Omar Figueroa always finds a way to be on his own. He likes it that way.
Ironically, in doing that, he’s started to garner a crowd.
The lightweight prospect co-headlines this week’s offering of ShoBox: The New Generation against Ramon Ayala, but at different times, both he and the people who manage him didn’t think he’d be on the marquee.
In fact, Figueroa thought he’d be wearing just one leather glove for a living not too long ago, as a sought-after high school baseball player. The 22 year old was a starting pitcher with opportunities to play college baseball, but even the remoteness of the pitcher’s mound ultimately wasn’t enough for him.
“My team sucked. Sometimes I would throw two complete games in one week, so I was playing my heart out and throwing my arm out. I would throw 150 pitches in a game sometimes,” Figueroa told RingTV.com. “I hated the fact that even though I played a perfect game, my team could screw it up. Now, I have no one else to blame it on, and no one else to give the glory to but myself. “
“Panterita,” as he became known, made the decision to focus on boxing full-time, and instead of working his way up the depth chart of an NCAA baseball squad, two years ago he found himself on one of the best teams in boxing, Golden Boy Promotions.
But just as he would have encountered in baseball, Figueroa started to feel lost in the shuffle among the other freshmen. Last year, he had fights scheduled in October and December, both of which fell through, and he started to believe that his promoter had lost faith in him.
“We told Golden Boy from the beginning, don’t be shy, go nuts, we’re ready for whoever you throw at us. Whoever you’ve got, tell us a date and time and we’ll be ready for him,” said Figueroa.
Who they had was one of their prized prospects, Michael Perez, and a date on ShoBox. Perez was coming off an early knockout of gatekeeper Tyrone Harris, and the consensus among boxing prognosticators—and possibly the matchmaker—was that he would be too slick and talented for Figueroa.
“They know that I know that in that fight, I was the opponent. And the purse that I’m getting from that fight, they were expecting Michael to get it. But they underestimated me. The one that underestimated me the most though was Michael Perez, and he shouldn’t have,” said the Weslaco, Texas native, who stopped Perez in the sixth round.
According to Golden Boy matchmaker Robert Diaz though, he had confidence that it would be a good fight. The original opening ShoBox bout fell out when Frankie Gomez became unavailable, and after several other replacements bouts were suggested, the notoriously picky programmer Gordon Hall settled on Perez vs. Figueroa, assuming it would be a good tilt.
“If we wouldn’t have believed in him, we wouldn’t have signed him. He would have just been fighting for us like many others do that are not signed,” said Diaz, who was instrumental in recruiting Figueroa after seeing his first six professional bouts. “I very rarely take a video to Oscar, but I took (video of Figueroa) to Oscar. Within 30 minutes, I had a call and he said come over. So I go over and I said ‘What’s up?’ He was watching Omar’s video and said ‘Get him on the phone, I want to talk to him.’”
Hearing Diaz speak, you’d think it was Figueroa who was the gem in jeopardy in the Perez matchup.
So does Figueroa think Golden Boy believes in him now?
“I would hope so. I knocked off one of their aces,” said Figueroa. “But even if Golden Boy has confidence in me or not, I’m going to go in there thinking that they don’t, kind of for that little extra motivation.”
It is universally expected that Figueroa will be victorious over Ayala (23-2, 11 KOs), who was recently stopped by a fighter with a pedestrian 4-5-1 record. For all intents and purposes, it is a showcase fight for Omar, alongside the co-feature of Randy Caballero-Jose Araiza, with the hopes of finding a permanent home on premium cable.
If Ayala’s record doesn’t lie, then Showtime subscribers could get a glimpse of what Diaz describes as “real knockout power” from Figueroa.
This time, Figueroa is part of the consensus.
“I just know he’s not as good as Perez. That’s basically all I’m putting in my head,” said Figueroa. “I’m expecting to do the same thing I did to Perez, and it’s going to work.”
Photos by Tom Casino-SHOWTIME and Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos / Golden Boy Promotions
Corey Erdman is also the host of RingTV Radio. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman