Abner Mares was riding as high as any boxer could be last summer.
He was undefeated, headlining major Showtime cards, climbing the pound-for-pound rankings, making high-six-figure purses and ready to defend his featherweight world title -- the third he had won in as many divisions in a brilliant 21-month stretch that saw him grind through such notable opponents as Daniel Ponce De Leon, Anselmo Moreno, Eric Morel and Joseph Agbeko (twice).
After knocking out Ponce De Leon in the ninth round to win the 126-pound belt 14 months ago, Mares made his first defense last August against former titleholder Jhonny Gonzalez, a tremendous puncher but a big underdog and a fighter many thought had seen better days.
But less than one round and two knockdowns later, the fight was over. Mares had been knocked out and his title and undefeated record were history.
Nearly a year later, Mares (26-1-1, 14 KOs) is getting back on the horse and hopes to ride toward another title when he takes on Puerto Rico's Jonathan Oquendo (24-3, 16 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round bout in the co-feature of the Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara junior middleweight fight on Saturday night (Showtime PPV, 9 ET) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
It's been quite an 11 months for Mares since the loss. First off, an immediate rematch with Gonzalez slated for February was canceled after Mares suffered a training injury and then had second thoughts about rescheduling the fight.
"I was training for that fight for February, a rematch against Jhonny Gonzalez, and then after [the injury] we just didn't agree with dates pretty much. That was the whole case of the fight not happening," Mares said.
"He wanted to take some time off. I was not going to give any advantages, so I decided not to take the fight any time soon and he didn't want to wait. So, with that said, I needed more time for myself to recover. I'm just focused on this fight, but later on in the future it's possible again."
In addition to not going through with the rematch, Mares rejected other fights in the name of more time off. Among them: a tune-up fight against Mike Oliver and even a shot at junior lightweight titleholder Takashi Miura, who would have traveled to the United States from Japan for the fight.
But the 28-year-old Mares, who is from Mexico but lives in Southern California, was reassessing his career and about to make changes. He let his contract with longtime manager Frank Espinoza, who expertly guided him to the three world titles, expire on May 24. Espinoza, believing he has nine months remaining with Mares due to injuries, has filed for arbitration on the contract with the California State Athletic Commission. The case is scheduled to be heard later this month.
Espinoza is not involved in Saturday's fight, and Mares said the case isn't a distraction.
"No distractions whatsoever," Mares said. "As far as the Espinoza situation, my lawyer is taking care of it. I have nothing to do with it as of now."
In addition to cutting ties with his manager, Mares also left trainer Clemente Medina in favor of working with Oakland, California-based Virgil Hunter, who is best known for his work with super middleweight champion Andre Ward but also has a stable that includes Amir Khan, Andre Berto and Alfredo Angulo.
Mares, always a formidable offensive fighter, needed Hunter's defensive expertise and said that is just what he has gotten from him in their time together.
"That is one of the top reasons why we are here, and we needed that," Mares said. "That was shown even in the fight before the Ponce fight [against Moreno]. I think I boxed somewhat good but still was getting caught with some punches. So, there's still room for progress, there's still room for learning. I feel like I've done so much yet I can do some more."
Mares feels that the time off and the changes will be worth it.
"You learn a lot from a loss. In fact, you learn more from a loss sometimes than from wins," Mares said. "The inactivity, the year out, it made me see a lot of things, rethink a lot of things and, obviously, rejuvenated me. I've been coming off a long string of title defenses, fight after fight, tough fights.
"In a period of eight, nine months I did a lot of tough fights. We've got a new team working with Virgil Hunter and if it affects me, the layoff, it'll be for the first few rounds. But once I get in my rhythm, nothing is going to stop me."
Mares said that although Oquendo is front and center for him, he does want an opportunity to even the score with Gonzalez.
"This is a guy who took my undefeated record. He did take a lot from me that night," Mares said. "I'm not saying physically, because it happened so fast, less than a round. So, thank God, physically, I wasn't damaged that much. But, naturally, he did as far as taking my undefeated record. So believe me, I do want my rematch, I want my revenge. But that will come in time."
If he was going to lose, Mares said he was glad it was over quickly -- in 2 minutes, 55 seconds.
"I was blessed that the fight was stopped. I was going to get up that second time, but the ref did make the great call and did not let me continue or else I think I would have done even more damage or even, who knows, I would have probably fought back [and taken] a lot of punches," Mares said. "But at the end of the day I did take this fight because I know I'm ready mentally.
"That's why I took this whole time, almost close to a year off, and I'm back. I always had that in my mind, when I first signed a contract to be a professional fighter, that there was going to be a loss. No matter what, this is a contact sport. It's a risky sport. Anything can happen. I'm ready for anything."
That's where Oquendo, 30, comes in. He is experienced but a decided underdog. The two times he stepped up in competition to face quality opponents in former junior featherweight titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. and former junior featherweight and featherweight titleholder Juan Manuel Lopez, he got knocked out.
Mares insisted, however, that he is not looking past Oquendo.
"This fight is no walk in the park. Jonathan is a warrior and that's why I trained very hard," he said. "I'm here to make a statement."
Oquendo said this fight is not going to be like the other times he faced top opponents.
"Basically, the couple of times I wasn't in the best preparation that I could have had," Oquendo said. "I've learned from that. Like they say, third time is a charm. And you know what? We're taking it very serious.
"I know Abner Mares. I know his capabilities. I know how risky this fight is. We were both, at one time, with Golden Boy years ago and I always thought that was a possibility to make this fight, you know, Puerto Rico versus Mexico, [that] down the road we would make it. I had a couple of losses and they taught me and now we have a good team. We're preparing really well, and you know what, I'm excited.
"I'm not going to lie -- I have a lot of respect for Abner Mares, but don't let that fool you. I don't feel any pressure. He's a great champ, but there will be blood in the ring on Saturday, and it won't be mine."
Said Mares, "I'm glad he has the mentality of the knockout, but on Saturday it is going to be my night in the ring."
A strong performance will put Mares back in the thick of the title hunt and probably into another major fight.
"Obviously, significant, significant to my career," he said of the importance of Saturday's fight. "Obviously, getting back on that list of winning. It would mean a lot to me, my fans, my family, and we're preparing. We know we have a tough opponent, a difficult fight, but that's what we're preparing for."