By Nat Gottlieb
Only a thin line separates prospects from contenders, but bridging that gap is not easy to do. The quickest way to cross theline is by having a breakout fight. Unbeaten welterweight Sadam Ali had his coming out party last November, when as a decided underdog he stunned the top-tier contender Luis Carlos Abregu by knocking him out in the 9th round.
The next step up the ladder for Ali is to earn a title shot. Standing in his way is a rugged and hungry Francisco Santana, who has won 10 straight and is hoping to use Ali as a means for a breakout out his own. The two boxers with big aspirations will square off on Saturday night as the co-featured event when Wladimir Klitschko defends his heavyweight title against Bryant Jennings at Madison Square Garden on World Championship.
The 26-year-old Ali (21-0, 13 KOs), who fights out of Brooklyn and was a 2008 U.S. Olympian, has long been regarded as a potential champion. All that has kept him from a title shot were a few erratic performances. But against Abregu, whose only loss in 37 bouts was to Timothy Bradley, Ali finally put it all together.
Utilizing his terrific hand speed, excellent foot movement, and superior defensive skills, Ali befuddled the hard-hitting Argentinean through the early rounds, forcing a frustrated Abregu to stalk a ghost without being able to land one of his signature bombs.
Ali patiently waited for the right moment to pounce and it came in the 6th round. With 1:06 left, Ali was circling away from Abregu when he suddenly set down on his feet, lunged in and nailed a surprised Abregu with a hard right hand that sent Abregu to the canvas. He managed to beat the count but was clearly shaky.
From that point on it was academic.
Ali brilliantly set Abregu up for the key blow in the 9th round. After spinning off the ropes, where Abregu had him trapped and was throwing a torrent of punches, Ali feinted a left hook, pulled the hand back, and at the same time threw a straight right so fast that the Argentinean never saw it coming. Down he went.
Abregu managed to get up again, but with Ali pounding him against the ropes without resistance, referee Harvey Dock jumped in and stopped the fight. Sadam Ali had arrived.
Now along comes the 28-year-old Santana, (22-3-1, 11 KOs), who after struggling for much of his early career, seems to have put his act together. The Californian has strung together a 10-fight win streak that includes an upset of previously unbeaten prospect Eddie Gomez last June.
Santana traces his sudden emergence in the welterweight division back to a fortuitous event in 2012 when he was brought to Manny Pacquiao’s gym in the Philippines as a replacement sparring partner for Amir Khan. Surrounded by champions, including Pacquiao, Santana saw firsthand what it would take for him to get to the next level.
“I actually came back from the Philippines a different person,” Santana has said. “It was a privilege to spar with Khan and it definitely gave me a big boost in confidence.”
While Santana is not nearly as polished as Ali, what he lacks in skills he more than makes up for with aggression and a strong will to win. He also has above-average hand speed, a mean left hook, and fights out of a high-glove defense that’s hard to penetrate. The hook is by far his best punch, but its effectivenessdepends on how he throws it.
Santana often launches that shot with a wide, looping movementthat sometimes keeps opponents from seeing it until it’s too late. But by going wide, he also leaves his whole middle open and vulnerable to a strong counterpuncher with fast hands. Someone like Sadam Ali.
Formerly trained by ex-bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough, Santana now works with Hoss Janik in Ventura, Calif. out of Knuckleheadz Boxing, the same gym that produced former welterweight champion Victor Ortiz.
In press conferences leading up to this fight, both boxers have promised a war. If so, it will be a war of attrition, with the winner going on to bigger things, and the loser taking a painful step backward.