, let’s make it happen.” Moments later, when asked the same question by ESPN’s Bernardo Osuna, Mayweather said the fight would have to take place on Showtime PPV.

Later in the evening at the news conference when asked again, Mayweather said, “You can keep asking the same questions, and you can keep getting the same answers.”

So the results are somewhat inconclusive. But if the pay-per-view numbers from Saturday’s fight come back lower than expected for the third time in four fights since Mayweather signed the exclusive deal with Showtime, the hurdles that would need to be cleared to make the Pacquiao fight could have a better chance of actually happening.

A lot more red tape would need to be sorted out than even mentioned above, and considering the proven stubbornness of the parties in question, it’s hard to gain too much confidence. But it would appear we are a heck of a lot closer than we were in the recent past.

Sorting out controversy entering Mayhem

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
5:54
PM ET
Considering the controversies that happened during the first fight between Marcos Maidana and Floyd Mayweather Jr. in May, which ones should we keep in mind when they step inside the ring to face each other for the second time on Saturday in Las Vegas?

There are some people who believe that the worst storyline from the first fight was the judges’ scorecards. The opinions are split: some think Mayweather won easily at least eight out of the 12 rounds, while others take Maidana's side, claiming that the Argentinian should have pulled the upset (or at least, received a draw).

Controversy No. 2 for this fight involves the gloves. This controversy might be well remembered by the fans, since Maidana and his team have brought it up over and over again during the media tour.

Hours before the first fight back in May, Mayweather threatened not to step inside the ring if Maidana refused to switch gloves. Originally, the Argentinian wanted to use a pair of custom Everlast MX gloves, but Mayweather protested, arguing that the gloves were a threat to his health. In the end, the managers made a deal, and Maidana wore a pair of regular Everlast gloves. For Saturday's fight, it appears Maidana will wear the Everlast Powerlock gloves.

Or maybe, people should have a close look at controversy No. 3: Maidana's dirty tactics. In May, he had an aggressive approach, going after Mayweather head-first, throwing elbows and even trying to hit him with his knee.

All three controversies were factors that weighed on Mayweather's decision to give an immediate rematch to Maidana. On Saturday, both fighters will try to settle the score, only this time without any controversy.

Mayweather-Maidana by the numbers

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
6:36
AM ET

This Saturday, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will once again step in the ring with Marcos Maidana at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Mayweather won the first fight in May by unanimous decision, but many felt Maidana came the closest anyone has to becoming the first fighter to defeat Mayweather. He will try once again, while Mayweather looks to move to 47-0 and one step closer to retiring undefeated. Here are the numbers you need to know for Saturday’s fight:

2: This is the second rematch Floyd Mayweather has given in his illustrious career. After a controversial unanimous decision win in 2002 against Jose Luis Castillo, Mayweather defended his newly won WBC lightweight title almost eight months later in a rematch. Mayweather outlanded Castillo 162-137 en route to another unanimous decision victory.

221: Punches Maidana landed on Mayweather, the most of any Mayweather opponent in 37 tracked CompuBox fights. Maidana used an aggressive approach in the first six rounds of the fight. He attempted 78.5 punches per round and outlanded Mayweather 125-98 (110 power punches). The only other fighter to land more than 200 punches against Mayweather was Castillo in their first fight (203).

114: According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, 114 of Maidana’s 221 punches were landed with Mayweather against the ropes (51 percent).

3: The fight in May marked the third time in Mayweather’s 46-fight career that he won by majority or split decision. Although some might argue the first Castillo decision, Mayweather’s only win by split decision came when he defeated Oscar De La Hoya in 2007. More recently, the Maidana fight and the previous bout against Canelo Alvarez were both victories by majority decision for the undefeated champion.

25: The plus/minus rating for Mayweather, the highest among active fighters. Plus/minus rating is determined by subtracting an opponent's connect percentage from a listed fighter's overall connect percentage. In his past three fights, Mayweather has plus/minus ratings of plus-28 (Maidana), plus-24 (Alvarez) and plus-22 (Robert Guerrero). Second on the plus/minus list is Erislandy Lara at plus-17.

54: Mayweather's connect percentage against Maidana. Mayweather was the less active fighter of the two, but he was by far the more effective. Mayweather landed between 50 and 59 percent in six of 12 rounds, 60 and 69 percent twice, and 14 of 20 punches in Round 4 for a 70 percent clip. Maidana's highest connect percentage in any round was 30 percent in the eighth round.

15: Million dollars gained from the live gate in the first Mayweather-Maidana fight, the third most in MGM Grand history. Mayweather has said MGM Grand is the place where "Money gets money," and that's proven in live gate sales. Mayweather has the three largest gates in MGM Grand boxing history, according to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and has garnered $20 million from the Alvarez fight and $18.4 million from the De La Hoya fight.

12: The money helps Mayweather stay in Vegas, but the MGM Grand is also home to 12 Mayweather victories. Mayweather won at MGM Grand for the first time in 2000 against Gregorio Vargas and has defeated legends such as Castillo, De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez and Miguel Cotto. MGM Grand has hosted every Mayweather fight since 2007.

85: According to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, Mayweather is an 8-1 favorite (minus-800), which gives him an 85 percent chance to win the rematch. In the previous bout, Mayweather was given an 87 percent chance to win the fight, with closing odds of minus-950 to Maidana’s plus-625 (13 percent to win).

5: Kenny Bayless will be the referee for Mayweather-Maidana, which marks the fifth time he has been in the ring as the referee for a Mayweather fight. Bayless was the referee for Mayweather's victories against Alvarez, Shane Mosley and De La Hoya and for Mayweather's pro debut against Roberto Apodaca.

3: Three of Mayweather's four titles will be on the line when he defends the WBA and WBC welterweight titles as well as the WBC junior middleweight title. The most recent time titles from multiple divisions were on the line in a fight was 1988, when Sugar Ray Leonard fought Donny Lalonde for belts in the super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.

--Statistical support provided by CompuBox

Box Fan Expo good for boxing fans

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
12:40
PM ET
Mike Tyson Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Box Fan Expo will give fans the chance to meet some of their favorite fighters.
In a sport as disorganized and politically controlled as boxing, it’s not uncommon to see the sport’s two most important entities -- the fighters and the fans -- get the short end of the stick.

Alonzo Benezra wants to see that change.

“It’s about the fighters and it’s about the fans,” said Benezra, the creator and organizer of the first annual Box Fan Expo. “That’s the primary things. All the rest is secondary.”

Modeled after a similar annual event put on by the UFC, the first Box Fan Expo will take place on Saturday, Sept. 13, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. PT at the Las Vegas Convention Center on the same day as Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s rematch against Marcos Maidana at the MGM Grand Arena (9 p.m. ET, Showtime PPV).

“It’s going to be quite an experience for the boxing industry, as well as the fans who deserve this and need this,” Benezra said. “Finally they get a chance to meet their boxing heroes and it’s a chance for the promoters to tap into the fans that never get to see the fighters face to face. We want the fighters to make money and brand whichever product they want to brand.”

Fans can expect to get a chance to meet some of boxing’s most popular names, past and present, including fighters, trainers, promoters and broadcasters. Some of the confirmed names include Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr., Riddick Bowe, Juan Manuel Marquez, Sergio Martinez, Robert Guerrero and Brandon Rios, with more constantly being added.

After watching the success of the UFC Fan Expo, Benezra had a vision of a similar event for boxing.

“When you watch the UFC, you see that they are branding their company so well and have really set the mark,” Benezra said. “I want to salute them as they are showing us how to do this.”

Benezra, however, was quick to point out an obvious hurdle between the potential success of his event and that of the UFC -- organization. Yet, despite the clear advantages of the UFC’s linear structure -- with all entities ultimately falling under one flag -- Benezra sees his event helping boxing get closer to a similar vision.

“Boxing is so fragmented, but because of that, it’s a chance to take all these fragmented pieces and come together under one roof and show the world we can come together when it’s for the fans,” Benezra said. “This event was only built for the fans. But it also gives the boxing industry an opportunity to network in between for those who haven’t had the chance to connect.

“I’m sure there are going to be deals made at the expo and we welcome every single angle. We just wanted to create a platform for the fighters to have a chance to promote themselves.”

Getting boxing’s biggest rivals, from a promotional sense, to come together under one roof would surely be a rare occurrence for the sport. But it’s all part of Benezra’s long-term vision for the event, which would annually take place on the weekend of the sport’s biggest fight.

The way Benezra sees it, boxing’s hard-core fan base will always be there to support the sport through thick and thin. But for the sport to truly cultivate new fans, there needs to be harmony, with its biggest players coming together to put the fans first.

“The message that I want to send to the boxing industry and to the top promoters is that they should support Box Fan Expo 100 percent because, in return, it will come back to them,” Benezra said. “Imagine if they have all of their fighters coming together under one roof. This is going to be the most powerful event of the year because you are having all of these fans and all of these countries and top celebrities together. How can anyone compete?”

Tickets for the event are $30 in advance online and $40 at the gate. Fans can visit the Box Fan Expo website for more information.

Broner needs to prove he's an elite fighter

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
12:52
PM ET

Searching for the truth has always been difficult when taking stock of former three-division titlist Adrien Broner.

As boxing’s undeniable clown prince, Broner is a rare fighter who sits on the fragile nest egg of holding real potential to become the sport’s biggest draw. But it’s never easy separating the fighter from the sideshow that comes with him, creating polarizing responses as to whether he’s really good enough to ever get there.

It’s clear that Broner (28-1, 22 KOs) is no longer the same monster he was at 135 pounds and below, able to overpower opponents by standing directly in front of them and breaking them down with menacing countershots.

But does that mean he’s necessarily as overrated and incapable of adjusting as he appeared to be while losing his welterweight title to Marcos Maidana in December?

That’s the question that will continue to follow Broner until he steps up and quiets the doubt by defeating a top-ranked opponent. Now competing at junior welterweight, he likely won’t have that opportunity Sept. 6 when he faces Emmanuel Taylor in Broner’s backyard of Cincinnati.

Adrien BronerEvery time I fought at home, I gave my fans a knockout. I spoiled my fan base in Cincinnati. So every time I fight here, that's what they want. I have to give them a knockout. I got to. And it's got to be pretty too.

-- Adrien Broner
Although Taylor (18-2, 12 KOs), 23, is a respected boxer, he isn’t in the same class as the division’s leading men of Danny Garcia, Lamont Peterson and Lucas Matthysse, with the latter joining Broner as co-headliners of the card in separate bouts.

Still, if Taylor is unable to outright answer the questions following Broner, he should be able to at least further the conversation by testing Broner’s commitment to the sport.

“Every time I fought at home, I gave my fans a knockout,” Broner said. “I spoiled my fan base in Cincinnati. So every time I fight here, that's what they want.

”I have to give them a knockout. I got to. And it's got to be pretty too. I think I'm going to hit him with the 30 piece and the biscuit.”

Although Broner said the right things in the aftermath of his humbling loss to Maidana, his next fight against Carlos Molina in May saw a return to both his tired in-ring antics and a one-dimensional style.

Broner not only failed to re-establish himself as a power puncher after dropping down in weight, but he was also hit repeatedly by a heavy underdog who lacked the power to make him pay. Just like in his loss to Maidana, Broner was far too stationary and repeatedly caught with his hands down by looping right hands, making for an unimpressive showcase victory.

Taylor has been keeping close tabs.

"I saw his fight against Maidana, and I saw a lot of weaknesses there. But that's not the only way he can be beaten,” Taylor said. “I definitely can take advantages of his weaknesses, but I have some other plans for fighting this guy.”

The good news for Broner is that he’s still so young, having turned 25 in July. The trash talk has returned in the buildup to the fight with Taylor, although a lot of that plays into his persona as a spoiled, flamboyant star who draws as many fans hoping to see him lose as simply see him.

It’s a marketing strategy that has done wonders for Broner’s “big bro” Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has the goods in the ring to back everything up. Broner simply isn’t that same level of fighter. But then again, who is?

In some ways, the loss to Maidana removed Broner from the pressures that come with living in Mayweather’s shadow, allowing him to start fresh and become the best Adrien Broner he’s capable of.

Step 2 of that journey begins Sept. 6 against Taylor where, regardless of the reasons why we watch, Broner remains a lightning rod who forces us to tune in. Yet, only “The Problem” can answer whether his nickname is a greater reflection on the issues he provides for his opponents or to himself.

Best fights to make at welterweight

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
1:18
PM ET

There was a certain refreshing nature to the way England’s Kell Brook soundly defeated Shawn Porter on Saturday to capture his welterweight title.

It wasn’t just the convincing nature of Brook’s performance or the fact that his victory announced -- somewhat unexpectedly -- a new player at 147 pounds in boxing’s undisputed glamour division.

The victory by Brook, 28, was extra sweet because it came within the grounds of a disturbingly rare meeting between unbeaten titlist and unbeaten challenger.

Brook (33-0, 22 KOs), who saw his shot against then-titleholder Devon Alexander fall apart three times due to injuries sustained to both fighters in the past two years, was able to challenge for the belt held by Porter (24-1-1, 15 KOs) because he was the mandatory. Without that distinction, it’s fair to question whether Brook would have had that chance in this spot.

After an almost dream-like 2013 for boxing, the first eight months of 2014 has seen the sport devolve back into a state of slow-play matchmaking and promoters not working together. Outside of an unforeseen surprise like Bernard Hopkins-Sergey Kovalev, fights like Porter-Brook have been few and far between in a year dominated by high-profile mismatches and too many pay-per-views.

Brook’s victory over Porter, however, reminded us of how important it is to get the kind of fights whose sole purpose are to give us answers regarding which fighter is truly for real.

With that thought in mind, here are the top five fights that can realistically be made in the welterweight division. Forget the idea of a Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao bout or anything else directly blocked by network exclusive deals or promoters and advisers who don’t play nicely. If those restrictions weren’t already painfully in place, one could quickly concoct 10 matchups better than any you will see below.

But these are the five best matchups at 147 pounds that not only could happen in the next 12 months but really should. So let the involuntary shadowboxing begin:

5. Kell Brook-Keith Thurman

While an all-England showdown between Brook and Amir Khan would be a major superfight across the pond, this pairing would do a better job definitively answering which fighter truly is “next” in the welterweight division. Both fighters are unbeaten, poised and well-rounded. Where do I sign up?

4. Ruslan Provodnikov-Brandon Rios

There’s certainly a bit of guilty pleasure associated with this fight between the two most unapologetically fearsome brawlers in the game. Yes, there would be blood. This would be one of those fights that you would tell three friends to tell three friends to tune in for. Violence and dramatic entertainment wouldn’t just be a hopeful expectation in this case but a guarantee.

3. Danny Garcia-Amir Khan II

Garcia, the unbeaten recognized champion at 140 pounds, has plenty of big fight possibilities in front of him at junior welterweight against the likes of Lamont Peterson, Adrien Broner and a possible rematch with Lucas Matthysse. But with the weight cut becoming increasingly harder for him, a move up to welterweight is inevitable. What better way to make a debut than in a high-profile rematch against the exciting and vulnerable Khan, who had plenty of success in the early parts of their first meeting before eating a flush left hook from Garcia that he never recovered from.

2. Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Keith Thurman

The obvious reactions regarding whether Thurman is ready for a fight of this nature or if his résumé deserves it quickly fade when you look at Mayweather’s current pool of prospective opponents within the division. We know we aren’t going to see “Money” against the likes of Pacquiao or Timothy Bradley Jr., so when you factor in Thurman’s game-changing power, balanced skill and bustling personality, the unbeaten interim titlist’s unanswered questions only add to the prospective intrigue of the fight. While you are much more likely to see Mayweather, should he defeat Marcos Maidana in their Sept. 13 rematch, in lower-risk/higher-reward fights, a showdown with Thurman is not only easy to make but also the most interesting for Floyd on paper at 147.

1. Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez V

I don’t want to hear about customer fatigue or the fact that the two fighters would be a combined age of 77 by the time this fight would be makeable again in 2015. This pairing, between top-five pound-for-pound fighters, still means something. Not only would the victor have a legitimate claim to having won this generation’s greatest rivalry, but all four fights have been dramatic, action classics. In fact, their most recent bout -- Marquez’s vicious one-punch knockout of Pacquiao in December 2012 -- was the best fight the sport has produced since Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo I in 2005. This fight doesn’t just make sense because, thanks to boxing politics, both fighters are without a better or more lucrative opponent in waiting. It’s the best fight you could currently make in the division because it involves two all-time great fighters who bring out the best in each other like no one else can.

Things we learned on Saturday

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
11:09
AM ET

For a split second, Kell Brook must have felt like he was in the ring with Sakio Bika. Moments after his majority decision over Shawn Porter was announced, his promoter, Eddie Hearn, wrapped him in a joyous embrace as both rolled around on the canvas. But Brook survived his post-fight spill and will return to England a conquering hero, a nick over his left eye the only visible sign he’d been in a fight.

The Brook-Porter bout capped a long evening at the StubHub Center that also featured Anthony Dirrell’s ugly decision over Bika and Omar Figueroa's sizzling TKO of Daniel Estrada. Brook’s win was the most significant, Figueroa’s shootout with Estrada the most exciting and Dirrell’s MMA-style rumble with Bika the one we’d like to forget. Each bout told us something about the combatants. Let’s see if we can figure out what.

1.Brook is almost ready: Brook is now a player in the talent-rich welterweight division, and seems eager to take on all comers. A match with Keith Thurman would be excellent, but Kell is not yet ready for the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao or Juan Manuel Marquez.

The logical next step would be a bout with fellow Brit Amir Khan, which would surely be a box-office bonanza in the U.K. Khan, of course, is still hoping for a fight with Mayweather, and has also expressed an interest in taking on Pacquiao. But it doesn’t seem that either of those are going to happen anytime soon, and Brook is clearly his best alternative.

2. Porter enthusiasm wasn't enough: Porter was as hyper as a kid who had overdosed on Halloween candy, while Brook was cool, composed and focused, just like an unflappable Englishman is supposed to be. His savvy movement, spearing jab, straight-as-an-arrow rights and judicious clinching blunted Porter’s flailing attacks. And although he never stopped trying, Porter’s enthusiasm and one-dimensional approach just weren’t enough. Maybe he’ll learn from his first defeat, but don’t count on it.

3. Porter is not special: We have at tendency to jump to conclusions and prematurely anoint a fighter as the next big thing, which is what happened with Porter, a likeable jumping bean of a slugger with a big smile and an aggressive attitude. His victories over Paulie Malignaggi and Devon Alexander -- a faded veteran and a reluctant dragon -- fooled a lot of people into thinking he was something special. But after the thumping he took from Brook, we know better. But that doesn’t mean we won’t make the same mistake again the next time a young fighter comes along and scores a couple of good wins. We believe because we want to believe.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Dirrell
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonAnthony Dirrell won a super middleweight title by outslugging Sakio Bika.
4. Who knew Dirrell could fight dirty? That’s exactly what he did in his rematch with notorious brawler Bika. In their first bout, the slick-boxing Dirrell allowed “The Scorpion” to bully him just enough for the Australian tough guy to hold onto his super middleweight belt with a draw. But this time Dirrell almost matched Bika foul-for-foul in a rough and tumble affair, winning a unanimous decision in a fight that had harried referee Jack Reiss running around like the Mad Hatter.

