Andy Cruz and Juan Carlos Burgos met and locked eyes on a stage set up in a downtown Detroit hotel ballroom, doing what boxers do when they’re face to face.
The two lightweights, scheduled to fight on Saturday night, scanned each other for signs of doubt or dehydration, evidence that a fighter might have exhausted himself to make the 135-pound weight limit.
Burgos, a 35-year-old fringe contender from Mexico, stared blankly at Cruz, a 27-year-old Cuban who won gold at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Cruz, who left Cuba last year, gave a faint smile and Burgos gave a slight nod. The staring contest ended with a handshake.
For a seasoned pro like Burgos, looking down and sizing up an opponent in a pre-fight press conference is a familiar ritual. But the routine is entirely new for Cruz, the athlete widely considered the best fighter in a generation emerging from the Cuban amateur program. Cruz is a three-time amateur world champion, and the BoxRec records database credits him with 140 amateur wins (and nine losses).
Leaving Cuba made him the hottest free agent in the sport. In May he signed a three-year contract with Matchroom Boxing. Their fight on Saturday, on the undercard of a world title fight between Alycia Baumgardner and Christina Linardatou, is, for boxing fans, the most anticipated professional debut in years.
Cruz’s amateur record highlights his talent and skill, but does not guarantee professional success. Professional boxing not only places great importance on punching power, but also expects competitors to shoulder a heavy promotional burden. Generating publicity with stares and other appearances is now part of Cruz’s job. It’s one more transition to navigate between the sport of amateur boxing and the business of professional fighting.
“Photos, videos, it’s a whole new process for me, but I’m learning very quickly,” Cruz said in an interview. “I don’t have any problem. I really like the cameras.”
For Matchroom, simply signing Cruz was a victory. His contract with Cruz guarantees the fighter seven figures over three years, a rookie contract that promoters believe fits his resume.
But Cruz also presents a unique challenge, said Eddie Hearn, president of Matchroom Sport.
The boxer turns 28 next month, and wouldn’t necessarily benefit from beating the outmatched opponents that often populate the early career records of all-star boxers. If boxing were baseball, Cruz could be Yulieski Gurriel, a Cuban superstar who came to the United States as a professional. Gurriel played just 15 minor league games in 2016 before the Astros promoted him to the majors. He was 32 years old.
Hearn says Cruz is already equipped to take down elite lightweights such as Devin Haney, the undisputed champion, and Gervonta Davis, the popular power puncher. But he also realizes that speeding up a fighter can lead him to a dead end.
“The really smart thing is I want to put him in those fights when he’s really ready. We have to get the balance right,” Hearn said.
Cautionary tales abound.
Cuba’s Robeisy Ramírez won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, but lost his professional debut in 2019. Ramírez, who is now the World Boxing Organization featherweight champion, blamed that loss on amateur boxing’s lack of adaptation. professional style.
In 2014, Vasiliy Lomachenko, an Olympic champion in 2008 and 2012, challenged for a professional world title in his second professional fight. His opponent, a beefy veteran named Orlando Salido, used advantages in size (he was more than two pounds over the featherweight limit) and experience to defeat the smaller Lomachenko and win a 12-round decision.
Cruz’s debut against Burgos is the co-main event, below the featured fight between Baumgardner and Linardatou for several women’s super featherweight belts. Cruz and Burgos will fight for the International Boxing Federation’s “International” men’s title, a step short of a world championship, similar to two MLB teams in the wild card round of the playoffs.
Saturday’s fight marks the first time the IBF has sanctioned a title fight involving a fighter making his professional debut, a sign that regulators already consider Cruz a veteran. But for Burgos, Cruz is a rookie until he proves otherwise.
“If Andy Cruz wants to prove that what they’ve been saying about him is true, he’s got to go out and fight,” said Burgos, who is 35-7-3. “They say that in boxing he hits and doesn’t hit himself, but people want to see action. They want to see exchanges of blows”.
For his part, Cruz is aware that he is fighting Burgos and of the perception among boxing fans that Cuban boxers are brilliant technicians and skilled tacticians, but boring to watch. Cruz says he already understands that where amateur boxing rewards winners, professional boxing rewards winners who also entertain.
“He’s going to go out and apply his experience; I’m going to go out there and show that I’m ready to fight the best in the division,” Cruz said. “The goal is to win and show well. To shine and give a show to the public”.
After obtaining a visa and signing with Matchroom, Cruz moved to Northeast Philadelphia to learn professional-style boxing from trainer Derek Ennis. The trainer’s task was not to reprogram Cruz, but to teach him to punch with authority, stand his ground and prepare him for a new generation of opponents who, like Burgos, would rather fight up close than box at long range.
“Put all your shots together and get ready for the boy’s return. That’s where defense comes in,” Ennis said.
Burgos’ record includes unanimous decision losses to Haney and Keyshawn Davis, an amateur rival of Cruz who is currently a fast-rising professional prospect. So Saturday’s result will help determine how Cruz stacks up against his elite peers. Going from there will involve balancing the related but not perfectly aligned interests of Cruz and his team.
Ennis wants to develop the boxer’s skills. Cruz wants to live up to the mythology that has sprung up around him. Hearn wants to put together the most profitable fights possible.
“The coach and the manager make the decisions. We have to convince them of the strategy,” Hearn said. “I have to give them the reality and the facts of the business world.”
Now, your company takes a brighter stage.
“It will be difficult, but for that I prepared myself. For this moment. I am a person who works well under pressure and I will show it this Saturday”, said Cruz.