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In 2006, then-bantamweight titleholder Jhonny Gonzalez was training for what ultimately would be an unsuccessful rise in weight to challenge Israel Vazquez for a junior featherweight belt.
In preparation for the fight, Gonzalez, then trained by Hall of Famer Nacho Beristain, went to camp in the mountains of Big Bear Lake, Calif. At the time, Beristain was also training a young 2004 Mexican Olympian with fewer than 10 pro fights to his credit but who was as good of a pro prospect as anyone around. That young fighter, just 20 at the time, served as one of Gonzalez's chief sparring partners during the training camp.
His name? You might have heard of him. It was Abner Mares, who would go on to become a three-division titleholder and one of the top fighters in boxing.
Now here we are, seven years later and Mares holds a featherweight world title, which he will defend for the first time against the man who once paid him to spar.
"Jhonny Gonzalez and I go back a long ways," Mares said. "We were once both trained by Nacho Beristain. I was one of Jhonny's sparring partners in Big Bear, Calif., before his fight against Israel Vazquez, but that was a long time ago and look at where we are now. I'm the champion and defending against him."
Mares, who won the title in May by ninth-round knockout of Daniel Ponce De Leon (who had dethroned Gonzalez), meets Gonzalez in an all-Mexican showdown Saturday night (Showtime, 10:30 ET, with preliminary bouts on Showtime Extreme beginning at 8 ET/PT) at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., in a fight that has action written all over it.
Despite losing to Vazquez in 2006, Gonzalez, 31, would continue defending his bantamweight title, eventually lose it and then go on to win a featherweight belt, which he would lose by eighth-round technical decision to Ponce De Leon in September.
While Gonzalez has had his ups and downs, the 27-year-old Mares (26-0-1, 14 KOs) has had as good a recent run as any fighter in boxing, scoring several big wins against the likes of Vic Darchinyan, Joseph Agbeko, Anselmo Moreno and Ponce De Leon.
In the past 21 months, Mares has raced to world titles in three weight classes, going from bantamweight to junior featherweight to featherweight, where the hard-punching Gonzalez (54-8, 46 KOs), who has won two fights in a row since losing his belt, awaits.
|Former featherweight titlist Jhonny Gonzalez has won two straight since losing his belt to Daniel Ponce De Leon in September.|
"My preparation is done, and I'm ready to perform and put on a great show," Mares said. "I've got a hard fight ahead of me. Jhonny Gonzalez is a tremendous fighter, tough and very skilled. But I'm here to fight.
"Jhonny may well be thinking that this is his last shot in a big fight, so I know he'll be bringing his A-game, which is why I know I need to bring my A-plus game on Saturday. I always train like a contender anyway. When I'm getting ready for a fight, I don't think of myself as a champion. I don't want to lose my edge, my hunger. There's no way I will ever become complacent."
For his part, Gonzalez knows this is an important fight but is ignoring talk in some quarters that this could be his last big one if he loses.
"My body still feels great. My body's still responding in the gym and the training," Gonzalez said. "I definitely think this is a very important fight at this moment, and we are looking forward to it and then going up another division to [junior lightweight] and then, at that point, fight even bigger fights there."
Mares also thinks he could eventually move up in weight yet again and go for a belt at junior lightweight, but first things first.
"I'm feeling really strong at this weight class, but who knows," Mares said. "Maybe someday I'll make a decision to move up a weight class to 130 pounds and win a fourth world title in my fourth weight class. But that's down the road. For now, all my focus is on Jhonny Gonzalez and putting on a great fight for the fans."
In the opening bout of the telecast, junior featherweight titlist Victor Terrazas (37-2-1, 21 KOs), 30, of Mexico, makes the initial defense of the vacant title he won by split decision in April against former junior bantamweight champion Cristian Mijares. Terrazas will face mandatory challenger and former bantamweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz (24-0-1, 14 KOs), 25, a native of Mexico living in Los Angeles, who gave up his belt to seek a title in a second weight class.
On the Showtime Extreme portion of the undercard, junior welterweight Antonio Orozco (17-0, 13 KOs), of San Diego, faces Ivan Hernandez (29-3, 23 KOs), of Miami, in a 10-round bout, and 2013 U.S. Olympic teammates Joseph Diaz Jr. (6-0, 4 KOs), of South El Monte, Calif., and Dominic Breazeale (5-0, 5 KOs), of Los Angeles, will also be featured. Diaz meets Noel Mendoza (6-2-1, 1 KO), of Phoenix, in a six-round featherweight fight, and Breazeale will match up with Jamaica's Lenroy Thomas (16-2, 8 KOs) in a scheduled eight-rounder.
Although Mares and Gonzalez are familiar with each other from their sparring days, neither believes it will play any role in the way their fight will unfold. A lot of time and many fights have passed since then, and Mares has matured tremendously as a fighter.
"I don't think so. Not at all," Mares said of those sessions playing any role in Saturday's bout. "I think I proved that last fight when I fought Daniel Ponce De Leon. We had sparred many times. We were gym partners, we sparred many times, like I said, and it didn't affect me or it did not affect him. I saw a different Ponce De Leon that night. I was able to win, but again, you can't expect the same type of fighter when you spar them come fight night. So I'm not looking for that.
"I appreciate my past sparring experience, because I learned a lot and gained some experience. But the winners will be the fans that are present and the fans in Mexico on Saturday because they are going to see a great fight."
Said Gonzalez: "That was many years ago. That was at the beginning of Abner's pro career when he was just getting started. I think he has demonstrated to the world and everybody that he's a three-division world champion and the class that he has.
"He's a tremendous fighter and one of the best in the division, so that, the sparring, has nothing to do with what we'll see on Saturday night."