- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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One of boxing's most passionate nationalistic rivalries will be renewed when featherweight titlist Daniel Ponce De Leon of Mexico defends his belt against Jayson Velez of Puerto Rico on March 2 at the Apollo Theater in New York.
Golden Boy Promotions formally announced the fight, which will headline a Showtime-televised tripleheader, on Friday.
"There's nothing like boxing's Mexico-versus-Puerto Rico rivalry, and this fight between Ponce De Leon and Velez is going to be explosive from start to finish," Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya said. "New York City is the perfect location for this event, and we can't wait to have our first show at the historic Apollo Theater."
The last time there was a boxing card at the famed Apollo was in November 1997, when HBO televised a heavyweight doubleheader of David Izon-Lou Savarese and Hasim Rahman-Obed Sullivan.
Also on the March 2 card, interim lightweight titleholder Richard Abril, a Cuban living in Miami, will meet Las Vegas-based Uganda native Sharif Bogere for a vacant world title in the co-feature, and 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year Gary Russell Jr. of Washington, D.C., will face Vyacheslav Gusev of Russia in a scheduled 10-round bout.
Ponce De Leon (44-4, 35 KOs), a former junior featherweight titleholder, will be making the first defense of the featherweight belt he won Sept. 15 with an eight-round technical decision against countryman Jhonny Gonzalez, who was unable to continue after an accidental head butt opened a bad cut over his right eye.
"This is a fight we've been waiting a long time for, and my first defense is just around the corner," Ponce De Leon said. "I feel better prepared than when I won the title against Jhonny Gonzalez. I'm sure I'll win and will be world champion for a long time. I'm focused on the fight. I'm not bothered or uncomfortable fighting outside of my own backyard. To the contrary, it motivates me to fight better."
Velez (20-0, 15 KOs), who is promoted by superstar fighter Miguel Cotto's company, is taking a major step up in competition against Ponce De Leon.
"I've been training really hard and am focused for this fight," Velez said. "Winning a belt has been the goal my whole life. Everything in camp is going as we planned, and I can't wait to be in the ring on March 2."
Said Cotto, "This will be a great fight, once again the classic battle between Puerto Rico and Mexico. Jayson is ready to take the challenge and fight for the world title. Puerto Rico will have a new world champion on March 2."
Abril (17-3-1, 8 KOs) and Bogere (23-0, 15 KOs), a five-time African champion as an amateur, were originally supposed to meet in November on the Robert Guerrero-Andre Berto undercard, but the fight was postponed because Bogere suffered a partial tear of his left Achilles tendon.
Abril has not fought since a highly controversial split-decision loss to Brandon Rios for the vacant lightweight title last April. Rios failed to make weight for the bout, and the title was at stake only for Abril, who appeared to easily defeat a lethargic Rios. The fight was so controversial that the sanctioning body allowed Abril to keep the interim belt and retain his position to fight for the vacant belt again.
Russell (21-0, 13 KOs), a southpaw, was a 2008 U.S. Olympian with vast potential, although injuries and issues with opponents limited him to just two fights in 2012. Gusev (20-2, 5 KOs) is a nine-year professional who will be fighting in the United States for the second time. The first time Gusev fought in America, in 2009, he lost a lopsided 10-round decision to Juan Carlos Burgos, a top junior lightweight contender, who fought to a draw challenging world titlist Roman "Rocky" Martinez on Jan. 19.
3dDarren Rovell and Dan Rafael