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In what promises to be an all-out slugfest, ESPN’s top two junior lightweights Emanuel Navarrete and Oscar Valdez will clash in Glendale, Arizona for Navarrete’s WBO junior lightweight world title (10 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+).
The pair of Mexican brawlers were slated to meet in February before a Valdez injury postponed the matchup. The former two-division champion returned in May with a decision victory over Adam Lopez in a rematch of their fight in November 2019 (a seventh-round TKO victory for Valdez) and will now attempt to become a two-time champion at 130 pounds.
Navarrete (37-1, 31 KOs) captured the title in his first junior lightweight fight, a ninth-round TKO of Liam Wilson in February. The three-division champion proved that his power carried to a third weight class, but after he was dropped hard by the major underdog in Round 4, there have been questions about Navarrete’s punch resistance at junior lightweight.
To ensure he’s strong at his weight — and against the most-accomplished opponent of his career — Navarrete said he’s working with a strength and conditioning coach in training camp for the first time.
“This fight with Valdez merited that change, and I will come into this fight much better physically…,” said Navarrete, ESPN’s No. 2 junior lightweight. “Winning this fight would boost my career significantly. Personally, I would feel complete.
“What has been missing in my career is precisely a victory against someone like Valdez. It would fill me with pride to be part of such an iconic fight between Mexicans and come out victorious.”
Navarrete, 28, has already claimed titles at junior featherweight and featherweight and owns a reputation as one of the sport’s most-reliable action fighters. But he’s never faced a top-flight opponent like Valdez.
Valdez (31-1, 23 KOs), a two-time Olympian, is consistently in thrilling fights, like the time he fought through a broken jaw to defeat Scott Quigg. Or Valdez’s brutal KO of Miguel Berchelt to win a 130-pound title.
“It’s one of the most important fights of my career because it means everything for me to come back and win that title,” said Valdez, ESPN’s No. 1 junior lightweight.
Even though Navarrete and Valdez are coming off victories, it feels like a must-win fight for both fighters. For Navarrete, a chance to establish himself as a force at a new weight. And for Valdez, the opportunity to prove he’s still at the top of his game.
Here’s what to watch for when Navarrete and Valdez throw down Saturday.
Who holds the power edge?
Navarrete throws bundles of punches from awkward angles and, even at 126 pounds, towers over his opponents.
He owns inside-the-distance wins over fringe contenders like Christopher Diaz and Eduardo Baez, but has never stopped an opponent the caliber of Valdez and was extended the distance by a few no-hopers during his 122-pound title reign.
Navarrete showed plenty of power in his junior lightweight debut against Wilson, but it was alarming that such a lightly regarded boxer was able to knock him down in Round 4. Navarrete appeared seriously hurt, but showed impressive recuperative powers.
Valdez probably won’t let Navarrete off the hook if he finds himself in a similar situation. Just how much sting is left on his shots is another matter. Valdez was able to score several knockdowns in decision wins at 126 pounds and then delivered a highlight-reel, one-punch KO of Berchelt in his debut at 130.
But since then Valdez was outboxed by Shakur Stevenson in a fight where he might not have landed one punch of consequence, and then out-grinded Lopez in May.
Valdez and Navarrete surely possess enough power to gain the other’s respect, and that will be paramount in a fight that’s unlikely to feature much defense.
“He says he’s going to knock my head off, but let’s see whose head comes off first,” Navarrete said. “Let’s see what Valdez has to offer, and let’s see how much he can endure and how much I can endure, too.”
Is Valdez still at the top of his game?
Valdez has participated in numerous taxing fights, and at 32, it’s unclear if he remains in his prime.
There’s surely no shame in not being able to hang with a pound-for-pound talent like Stevenson, but Valdez had his hands full with Robson Conceicao heading into that bout. Lopez, too, was able to trouble Valdez. Navarrete is a level above those boxers.
Valdez undoubtedly has enough power to keep Navarrete honest with his swarming attacks, but he’ll also have to execute trainer Eddy Reynoso’s game plan and avoid getting sucked into the kind of physical fight Navarrete prefers.
“I always tell people that I grew up during the era of Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera,” said Valdez, referring to the legendary trilogy between all-time greats from Mexico. “Those two fighters inspired me to be the fighter that I am today. So, to leave something similar in history would mean the world to me.”
“I’m more motivated for this fight than any other fight I’ve been in.”
Expect a fight-of-the-year candidate
Navarrete is one of the best volume-punchers in boxing with an average of 70 shots thrown per round, a whirlwind of activity that’s proven too much for title challengers at 122 and 126 pounds.
The junior lightweight champion is busy with his lead hand, too, flicking out nearly 24 jabs per round on average, in line with Valdez’s output.
Valdez doesn’t throw nearly as many punches per round as Navarrete — few do — at nearly six punches below the average at 130 pounds. He also isn’t as accurate as Navarrete with an average of just 14 punches landed per round.
Against a fighter who isn’t too defensively responsible, Valdez will need to make those punches count and throw in between Navarrete’s shots to disrupt his flow.
Valdez showed he could handle adversity by rallying over the second half against Conceicao, and he also proved he has fight-changing power vs. Berchelt.
Valdez has faced one pound-for-pound talent in Stevenson, experience that should serve him well along with his impressive resilience and power against a tough, awkward volume-puncher in Navarrete.
Navarrete was already featured in one of 2023’s best action fights when he picked himself off the canvas to stop Wilson in a shootout. Now, the pressure is on to top the brutality of that fight with his matchup against a fellow Mexican warrior.
He will have to contend with hostilities fighting near Valdez’s adopted hometown in Arizona, an atmosphere which should only serve to stoke the flames of anticipation for a slugfest.
“People know that I throw a lot of punches and that I’m always in attractive fights,” said Navarrete. “Now, with Valdez, I believe it will be twice as spectacular. Valdez is a fighter who doesn’t hold back. We always see him moving forward and throwing punches.”
Valdez has also shown the ability to box and move, but seems to get sucked into brawls. Against Navarrete, that could be dangerous, but Valdez has proven a penchant for mixing it up on the inside, even if it’s not the best strategy.
“We all know that Navarrete has an awkward style,” Valdez said. “We might not have the perfect sparring that can emulate his style. But we try to imitate him in the mittwork and strategy. He’s not your typical fighter that throws straight shots.”