It is one of the inevitabilities of boxing, reliant as it is on the health of two singular participants, that scheduled fights are sometimes derailed by the misfortune of injury.
From the heat of this forge, where promoters and matchmakers scramble to salvage the show, because the show must always go on, opportunities for unheralded fighters can be struck.
This weekend, opportunity knocks for Rafael Rivera as he accepts a late call to replace Miguel Flores, who withdrew with an ankle injury three weeks ago, as the challenger to Leo Santa Cruz at the Microsoft Theatre, Los Angeles.
A 24-year-old Featherweight, from the sprawling metropolis of Tijuana, Rivera walks in the glorious shadows of Erik Morales and Manuel Medina. Both of whom won multiple world titles around the 9-stone limit and in the former’s case, etched his name as an all-time great, both were sons of Tijuana too.
The featherweight division does have precedent for catapulting a late notice challenger to prominence and reward; Welshman Steve Robinson began a seven-fight reign as WBO Champion in 1993 by replacing Ruben Palacious with a mere two-day’s notice and defeated John Davison.
It was a run that would last two and half years and culminate in a high-profile clash with the emerging Naseem Hamed.
However, for every Steve Robinson, there are scores of examples in which the natural order is preserved and the aspiring candidate is dismissed with ease. Look no further than Hugo Ruiz’s annihilation at the fists of Gervonta Davis last week for topical example.
Leo Santa Cruz will be as disappointed as Flores, the television executives and ticket buying fans at the change of opponent. His own pursuit of a Morales type legacy will be hampered by the switch and there isn’t enough sufficiency in Rivera’s past performances to suggest there is a surprise forthcoming either.
For the uninitiated there is temptation in Rivera’s pretty record, he enters the ring with a 26-2-2 ledger, fought as recently as October too and is 18/1 with Bet365 for the outright win.
He is a career Featherweight, dedicated to his profession – two of his last three fights were as a short notice substitute and illustrate his fight readiness.
Qualities which bring him to Saturday’s contest, one which presents him with the chance to pitch all he has learned in 115 rounds and seven years as a prize fighter against a champion in the late summer of his own prime.
The pretty record is, at least in part, deceptive. In Rivera’s first 22 contests, he boxed only one opponent with a winning record, and that in his second fight, and it ended in a draw. Of the 22 opponents eight didn’t possess even a single victory.
The overall record of those 22 men was 21-114-8. While it is customary to build fighters against journeyman, Rivera’s record is particularly weak during this learning period.
In effect, against fighters with history or intent, or specifically, a winning record, Rivera is 6-2-1 and of the six wins, only Wilfred Vasquez Junior, by Spit Decision, would offer validation of his credentials.
Arguably, his two late notice fights in 2017 and 2018, versus ‘JoJo’ Diaz and Joet Gonzales, both lost on the scorecards, offer the most insight in to his ability and big fight acumen.
On the credit side, he took both fighters the full distance, remained organised, boxed to win throughout and didn’t touch down across 22 rounds of action. Following the Diaz fight Rivera commented; “I learned against JoJo Diaz what I am capable of.”
Diaz would go on to box for the WBC title 9 months later, taking champion Gary Russell Junior the distance.
There was evidence of Rivera’s improved confidence in the subsequent contest with prospect Joet Gonzales. He was more aggressive and tried hard to dictate the pace. However, there were stylistic pointers in that fight that serve to confirm just how huge a leap in levels and pedigree his fight with Santa Cruz will prove.
Gonzales boxed cautiously in the early going, assessing his late notice opponent, but still ‘found’ Rivera with good counter right hands and when he did apply a more sustained pressure in the fourth, Rivera held and looked uncomfortable.
Like Gonzales, Leo Santa Cruz stoops in to his stance. Holding his head down low beneath his shoulder line. He boxes well within range, offering few gaps for opponents and has sharp hand speed and a variety of punches he seamlessly blends into combinations. He is also vastly more experienced at this level, punches harder than Gonzales has evidenced so far and will have the confidence to force the pace earlier.
As with Hugo Ruiz last week, I offer kudos to Rivera for taking the chance, for daring to try and for consigning his pampered early years to the history books. One can also generalise, given his Tijuana roots, that Rivera will be determined, defiant and offer everything he has to try to win, but his efforts will be fruitless.
Santa Cruz will be far too much for him.
I think Santa Cruz will dispose of him in the first half of the fight, and as round betting materialises this week, a grouping of 1-6 or 2, 3, 4 individually would be the most telling investment.