We have another week with three boxing events on ESPN on the way, but the next few days will feel a little bit different. For the first time since the return of the sport, there will be a title defense. Beyond that, one of the biggest standouts in boxing the past few years, former WBC junior lightweight world titlist Miguel Berchelt, gets his time to shine.

Andrew and Jason Moloney, twin brothers from Australia who have been two of the brightest standouts in the region the past few years, each step into the prime-time limelight. On Tuesday, Andrew Moloney makes his U.S. debut when he puts his WBA “regular” junior bantamweight title on the line against Joshua Franco. On Thursday, bantamweight contender Jason Moloney faces Leonardo Baez. Both Top Rank shows will once again take place inside “The Bubble” at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas (ESPN and ESPN Deportes, 8 p.m. ET).

It took the Moloney brothers considerable effort to reach the United States amid travel restrictions in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We pulled a massive amount of strings,” said Tony Tolj, the manager of both Maloney brothers. “We had to get an exemption from our government to leave. There was a lot of paperwork there. As soon as we got the all-clear from Top Rank that the shows were back, we did whatever it took to get here.”

The brothers arrived in Las Vegas on May 16, ready to fight. Top Rank signed them to promotional deals in 2019, looking to market their fan-friendly styles in the U.S. Their styles are exactly what fans and promoters are looking for in boxing fights right now.

“I think they’re really good scrappers. They’ve got great personalities. The fact that they’re identical twins is interesting,” said Bob Arum, Top Rank founder and CEO.

To get ready for their week in the spotlight, the brothers altered their training regimen. Each typically brings in other boxers to simulate upcoming opponents, but they had only each other to keep sharp during the quarantine.

According to their team, that approach had both Andrew and Jason in fighting form when they touched down in the U.S.

“We landed on a Saturday, and on that Monday, we went to the Top Rank office, talking about dates and things like that,” Tolj said. “I said, ‘We’re prepared to fight next week.'”


Tuesday

Given their attacking styles, the Andrew Moloney-Joshua Franco fight figures to be an entertaining matchup.

Andrew Moloney (21-0, 14 KOs) is a solid technician who throws sharp combinations and consistently works the body with left hooks. He also has good speed and knows how to move inside the ring.

Beyond the added exposure of his U.S. debut and a televised main event, Andrew is excited for a chance to step onto the stage at one of boxing’s most hallowed venues.

“I’m over the moon. This is a dream come true to have my first world title defense and headline at the MGM. It’s obviously something I’ve dreamed about growing up as a young kid,” said the 29-year-old Andrew Moloney, who won the WBA interim 115-pound title with an eighth-round TKO of Elton Dharry in November. Moloney was elevated to “regular” titlist when the organization made titleholder Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez its “super” champion.

“I’m extremely excited about it, and especially with the current conditions, where it looked like maybe we wouldn’t be fighting for the rest of the year,” Moloney said. “So to get this huge opportunity to get back in the ring so soon, it’s unbelievable.”

Andrew and Jason trained at the Top Rank gym before entering “The Bubble” at the MGM and quickly adjusted to the new environment. In truth, the isolation did little to alter the way they focus on the task at hand with their fights.

“Really, whether there was a pandemic going on or not, we’d be doing exactly what we are at the moment: staying in the house and resting in between training sessions, training twice a day, and getting as much rest and recovery as we can,” Andrew Moloney said. “We wouldn’t change what we’re doing at the moment. We’re here to do a job, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

In Franco (16-1-2, 8 KOs), Moloney is facing a solid foe with a similar attacking style.

“We’ve watched a lot of footage of [Franco],” he said. “I’m a massive boxing fan, and I always keep a close eye on all the guys around my division. So I know who Franco was before we were matched together. Since then, I’ve watched a lot more of his fights, studied him. He’s a good fighter. Technically he’s very good. He’s always got his hands up and puts his combinations together very well.

“But I’m a little better in all aspects, I think. I’m also too hungry. I’ve worked my whole life to get this world title. I’m not going to be giving it up, that’s for sure.”

Moloney has watched the first two weeks of crowd-less shows with great interest and said he’s looking forward to fighting in such an atmosphere.

“It’s definitely going to be different with no crowd there, but that’s something we do two, three times a week in training with sparring,” he said. “There’s never really a lot of people in the gym.”

To him, once the bell rings, it’s just another fight.


Fighter to watch: Joshua Franco

Franco — known as “The Professor” — is a 24-year-old from San Antonio. He’s a smart fighter who can adapt to fighting at a distance or engage inside.

Franco engaged in a memorable trilogy against Oscar Negrete, in which they fought 30 tightly contested rounds that resulted in two split draws and a narrow split-decision victory for Franco. Although Franco gained a lot of experience in those fights, he also learned to respect his opponents.

“With 30 rounds, we had nothing but respect for each other. We fought hard all 10 rounds of each fight,” Franco said. “Now we’re great friends. After the last fight, we gave each other a hug in the locker room, took pictures. I consider him now more of a friend.”

On Jan. 11, Franco faced Jose Burgos, stopping him in the ninth round. Next he faces Andrew Moloney, a fighter who will certainly bring the fight to him.

“It’s a world title fight. Not everyone gets a chance to fight for a world title, so I’ve pushed myself to the limit,” Franco said. “I’m feeling great, probably the best camp I’ve had in my career. I just feel good. I’ve been studying a lot of fights — not my opponents, just boxing in general. I’m still learning, and I feel extra motivation for this fight.

“I know he’s a tough fighter. He’s undefeated. He doesn’t back down. He comes with everything in the fight. I’m looking forward to a great fight with him.”


The rest of the card:

  • Christopher Diaz (25-2, 16 KOs) vs. Jason Sanchez (15-1, 8 KOs), 10 rounds, lightweight

  • Alexis del Bosque (17-5, 9 KOs) vs. Joseph Adorno (14-0-1, 12 KOs), eight rounds, lightweight

  • Miguel Contreras (10-0, 6 KOs) vs. Roland Vargas (5-0, 5 KOs), six rounds, lightweight

  • Helaman Olguin (7-3, 2 KOs) vs. Adam Stewart (8-0-1, 5 KOs), six rounds, heavyweight

Predictions

Andrew Moloney vs. Franco: This should be an entertaining and fast-paced bout, with punches flying from all directions. Both men will land their share, but Moloney is the superior puncher and a bit quicker with his hands. Moloney pulls away in the late stages to win a decision.

Diaz vs. Sanchez: This is a well-matched fight. Although Diaz is perhaps the more seasoned professional, Sanchez is a hard-nosed, tough fighter. His only loss was a decision against challenging Oscar Valdez for the WBO featherweight title last year. The pick here is Sanchez in a mild upset via decision.


Thursday

Jason Moloney, ESPN’s No. 8 bantamweight, faces Leonardo Baez, a late replacement who is taking the place of Oscar Negrete, who was pulled from this bout because of a detached retina.

“It’s unfortunate, but that’s boxing, and you have to expect the unexpected,” Moloney (20-1, 17 KOs) said of the circumstances that see him facing a perhaps fresher and stronger foe in the 24-year-old Baez (18-2, 9 KOs), who is on a six-fight winning streak.

“These things happen, and you have to reset your focus and move on. Personally, I think Baez is a tougher fight than Negrete, but I’m completely prepared.”

The bottom line is that like his brother, Jason Moloney got on that plane to America expecting to fight somebody.

“I’m in fantastic condition. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the ring — I’m ready to go,” he said.

In October 2018, Moloney challenged Emmanuel Rodriguez for the IBF bantamweight world title and lost in a close split decision. Despite the result, Moloney showed that he is a world-class fighter.

“It was a very close fight. I actually sat down and watched that again, put it on and had a bit of a look at it,” he said. “It’s a bit frustrating looking back at it. It wasn’t even that long ago, but I feel like I’ve improved so much as a fighter since then. Obviously, I’ve had three good wins [since then], but it’s the improvements that I’ve made in the gym that’s been huge.

“I train all year round, and I’m always striving to get better and better. I think in that fight, had I had a couple of more rounds, I probably would’ve worn him down and stopped him. It wasn’t meant to be.”

Like his brother Andrew, Jason Moloney has a well-rounded offensive attack and a motor that runs deep into fights. He’s eager for another shot at the title, and that includes the juggernaut from Japan, Naoya “The Monster” Inoue, one of the elite fighters in the sport.

“I think some people maybe don’t want to fight him, are intimidated by him, and they place him on a pedestal and think he’s this unbeatable person,” Jason said. “But I’m not afraid of anyone. I’m determined to become a world champion. Obviously, my focus right now is on Leonard Baez.

“But I just want to become world champion, cement my name and create my own legacy in defeating a fighter like Inoue. It would be a massive achievement and something I’ve got in the back of my mind.”


Catching up with: Abraham Nova

As news broke that a bout between Jose Pedraza and Mikkel LesPierre was being canceled last week because LesPierre’s manager tested positive for COVID-19, Nova (18-0, 14 KOs) immediately reached out to the members of his team who would be accompanying him to Las Vegas for his fight against Avery Sparrow (10-1, 3 KOs) in the co-main event.

“I texted my brother, and I told him: ‘Yo, make sure you don’t get too close to anybody. Stay safe because if you end up catching coronavirus, I won’t be able to fight,'” Nova said. “So I’ve got my team on check, and we’re doing all the precautions to stay healthy and stay away from that whole disease.”

Nova’s team includes his head trainer, Hector Bermudez. All three will be tested before entering “The Bubble” at the MGM.