5. Omar Figueroa is fun to watch, but for how long? It wasn’t quite as sensational as Figueroa’s amazing decision over Nihito Arakawa in July 2013, but the way the Texas lightweight produced a thunderous right hand in the ninth round that ended Daniel Estrada’s brave bid to take the title was reminiscent of some of Arturo Gatti’s spectacular finishes. Figueroa’s dramatic victory underlined his status as a must-see fighter, but how long he can keep winning vicious slugging matches remains to be seen. Let’s appreciate him while we can.

Things we learned on Saturday

August, 10, 2014
Aug 10
1:39
AM ET
Danny Garcia, Rod SalkaEd Mulholland/Getty ImagesUnbeaten Danny Garcia made quick work of Rod Salka in a brutal second-round knockout on Saturday.
NEW YORK -- After a tripleheader of action at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, here are five things we learned about victories from Danny Garcia, Lamont Peterson and Danny Jacobs on Saturday night.

1. Absolutely nothing

In one of the most one-sided premium cable fight cards on paper in recent history, the favorites dominated in a way that validated the overwhelming negative response from fans the day the fights were announced.

Stay-busy or showcase fights involving big names are fine when packaged with compelling content. But Saturday’s card, headlined by junior welterweight titlists Garcia and Peterson in separate bouts, failed to answer any questions boxing fans had coming in, including the most important one: What's the point of seeing Garcia and Peterson in a pair of noncompetitive fights when they should have been facing each other?

2. Danny Garcia was right

Garcia, the recognized champion at 140 pounds, admitted during fight week he was in a no-win situation against such a heavy underdog in unranked lightweight Rod Salka.

He was right.

Not only did the unheralded Salka enter the ring with just three knockouts in 22 pro fights, he was as a 50-1 underdog for a fight so ill matched that even the much-maligned sanctioning bodies refused to clear it as a title fight. To make matters worse, the fight was Garcia's second straight of the showcase variety; he struggled to a debated majority-decision win over Mauricio Herrera in March.

If Garcia, who took home a purse of $700,000, had looked bad in any way against Salka, his critics would have had a field day. Instead, the opposite took place in the ring. Only the criticism still came immediately after on social media. And it was justified.

Garcia demolished the smaller, light-hitting Salka to the tune of three knockdowns in a second-round knockout win. The final knockdown was the most brutal of all, as Salka trainer Paul Spadafora tried unsuccessfully to get the referee's attention in order to stop the bout just before Garcia followed through on a flush left hook that violently ended the bout.

It's a highlight-reel knockout that exhilarated the crowd of 7,012 and will likely run in sizzle reels previewing Garcia's fights for years to come. But it came against an opponent clearly not fit to face a fighter the class of Garcia, who sits on the outskirts of most pound-for-pound lists. Garcia pounded his chest to the crowd after the fight and provided quotes like, "No matter who I fought tonight, they were going to get beat. I was going to purge. I was out for the kill." But this was a fight that ultimately did nothing for the unbeaten champion, or the sport.

3. Don't hold your breath on a payoff

Even though the card was set up as a possible preview toward a future title unification bout between Garcia and Peterson, a major criticism leading up to Saturday was that it wasn't a matchup that deserved this level of marinating.

Even though Peterson is a titlist and a skilled fighter with a flair for action, he was knocked out in a 2013 nontitle bout against Lucas Matthysse, the man whom Garcia defeated four months later. While getting the payoff of a Garcia-Peterson fight later this year could help ease the lingering discomfort caused by the card, the noncommittal comments from both fighters in the aftermath of their victories was far from reassuring.

Both Peterson, who defended his title by stopping Edgar Santana in Round 10, and Garcia said during fight week they would have preferred facing each other this weekend. But both fighters are at the mercy of the man who holds all of the cards, powerful advisor Al Haymon. And while 2013 was a great year for fans getting a chance to see big-name Haymon fighters in the ring against each other, 2014 hasn't been so kind, making a Garcia-Peterson fight far from a guarantee.

4. Good things do happen to good people

Middleweight Danny Jacobs is simply one of the nicest people in and around the sport of boxing. Coming back so heroically from a 2012 battle with osteosarcoma (a rare form of bone cancer) that nearly killed him, Jacobs' story has become an inspiration to many.

