Photos: Ed Mulholland
VERONA, N.Y. -- In June 2001, Lehlohonolo “Lehlo” Ledwaba was a highly-fancied super bantamweight, proud possessor of a world title that he was slated to defend on HBO against Mexican Enrique Sanchez. When Sanchez was injured with just days to go, the card’s promoters found a late replacement: a young Filipino who had never fought in the United States and had in fact only just agreed to work with trainer Freddie Roach. As he entered the ring that night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, few in the arena or watching on TV knew much, if anything, about Manny Pacquiao; five rounds later, after Pacquiao had smashed Ledwaba into a heavy defeat, he was on his way to becoming a star.
It would be unreasonable to expect Jaime Munguia to follow the career path of the Filipino phenomenon; but on Saturday night, in the more bucolic surroundings of Turning Stone Resort and Casino in upstate New York, he does have the opportunity to at least replicate Pacquiao’s star-making turn against Ledwaba when he steps in at late notice to challenge junior middleweight title holder Sadam Ali.
Until a couple of weeks ago, Ali was training to fight Britain’s Liam Smith, known best on these shores for suffering a one-sided stoppage loss to Canelo Alvarez in 2016 in his only career defeat, until Smith was forced to withdraw with an apparent allergic reaction. In stepped Munguia, a tall, young, undefeated boxer with a tough, brawling, power-punching style – and quite possibly the perfect combination of youth, strength and skill to spring the last-minute upset.
The Mexican was just four years old when Pacquiao knocked off Ledwaba, and only six when Vitali Klitschko, who took on Lennox Lewis with minimal notice and nearly dethroned the heavyweight champion in what would be the final bout of the big Brit’s career, before Lewis’ fists opened a horrendous and fight-ending cut over the Ukrainian’s eye. But if he wants a more recent example of a man stepping in, stepping up and making the most of an unexpected opportunity, he could do worse than look at the man who will be in the opposite corner on Saturday night.
Ali was not exactly a last-minute selection to face Miguel Cotto last December. But he was to a large degree the last man standing, the best foe available after various other options had been floated and shot down. He was widely considered an uninspiring opponent for Cotto’s farewell contest and was not expected to offer much of a challenge; instead, he rocked the future Hall-of-Famer early and outfought him late to send the Puerto Rican into retirement with a surprise defeat.
Now the roles are reversed. Ali is the man with the belt around his waist, the experienced champion, the favorite. Munguia is the younger man, the underdog, the B side. So little is known of him in the United States that Munguia’s reputation wouldn’t take a hit if he suffered a competitive loss: he has no reputation to protect at this stage. But a victory would propel him into the mix at the very top of an increasingly competitive junior middleweight division.
Ali knows that; and he knows what it is like to suffer a loss when seemingly on the way to the top — as he did when he was stopped by Jessie Vargas in 2016. Now he is back at the hilltop and has no intention of being rolled back down to sea level — not by Munguia, not by anybody. For Munguia, Saturday presents an opportunity to experience the exultation of achieving the unexpected. Ali knows what that feeling is like; his goal is to prevent Munguia from finding out for himself.
Official Weights from Verona:
Sadam Ali: 153 pounds
Jaime Munguia: 152.75 pounds
Rey Vargas: 120 pounds
Azat Hovhannisyan: 121 pounds