“We’ve got to be aware of everything and be very responsible, be very clean and keep our distance,” said Nova, who is excited about the opportunity to perform on national television. Promoted by Murphys Boxing, Nova recently signed a co-promotional deal with Top Rank and hopes to soon be in the title picture at junior lightweight.

“This is a big opportunity for me to showcase my skills and show the world my talent,” Nova said. “I’m ready for it, and I’m the right fighter to be on TV.”

To get ready for the fight without many places to train, Nova turned his garage and backyard in Albany, New York, into a temporary gym. He has been relatively active compared to other fighters. He recently stopped Pedro Navarrete in four rounds in January, and next he faces a somewhat familiar face in Sparrow, as both were sparring partners of IBF lightweight titlist Teofimo Lopez.

“But we never sparred,” Nova said. “At one point, we were in the same gym together, but we never got in the ring together.”

When asked if he recalled anything about Sparrow, Nova said he didn’t pay attention to him.

“To be honest, no. I don’t remember much at all,” he said. “All I picture in my head was that he had quick movements. But other than that, I don’t really remember nothing.”

Sparrow is a seasoned fighter, one from the hard gym culture of Philadelphia. He has a pretty solid résumé, including a victory over veteran Hank Lundy in March 2019.

“Avery’s not in the business of tune-ups. He just wants to fight,” said Russell Peltz, Sparrow’s promoter. “He knows how to fight.”

This is ultimately a solid matchup: an undefeated prospect in Nova against a wild card. Sparrow is thought of highly enough that Golden Boy offered him the assignment of facing prized prospect Ryan Garcia in September before Sparrow was arrested the morning before the fight on gun charges.


The rest of the card

  • Orlando Gonzalez (14-0, 10 KOs) vs. Luis Porozo (15-2, 8 KOs), eight rounds, lightweight

  • Waldo Cortes Acosta (5-2, 2 KOs) vs. Kingsley Ibeh (3-1, 3 KOs), six rounds, heavyweight

  • Reymond Yanong (10-5-1, 9 KOs) vs. Clay Burns (9-7-2, 4 KOs), six rounds, welterweight

  • Vlad Panin (7-1, 4 KOs) vs. Benjamin Whitaker (13-3, 3 KOs), six rounds, welterweight


Predictions

Jason Moloney vs. Baez: This will be a good, competitive fight, which will be fought on even terms through the first half. But as Moloney said, he’s a bit better all-around, and those slight advantages in various departments will lead him to victory in the final rounds of this contest. Franco will acquit himself well, but Moloney will come out with a hard-fought victory.

Nova vs. Sparrow: Sparrow will prove to be an elusive target early, but eventually Nova and his superior offensive firepower will find a way to take over this fight. Despite some issues with the style of Sparrow, Nova will do enough to win a close decision.


Saturday

On paper, it seems like it should be an easy night at the office for Miguel Berchelt, but he insists that he has good reason to be fully focused against Eleazar Valenzuela.

“I know that by winning on Saturday, my next fight will be against Oscar Valdez,” said Berchelt said through an interpreter.

Berchelt-Valdez is a fight that has been mandated by the WBC, and should both come out victorious in their summer bouts, they could meet in the fall. Berchelt hopes that by then, live audiences will be allowed to attend.

“I think that this is such a big fight. People in boxing are waiting for this kind of fight,” Berchelt said. “Oscar and I, we both know this is a big fight for the fans, too. So I prefer for the fight to be in front of the fans because this fight is also for them.”

The other belt-holders at 130 are Jamel Herring (WBO), Joseph Diaz (IBF), Leo Santa Cruz (WBA “super”) and Rene Alvarado (WBA “regular”). Although Berchelt respects his colleagues in the division, he wants to move up to the lightweight division after the fight against Valdez.

“This fight [on Saturday] is at 135, so I want to see how I feel because I know there’s some big names at 135, too, like [Vasiliy] Lomachenko and Teofimo [Lopez]. Those are fighters I want to face,” said Berchelt, who is rated by ESPN as the top junior lightweight in the world.

If he had his choice, would he rather face the winner of Lomachenko-Lopez or a unification bout at 130? Berchelt (37-1, 33 KOs) didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Without a doubt, I’d take the fight with the winner of Lomachenko-Lopez because that’s a big fight. They are big names,” he said. “It would be a great challenge for me, and I would become a champion in another division.”

One way or the other, it looks like Berchelt’s time at 130 is quickly coming to a close.


Predictions

Berchelt-Valenzuela: This is your classic stay-busy fight. With a bigger matchup against Valdez looming, nobody involved with Berchelt is taking any chances. In his most recent fight, Valenzuela (21-13-4, 16 KOs) was stopped in two rounds by Miguel Angel Parra. This fight shouldn’t take much longer — Berchelt by early knockout.





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