Two undefeated fighters from the Dominican Republic could make Saturday the greatest boxing night their country has ever seen as both vie for world titles in a Premier Boxing Champions event on SHOWTIME.
This Saturday August 20th, former champions Omar Figueroa Jr. and Sergey Lipinets collide in a WBC Super Lightweight title eliminator at Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
The intriguing crossroads bout headlines a Premier Boxing Champions event on SHOWTIME (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) which features a pair of title matches that could make for a historic night for a country that has quietly become a boxing hotbed.
Only a few years ago, boxing insiders thought of the Dominican Republic as a place with fighters who looked good while losing. Numerous prospects padded their records against Dominican boxers who sported more losses than wins. The fighters were capable but, because they lacked world class facilities, did not harbor any world champion aspirations. Instead, they picked up paychecks and experience. Dominican trainers learned on the job too and the lessons learned were passed on to the next generation.
Two of those fighters are fighting for a title Saturday night. If both win, it would be the greatest night of boxing the Dominican Republic has ever seen, according to both.
Alberto Puello (20-0, 10 KOs) of San Juan de la Maguana and Batyr Akhmedov (9-1, 8 KOs) square off for the vacant WBA Super Lightweight World Championship. In the other match, Hector Garcia (15-0, 10 KOs) also from San Juan de la Maguana, challenges WBA Super Featherweight World Champion Roger Gutierrez (26-3-1, 20 KOs.)
Puello and Garcia share the same sentiment: They both hope their fights opens more doors for boxers from the Dominican Republic and that the sport in the country receives more attention and support—something that was lacking in the country’s past.
The first Dominican boxer to crack the world rankings was Carlos Perez in the 1940s. Perez was a hard-hitting lefty with a penchant for street-fighting. The 5-foot-7 middleweight likely would be a welterweight with today’s improved training techniques. Because of a lack of facilities at home, Perez’s biggest wins were in Cuba. A career of fighting on the road and sleeping in unfamiliar beds came to an end one night in 1960 at a small diner in the Dominican Republic, when an ongoing street beef ended with him stabbed multiple times and slumped over an unfinished plate of bifstek encebollado.
Carlos Teofilo Cruz was the country’s first champion and his title winning performance in 1968 remains the highlight of Dominican boxing. Unfortunately, not that many people witnessed it. Held at a baseball stadium in the nation’s capital, Cruz dropped and then walked down defending champion Carlos Ortiz. The crowd, described as enthusiastic, was much smaller than the promoter had hoped for. Political correspondent, Tomas Montas, wrote that, because of the hostile political environment that remained for years following the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, “people were afraid to leave their homes.”
After losing his title because of a cut, Cruz died tragically in a plane crash. He remains the only former champion to have beaten Carlos Ortiz who is not in the Hall of Fame.
“ There is a lot of talent in the Dominican Republic ” Undefeated Super Lightweight Contender - Alberto Puello
Cruz, and all the other Dominican fighters who cracked the rankings, had to do what Carlos Perez did and fight on the road. Some relocated to Puerto Rico or New York. Lately, they have been able to develop world class skills while staying at home.
San Juan de la Maguana is an agricultural city closer to Haiti than to Santo Domingo. Known for its delicious fruits and snow-colored churches, most of the youth aspire to be baseball players. When he was young, Puello’s father looked to enroll him in one of the baseball leagues.
“I told him,” Puello said, “the league was too expensive. Why pay to play ball when I can box for free and potentially make money from it?” he asked his father.
Puello soon found himself in Marino Minaya’s gym alongside Hector Garcia.
“He was about 12, and I was 14,” Garcia recalled. Sixteen years later, the two are on the verge of making history for their country.
“About a year ago the thought that we may do something special began crossing my mind,” said Garcia. If victorious, it would mark the first time the country saw two of their own win titles on the same day.
“There is a lot of talent in the Dominican Republic,” adds Puello. “All we need is a chance and hopefully our fights (his and Garcia’s) on the 20th brings much needed attention and support for the younger fighters on the way up.”
Some have already noticed. In a recent interview on the YouTube channel of Broadway Joel, Garcia said that companies such as Premier Boxing Champions deserve credit for their recent support. “Al Haymon, you have to give him credit. He’s the one who knows about this business. Luis DeCubas too and Bob Santos. They’re the ones who have been supporting us recently, which is what Dominicans really needed to push forward.”
In addition to Garcia and Puello, the top-ten slots are increasingly being occupied by Dominican boxers. At middleweight, Carlos Adames is ranked number four by the independent Transnational Boxing Rankings Organization and sixth by the WBA. Stylish lightweight and Muhammad Ali look-a-like, Michel Rivera, known as the La Zarza Ali, is ranked third by the WBA. Knockout artist Elvis Rodriguez is only a fight or two away from joining them amongst the best in the world.
These fighters are on the cusp of a title shot and if they and Garcia and Puello, are victorious, the Dominican Republic may surpass Mexico as the Latin American country producing the most champions.
Both Garcia and Puello want to win for their country as much as for themselves. If they, and the others, continue winning, the Dominican Republic might be known as much for their world class boxing talent as they are for their baseball players. Perhaps more youngsters will choose the path that Puello did and turn to boxing rather than baseball. And maybe more fathers will be like Puello’s father.
What does he say now about your choice to box, I asked.
“He doesn’t even talk about baseball anymore,” Puello replied.
For a closer look at the entire Figueroa vs Lipinets card, check out our fight night page.