It's hard not to cheer for a guy so humble and passionate, and one you almost never see without a smile on his face. Jacobs, who floored and nearly finished Jarrod Fletcher in the opening round on Saturday, rebounded from a poor start in Round 5 to rally and stop him moments later, becoming the first cancer survivor in boxing history to win a world title.

Appropriately nicknamed "The Miracle Man," Jacobs addressed his hometown fans by saying, "The journey is a long one but I am blessed to have had the opportunity to perform in front of Brooklyn. We did it."

In a sport often overrun by negative headlines, this was a great story. And it couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy.

5. But let's not get too carried away

Jacobs' storybook victory is more than deserving of praise. But the full story, however, does need to be told.

Jacobs is not the middleweight champion of the world, despite what a ring announcer or fight poster might tell you. In fact, he's not even one of the four fully accredited titlists recognized by the major sanctioning bodies. With the WBA's insistence on creating as many as three titles per division, Jacobs captured its vacant "regular" title.

It's a belt not to be confused with the real WBA title owned by unbeaten Gennady Golovkin, or the WBA interim belt held by Dmitry Chudinov. Sound confused? You should be. The premise behind it is absurd. And even though Jacobs appears to have a bright future, which could include a showdown with unbeaten WBO titlist Peter Quillin, whom Jacobs called out after Saturday's victory, his new "world title" is merely a secondary one for now.

Nelson squares off with Grajeda on FNF

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
3:20
PM ET
Exciting junior middleweight Willie Nelson makes his return to ESPN's "Friday Night Fights" when he headlines a card from Fallon, Nevada.

Nelson (22-1-1, 13 KOs) will face Mexico's Luis Grajeda (17-2-2, 13 KOs) in a 10-round bout (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) at the Churchill County Fairgrounds.

Out of action for nearly a year because of left elbow surgery, Nelson, of Cleveland, Ohio, returned in June on the Miguel Cotto-Sergio Martinez undercard at Madison Square Garden in New York to drill Darryl Cunningham in the first round.

The victory over Cunningham was Nelson's sixth straight dating back to the lone loss of his career, in 2011 by majority decision against Vincent Arroyo. Nelson rebounded from that loss to score victories over name fighters such as Cuba's Yudel Johnson, John Jackson, Michael Medina and Luciano Cuello of Argentina.

"Willie [Nelson] is knocking on the door to a world title opportunity and an impressive performance against the hard-punching Grajeda moves him in that direction," promoter Lou DiBella said.

With a victory on Friday, a title fight could be in Nelson's future in the second half of 2014.

Nelson was forced to pull out of a December HBO date against Matthew Macklin due to his injured elbow. He also missed an opportunity to face James Kirkland.

Grajeda represents a hard-hitting and dangerous opponent for Nelson. Grajeda has good size and wingspan and has never been down in his career despite two defeats, including a 2010 loss to unbeaten Jermell Charlo.

He usually sets the distance with his jab and fights behind a high guard. While attacking, Grajeda looks to exploit his long wingspan and launch combinations with long hooks.

But if Grajeda has good height and wingspan for the division, Nelson surpasses him in both areas. At 6-foot-3 with a wingspan of 81 inches, Nelson gives off comparisons to Paul Williams for his size and fighting style as a junior middleweight.

Nelson's style of constant pressure makes the most of natural advantages by constantly using jabs and overhand rights from a distance. But when he enters close range, he often doubles up his hooks with both hands. Nelson has power, but he sometimes gets in trouble when quicker opponents close the distance.

In the co-feature battle, unbeaten Hungarian super middleweight Norbert Nemesapati (14-0, 13 KOs), 18, makes his U.S. debut against dangerous puncher Jason Escalera (14-2-1, 12 KOs) of Union City, New Jersey.

The opening bout of the card will showcase the professional debut of touted Chinese heavyweight Zhang Zhilei, an Olympic silver medalist in 2008, who will face American Curtis Lee Tate (7-4, 6 KOs) in a four-round bout.

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