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Andy Cruz and Juan Carlos Burgos squared off and locked eyes on a stage set up in a hotel ballroom in downtown Detroit, and did what boxers usually do when they stand face to face.
The two lightweights, scheduled to fight on Saturday night, scanned each other for signs of doubt or dehydration, evidence that a fighter might have drained himself to meet the 135-pound weight limit.
Burgos, a 35-year-old fringe contender from Mexico, glared without expression at Cruz, a 27-year-old Cuban who won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Cruz, who left Cuba last year, cracked a faint smile and gave Burgos a slight nod. The staring contest ended with a handshake.
For a seasoned pro like Burgos, staring down and sizing up an opponent at a pre-fight news conference is a familiar ritual. But the routine is brand-new to Cruz, the athlete widely regarded as the best boxer in a generation to emerge from Cuba’s storied amateur program. Cruz is a three-time world amateur champion, and the records database BoxRec credits him with 140 amateur wins (and nine losses).
Leaving Cuba made him the hottest free agent in the sport. In May he signed a three-year contract with Matchroom Boxing. His bout on Saturday, on the undercard of a world title bout between Alycia Baumgardner and Christina Linardatou, is, for boxing aficionados, the most heavily anticipated pro debut in years.
Cruz’s amateur track record highlights his talent and skill, but doesn’t guarantee professional success. Pro boxing not only places a premium on punching power, but also expects competitors to shoulder a heavy promotional burden. Generating publicity with staredowns and other appearances is now part of Cruz’s job. It’s one more transition to navigate between the sport of amateur boxing and the business of professional prize fighting.
“Photos, videos, it’s a completely new process for me but I’m learning really fast,” Cruz said in an interview. “I have no problem. I really like the cameras.”
For Matchroom, simply signing Cruz was a win. Its deal with Cruz guarantees the fighter seven figures over three years, a rookie deal the promoters feel fits his résumé.
But Cruz also presents a unique challenge, said Eddie Hearn, the chairman of Matchroom Sport.
The boxer turns 28 next month, and wouldn’t necessarily benefit from beating up on the overmatched opponents who often populate star fighters’ early career records. If boxing were baseball, Cruz could be Yulieski Gurriel — a Cuban superstar who arrived in the United States as a fully-formed pro. Gurriel played only 15 minor league games in 2016 before the Astros promoted him to the majors. He was 32.
Hearn says Cruz is already equipped to defeat elite lightweights, such as Devin Haney, the undisputed champion, and Gervonta Davis, the popular power puncher. But he also realizes fast-tracking a fighter can lead to a dead end.
“The actual smart thing is, I want to put him into those fights when he’s actually ready. We’ve got to get the balance right,” Hearn said.
Cautionary tales abound.
Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, but lost his professional debut in 2019. Ramirez, who is now the World Boxing Organization featherweight champion, blamed that loss on a failure to adapt from amateur to pro-style boxing.
In 2014 Vasiliy Lomachenko, an Olympic champion in 2008 and 2012, challenged for a professional world title in his second pro bout. His opponent, a rugged veteran named Orlando Salido, used advantages in size (he weighed in more than two pounds over the featherweight limit) and experience to maul the smaller Lomachenko and win a 12-round decision.
Cruz’s debut against Burgos is the co-main event, beneath the featured bout between Baumgardner and Linardatou for several women’s super-featherweight belts. Cruz and Burgos will fight for the International Boxing Federation “International” men’s title, a step below a world championship, akin to two M.L.B. teams in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Saturday’s bout marks the first time the I.B.F. has sanctioned a title fight involving a fighter in his pro debut, a sign that regulators already regard Cruz as a veteran. But to Burgos, Cruz is a rookie until he proves otherwise.
“If Andy Cruz wants to show that what they’ve been saying about him is true, he’s got to come out and fight,” said Burgos, who is 35-7-3. “They say boxing is hit and don’t get hit, but the people want to see action. They want to see exchanges of punches.”
For his part, Cruz is aware that he is fighting both Burgos and the perception among boxing fans that Cuban boxers are brilliant technicians and savvy tacticians, but dull to watch. Cruz says he already understands that where amateur boxing rewards winners, pro boxing prizes winners who also entertain.
“He’s going to come out and apply his experience; I’m going to go out and show that I’m ready to fight with the best in the division,” Cruz said. “The objective is to win, and to show well. To shine, and to give the public a show.”
After securing a visa and signing with Matchroom, Cruz relocated to Northeast Philadelphia, to learn professional-style boxing under the trainer Derek Ennis. The trainer’s task was not to reprogram Cruz, but to teach him to punch with authority, stand his ground, and prepare him for a new crop of opponents, who, like Burgos, would rather rumble in close than box at long range.
“Put all your shots together and be prepared for the guy to come back. That’s where defense comes in,” Ennis said.
Burgos’s record includes unanimous decision losses to Haney and to Keyshawn Davis, an amateur rival of Cruz’s who is currently a fast-rising pro prospect. So Saturday’s result will help determine how Cruz compares to his elite peers. Moving forward from there will involve balancing Cruz and his team’s related, but not perfectly aligned, interests.
Ennis wants to build the boxer’s skills. Cruz wants to live up to the mythology that has sprouted around him. Hearn wants to stage the most profitable fights possible.
“The trainer and manager make the decisions. We have to convince them of the strategy,” Hearn said. “I have to give them the reality and the facts of the commercial world.”
Now, their enterprise takes a brighter stage.
“It’ll be difficult, but that’s what I prepared for. For this moment. I’m a person who works well under pressure, and I’ll show it this Saturday,” Cruz said.
Posted on 14 Jul 2023 22:24 link