Strong Match-ups Round Out the Cotto-Canelo Undercard

Photos:  Will Hart

By Eric Raskin

The names you know well, Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez, are in the main event. Their undercard is a home for the underexposed and underappreciated—talented fighters between 122 and 130 pounds who are getting a rare opportunity to show a major pay-per-view audience what they can do. Two of the fights are tossups. The third features a pound-for-pound talent fighting for respect. Here’s a breakdown of what you’ll see on November 21 on HBO PPV before Cotto and Canelo step into the Mandalay Bay ring:

Takashi Miura (29-2-2, 22 KOs) vs. Francisco Vargas (22-0-1, 16 KOs), 12 rounds, Junior Lightweights

Vargas is no stranger to Canelo undercards; in July 2014, he scored the most impactful victory of his career on the Alvarez-Erislandy Lara pay-per-view when he iced former champ Juan Manuel Lopez in a three-round brawl. Now the 30-year-old 2008 Mexican Olympian gets his first crack at a world title, taking on Japanese beltholder Miura immediately before Cotto and Canelo enter the ring.

Miura, a 31-year-old southpaw making his U.S. debut, is riding a nine-fight winning streak and looking to make his fifth defense of the 130-pound alphabet title he captured against Gamaliel Diaz in 2013. In his most recent fight (and only appearance of 2015 so far), Miura scored the biggest win of his career from a name-recognition perspective, stopping Aussie Billy Dib in the third round.

Even though he’s never fought in a scheduled 12-rounder, Vargas’ quality of opposition is comparable to Miura’s. In addition to the JuanMa destruction, “El Bandido’s” last six fights include wins over Brandon Bennett, Jerry Belmontes, Abner Cotto, and Will Tomlinson, who brought a combined record of 74-4-1 into their bouts with Vargas.

Cotto vs. Canelo is the reason fight fans will be tuning in on Saturday night. But Miura vs. Vargas is loaded with potential to be the fight everyone is talking about afterward.

Guillermo Rigondeaux (15-0, 10 KOs) vs. Drian Francisco (28-3-1, 22 KOs), 10 rounds, Junior Featherweights

The “pound-for-pound elite fighter who has been far too inactive and draws a polarized reaction from boxing fans” spot on this undercard was supposed to go to Andre Ward, but when the former super middleweight champ pulled out with an injury, the reigning junior featherweight champ stepped in. Rigondeaux shook up the P4P hierarchy back in April 2013 when he upset Nonito Donaire at Radio City Music Hall, but he has fought just three times in 31 months since and hasn’t had a single fight in 2015. That changes when “El Chacal” takes on Filipino veteran Francisco at Mandalay Bay.

A highly regarded bantamweight and junior bantam several years ago, Francisco is now 33 years old and undersized in comparison to the lineal 122-pound king. A 2013 decision loss to Chris Avalos wasn’t necessarily proof of great decline for Francisco; but a first-round KO loss to Jason Canoy six months ago was decidedly more troubling.

So the 35-year-old southpaw Rigondeaux enters as a massive favorite. Fortunately, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Cuba has the kind of sublime skills that can make him worthwhile viewing against any opponent. And if we’re lucky, this fight will pave the way to negotiations with Vasyl Lomachenko for a must-see meeting of two of the greatest amateur boxers ever to lace up.

Jayson Velez (23-0-1, 16 KOs) vs. Ronny Rios (24-1, 10 KOs), 10 rounds, Featherweights

It doesn’t take a marketing genius to realize that the optimal way to open the Cotto-Canelo show is with a showdown between a Puerto Rican and a Mexican. In the case of Velez, from Caguas, Puerto Rico, and Rios, a Mexican-American who calls Santa Ana, California home, the matchmakers are doing a particularly optimal job of it. Both fighters are young competitors who are on the edge of contention, and both are fighting desperately for career advancement. “This fight is perfect for me,” Rios said at a recent public workout. “The challenge it brings feeds into the Puerto Rico vs. Mexico boxing rivalry.”

The 27-year-old Velez had a similar step-up opportunity a year ago, when he challenged Evgeny Gradovich for a featherweight belt on HBO. He acquitted himself credibly if not exceptionally, breaking even with a 12-round draw that allowed him to retain his unbeaten record without claiming the title.

Rios, 25, was a top prospect climbing the ranks until a shock defeat in October 2014 to Robinson Castellanos forced him to reset. After one get-well win, it’s now make-or-break time. The Canelo fans at Mandalay Bay will be rooting for him. The Cotto fans, meanwhile, will have Velez’s back. The stakes may seem lower than they are in the world middleweight championship fight that is the main event, but to Velez and Rios, this fight means everything.