Despite a two-year reign as lightweight champion, Robert Easter Jr. still had not secured the career-defining fight that elevates status.
Solidifying his undefeated record with three successful title defenses, Easter still needed the appropriate “dance partner” capable of enhancing the relevance of his bouts.
Easter finally will have the opponent he has coveted for since his professional debut six years ago. The reigning International Boxing Federation champion will defend his belt against World Boxing Council titleholder Mikey Garcia in a unification bout Saturday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“This fight with Mikey Garcia is one of the big fights that I’ve been waiting on for so long and it’s finally here,” Easter said in a conference call last week.
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Easter (21-0, 14 KOs) acknowledges Garcia’s rise to boxing supremacy. Garcia (38-0, 30 KOs) has won world titles in four separate divisions. Even a 30-month absence because of a promotional dispute failed to diminish Garcia’s star as he has maintained his spot among boxing’s best pound-for-pound fighters.
“I believe this fight is what boxing deserves — champion versus champion,” Easter said. “I’m no stranger to tough fights. This is going to define my career and make the best out of me, fighting another best great fighter.”
Easter’s recent ring performance far from depicted a fighter who wants recognition among the elite. Benefiting from a point deduction against his opponent, Easter retained his belt with a narrow split decision win over Javier Fortuna on Jan. 20.
The 5-foot-11 Easter towers over opponents in the 135-pound class. Yet, Easter failed to utilize the size and reach advantages against Fortuna, a strategy which will prove vital when he faces Garcia.
In an attempt to better prepare for Garcia, Easter added Kevin Cunningham to his training team and relocated to West Palm Beach, where Cunningham trains other fighters. Cunningham is recognized for his work with former welterweight champions Devon Alexander and Cory Spinks and recently guided super-featherweight champion Gervonta Davis and three-division titleholder Adrien Broner.
“He was not using his range properly, not controlling distance and then smothering his punches by fighting in a little too close and giving up his height and things of that nature,” Cunningham said. “Robert understands what he needs to do, the adjustments that he needs to make.”
Fighters rarely return to a lower weight class once they’ve succeeded at a higher division. But Garcia kept his options open after capturing a 140-pound title with his unanimous decision win over Sergey Lipinets March 30. Instead of starting a title reign at super-lightweight, Garcia, 30, returned to lightweight for the unification bout with Easter.
“He’s had some tough fights and I think he’s had those tough fights because he allows it to get tough for himself,” Garcia said of Easter in the same conference call. “Because he’s a fighter, he likes to fight. He likes to exchange punches and gives up the height and reach advantage at times.
“I think he might actually use his height and reach early on. But I’ll make those adjustments. I have experience fighting a lot of different opponents, different styles, different heights. I’d say I’ll be prepared to do whatever it takes to win on [Saturday].”
▪ Miami resident and heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz will fight on the Garcia-Easter undercard Saturday. Ortiz, a native of Cuba, will face Romania’s Razvan Cojanu in a scheduled 10-round bout.
For Ortiz (28-1, 24 KOs), the bout will be his first since a 10th round TKO loss against WBC champion Deontay Wilder March 3.
▪ Late Saturday, Mexico’s Jaime Munguia retained his WBC super-welterweight belt with a convincing unanimous decision victory over England’s Liam Smith in Las Vegas. Munguia (30-0) won the fight on all three judges’ scorecards, 116-111, 119-108 and 119-110.
▪ Coming up:
Friday (11:30 p.m., Telemundo-Ch. 51): Saul Juarez vs. Mario Andrade, 10, junior-flyweights.
Saturday (9:30 p.m., ESPN Plus): Christopher Diaz vs. Masayuki Ito, 12, for the vacant WBO junior lightweight title.
Saturday (10 p.m., Showtime): Mikey Garcia vs. Robert Easter Jr., 12, for the unified IBF and WBC lightweight titles; Luis Ortiz vs. Razvan Cojanu, 10, heavyweights.