By: Robert Aaron Contreras
On Saturday, June 8, Top Rank has a world championship fight on tap from Reno, Nevada, live on ESPN.
But before Oscar Valdez defends his featherweight strap against the fresh-faced Jason Sanchez, Gabriel Flores Jr., continues to piece together a reputation as one of the sport’s hottest prospects, still just a teenager. All the while, light heavyweight demolition man Michael Seals opens up the broadcast, beginning at 10 p.m. ET.
Oscar Valdez (25-0, 20 KO) vs. Jason Sanchez (14-0, 7 KO)
Saturday’s main event marks the sixth title defense of Valdez’s featherweight reign. And it could very well be his last. Not because his challenger stands much of a chance at dethroning him, but because the former two-time Olympian has made it clear after this weekend he is looking forward to bigger and better opponents, even a move to 130 pounds.
With the 28-year-old Valdez so eager to take on a quality name—namely Carl Frampton, as reported by ESPN—it is curious as to why Bob Arum is wasting his man’s time with such a routine defense of his crown.
Valdez may stand an inch shorter than Sanchez, but he is much longer in the tooth. Four months ago, the Mexican boxer-puncher knocked out Spain’s Carmine Tommasone in seven rounds, also aired on ESPN. The knockout represented the featherweight champion’s first fight since getting by British puncher Scott Quigg with a broken jaw. A seminal night, indeed, as it was also Valdez’s first time under the handle of trainer Eddy Reynoso.
Valdez dropped longtime coach Manny Robles from his corner in 2018, opting for Reynoso who is known for his work with Canelo Alvarez. Robles recently received high praise for his role in helping Andy Ruiz Jr. upset Anthony Joshua. But that jaw injury that kept him out nearly an entire calendar year was only the latest physical toll on Valdez.
First lifting the belt in 2016, Valdez turned away Hiroshige Osawa without any problems. But then he faced some scares against Miguel Marriaga and hit the deck opposite Genesis Servania. So Valdez must be in search of a more calculated approach as his 30th birthday looms near.
Sanchez, 24, was on the undercard that night Valdez tore apart Tommasone. There, on ESPN+, Sanchez stopped an opponent out of Mexico named Daniel Olea. In the second round of their contest, he pitched an overhand right over an extended left hand from Olea, that sent his opponent to the canvas. The victim was slow to get up and the referee waved it off.
Undefeated himself, Sanches trains out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the Sanchez Brothers Boxing Gym. Ahead of the biggest bout of his life, his team has enlisted the help of a more acclaimed camp. They flew out a handful of sparring parters from Robert Garcia’s Las Vegas expansion to give Sanchez some proper work.
With an early background in Taekwondo, Sanchez said he had over 100 amateur boxing matches while competing in a number of national tournaments, before turning professional in 2012. He finally entered a major sanctioning body’s rankings last year after decisioning the previously undefeated Jean Carlos Rivera—traveling to Puerto Rico to do it. Before that, Sanchez defeated German Meraz, a veteran with over 60 wins to his name with of course over 50 losses to go along with them.
Sanchez has never faced another live body, never actually training for the 12-round championship distance. This is actually a short-notice promotion for him after the WBO rejected Top Rank’s proposed opponent of Erick Ituarte, another young, unproven contender.
Gabriel Flores Jr. (13-0, 6 KO) vs. Salvador Briceno (15-3, 9 KO)
Just 19, a sweeping left hook from Flores Jr., that completely stretched out his last opponent, was enough to convince Top Rank brass to make sure the phenom out of Stockton, California was on a telecast in chief support of a beltholder like Valdez.
This weekend, Flores rolls into Reno already 2-0 on the year. In February, he beat Alejandro Rynn, nothing more than club fighter. But last month, he sparked Eduardo Perreira dos Reis in just three rounds to extend his undefeated ledger. Flores opened the bout with a flickering jab—almost a backhanded range finder from his hip. Perhaps not the most textbook jab from the shoulders, the shot still set up a left hook that rattled Reis in the first round. And then again for good in the third stanza, stepping in with another wicked left hook around the gloves.
Flores was actually signed by Top Rank before he even graduated high school—aged 16, in fact. So despite being a teenager, a national network fight has been a longtime coming. To celebrate the occasion, the promotional outfit set up Flores with what looks on paper like his stiffest test to date.
Briceno, 24, has a respectable record. He’s slightly taller than the house fighter and has won back-to-back contests (both third-round kayos). Saturday represents his stateside debut but not his first time on the road. In 2017, he left his home in Mexico to meet Mikhail Alexeex in Russia, where the two fought to the distance.