Saturday's Undercard Loaded with Possible Title Contenders

Andy Lee

Andy Lee

Photo: Will Hart

By Nat Gottlieb

The three fights on the undercard of the Cotto-Martinez bout all feature boxers on the fringe of a world title fight. Adding to the drama, for a few of them, a loss might be their last hurrah. Make no mistake about it, these will be hungry fighters.

The rematch between former champions Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. and Marvin Sonsona is expected to draw a lot of interest. Sonsona, a Filipino, was just 19 when he won his first world championship, and immediately was heralded – as a young Nonito Donaire was before him – as “the new Pacquiao.” That tag was apparently was too heavy of a load to bear for Sonsona. Thrust into the bright lights, he pursued a lifestyle that eventually would be his undoing.

Four months after he won the title, Sonsona (18-1-1, 15 KOs) abruptly announced he wanted to quit boxing. It would be 14 long months later before the Filipino finally climbed back in the ring. Rust and the toll his reported partying took on him, made the former phenom look ordinary in a draw for a vacant title against unheralded Alejandro Hernandez. Three months after that, he jumped two weight classes to face Vazquez Jr. (23-3-1, 19 KOs) in a fight for a vacant super bantamweight title. It was obvious from the opening bell that this wasn’t the same fighter touted as Pacquiao's heir apparent. Sonsona was knocked out in the fourth round. The victory legitimized Vazquez, the son of former three-division champion, Wilfred Vazquez Sr.

Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. - Photo: Chris Farina/Top Rank

Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. - Photo: Chris Farina/Top Rank

After that, Sonsona’s handlers were all but ready to write him off and move on. But after some soul-searching, the young Filipino got back in the saddle 20 months later, determined to regain his lost glory. Since then, the power-punching Sonsona has won four straight fights, including a third-round knockout this past February of former world champion Akifumi Shimoda.

For this fight, both Sonsona and Vazquez are moving up to featherweight. “At this weight, I feel great,” Sonsona says, “and my punches feel stronger.”  Still just 23, a victory here should propel the Filipino back into title contention. The 29-year-old Vazquez, however, who has gone a mediocre 4-3 since beating Sonsona, is facing a do-or-die situation. Should he lose, he would likely see his last chance to fight for a major title go up in smoke.

The Andy Lee-John Jackson bout is rife with story lines and should be a real barnburner between two strong punchers, both of whom have Olympic experience and are very sound boxers. Now 29, Lee was once heavily touted as a future middleweight champion by his trainer, the late Hall of Fame conditioner and longtime HBO announcer, Emanuel Steward.

For his first 15 fights, Lee looked every bit the part of a champion.

Then came Lee’s Waterloo, a 2008 stay-busy fight against journeyman brawler Brian Vera. Vera shocked the boxing world by knocking out Lee in the 7th round. The fight was a devastating blow to both Lee and Steward because the Irish boxer was in line to challenge then-middleweight champ, Kelly Pavlik. Shoved off the fast track, it took Lee (32-2, 22 KOs) four years and 13 fights, all victories over mostly journeyman, before he would get his title chance in June of 2012 against unbeaten Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Lee was ahead on all three scorecards, 58-56 heading into the 7th round, when the Mexican punched him out. In deciding to brawl, Lee failed to heed Steward’s advice to outbox Chavez.

Following the death of the beloved Steward four months later, Lee gravitated toward a British trainer, Adam Booth, who was David Haye’s conditioner. Somewhat rejuvenated, Lee won four straight bouts, albeit against less-than-stellar completion. Now Lee is not only stepping up in class again, but he is also stepping down in weight. For the first time in his career, Lee will be fighting as a junior middleweight. Lee says Booth, who regularly measures his fighters’ body fat, noticed that the Irishman was carrying too much fat. Convinced the 6'2" Lee could fight well as a big 154-pounder, he got him to adhere to a much healthier diet. Lee now says he can make the weight easily.

In Jackson (18-1, 15 KOs), the son of former middleweight champion, Julian Jackson, Lee will be facing a heavy-handed fighter who has one-punch knockout power, although not quite as much as his father, whose 55 victories included 49 KOs. Lee has not faced this kind of power since he fought Chavez, and his best strategy might be to try and take out Jackson early before the fighter from the Virgin Islands lands a bomb. A win for Jackson would move him into position to be a junior middleweight title challenger. If Lee wins, it would also put him into title contention. But at 29, a defeat for Lee could all but finish off the Irish boxer’s career.

The Jorge Melendez-Javier Maciel bout also involves junior middleweights who are knocking on the door of a title fight. The Puerto Rican Melendez (28-3-1, 26 KOs) has won 15 of his last 16 fights, and has concussive power. Although Melendez has yet to beat anybody of distinction, for this fight he is being trained for the first time by 2012 Trainer of the Year, Robert Garcia, and could be a much better fighter when he faces Maciel.

Melendez was originally scheduled to face light-hitting former champion Yuri Foreman, who suddenly retired two weeks before the fight because of a dispute with his manager. In late replacement Maciel (28-3, 20 KOs), Melendez will be facing a much tougher opponent than Foreman. Maciel could prove to be one in a long line of relatively unknown boxers from Argentina who come to the States and have a breakout fight, much like Marcos Maidana did. Melendez has won 10 of his last 11 fights, his only loss in that string was last year in a hotly-contested, split decision defeat to the British boxer, Brian Rose, in England. Maciel also has championship experience, having lost a disputed decision to the 160-pound champion, Dmitry Pirog in Russia. This one should be a slugfest.