The boxing business wasn’t built for fighters like Jose Pedraza. The 31-year-old Puerto Rican junior welterweight has been an Olympian, a prospect with some heat and, if you’re into that kind of thing — and you know you are, you little minx — a titleholder at 130 and 135 pounds. Not too shabby. But nothing that really moves the needle, either.
Pedraza has lost to the only elite fighter he has ever faced as a pro — Vasiliy Lomachenko — plus two more: Gervonta Davis (which is no crime) and Jose Zepeda (which kind of is). His most impressive win before he moved up to 140 had come against … a fading Andrey Klimov? Human camouflage Stephen Smith? He-of-seven-losses Ray Beltran? Pedraza has carved out a nice little career for himself by beating every beatable opponent in his path, but he seemed to miss out on certain crucial step-up tests. Or he didn’t face enough nut-up moments early in his career. Or he got lost in the promotional cracks. Or was moved wrong. Whatever the reason, somewhere along the way, Pedraza became grist for the mill.
Boxing wasn’t meant to serve guys like Pedraza. As far as boxing is concerned, it’s the other way around.
But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance. Pedraza, after that feet-dragging defeat to Zepeda in last September’s debut at 140, came back to box circles around Mikkel LesPierre in July. He looked sharp. Focused. Like a dude staring down the barrel of a T-shirt cannon loaded with the prime of his career and aimed at the open hatchback of the AMC Pacer Scott Baio is squatting in. On Saturday, Pedraza (28-3, 13 KO) doubled down, returning to the Bubble at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, routing Javier Molina (22-3, 9 KO) in a 10-round decision on ESPN+ that likely sets him up for one of the handful of biggest fights to be made at junior welterweight in the not-too-distant future.
In the first two rounds, Pedraza mostly bounced, feinted and explored range, allowing Molina to time and counter his surges into the pocket. Molina, a 30-year-old Mexican with his own failure-to-launch issues, appeared at least somewhat rejuvenated in light of his detailed troubles with booze and indifference to his fighting career. He flashed some hand quickness and a willingness to mix it up when required, if not enough of one and maybe too much of the other.
In fact, a counter right hand from Molina at the close of the 2nd may have even stolen the round. It was one of his last highlights. Early in the 3rd round, Pedraza bloodied Molina’s brow with a headbutt, then cracked him twice more before the end of the round. The butts seemed to dull Molina’s fighting spirit just a bit, and what remained was slowly drained by Pedraza’s herky-jerky style, slicing jabs, body work, and well-placed power shots.
Molina and his corner felt things slipping away after the 3rd, at which point the Mexican tried to lead, walking down Pedraza. But that isn’t Molina’s game, and it played directly into Pedraza’s mitts. The Puerto Rican began switching between orthodox and southpaw, flitting in and out, countering, snapping Molina’s head back, and tenderizing his guts. Molina was having just enough success to call it a fight — by the 6th, both men were bleeding from the nose — but Pedraza’s power was taking greater effect by the round.
In the 7th, Pedraza’s corner advised him to take a break, catch his wind and let Molina come to him. He dutifully obeyed, and the result was a counter right hand that staggered the Mexican and instantly changed the strategy. Pedraza turned on the gas, stalking Molina and catching him with a straight left hand and, to close the round, a monster left hook.
Molina knew he was down on the cards at this point, but the more he pressed, the deeper he dug the hole. Pedraza, whom the ESPN announce crew couldn’t tell us often enough had channeled all the lessons from his loss to Lomachenko, slipped and turned and slashed and systematically took apart his man with his agility, quickness and accuracy. Even if it wasn’t quite Loma-like, it was more than enough for Molina. By the 10th he was a lump of bruises and cuts, and when Pedraza slipped his jab to land an exquisite counter left hand, Molina was effectively done.
Wladimir Klitschko reinvented himself mid-career. Bernard Hopkins didn’t hit his stride until his early 30s. Even Floyd Mayweather Jr., at or near the peak of his powers, made fundamental changes to adjust to hand injuries and heavier opponents. Pedraza can only hope to dupe a modest version of those career arcs, but if he lands a fight with Josh Taylor or Jose Ramirez — and more likely one of the biggest remaining fights at 140 after those two have vacated the division — he’ll earn something most of us never get: a chance to make up for lost time.
Nigeria’s Efe Ajagba (14-0, 11 KO) was supposed to be part of the next wave of heavyweights to begin the takeover of a reborn division. Who knows? Maybe he still is. But he didn’t show it Saturday.
Facing Jonnie Rice (13-6-1, 9 KO), a Los Angeles fighter whose best work had come against also-rans in Tijuana club fights, the 26-year-old Ajagba had an opportunity to showcase his power and newest wrinkles against another out-of-his-depth opponent. He delivered in the 2nd round, staggering Rice with a straight right to the nose. But other than flashing an occasional hook, Ajagba appeared to be roughly the same basic 1-2 puncher he has been since turning pro.
Rice didn’t appear to love the idea of being in the ring with Ajagba, but when he began countering with some effectiveness, the normally free-swinging Nigerian turned tentative. It qualified as entertainment only if a sloth dry-humping a tortoise happens to be your fetish. Ajagba coasted on the scorecards, 98-92, 99-91 (twice), but he may have hurt his right hand and undoubtedly damaged his stock.
Robeisy Ramirez (5-1, 3 KO) isn’t close to living down his dumpster fire of a pro debut from 13 months ago, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Cuba was able to put a little more distance between that loss and his ultimate potential with more solid work on Saturday.
A unanimous decision — 79-73, 80-72 (twice) — over Felix Caraballo (13-3-2, 9 KO) in Ramirez’s first eight-rounder comes on the heels of a convincing win in a rematch with Adan Gonzales, the opponent who had stunned Ramirez in his pro debut. The fight marked Ramirez’s fourth fight of the year, but you can probably bet on him stepping through the ropes once more in 2020. He’s a 26-year-old featherweight who already once has shown signs of complacency. Expect his people to keep him busy.
(Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank)