GLENDALE – The Valley has emerged as a hotspot for boxing, with Phoenix hosting an increasing number of major boxing events over the last year, including three cards headlined by title fights.
That trend continued Friday as Emanuel “Vaquero” Navarrete defeated Liam Wilson for the vacant WBO junior lightweight title in front of a spirited crowd at Desert Diamond Arena in Glendale. While last week’s fights took place in front of a reduced capacity crowd, the stands were full and animated as Navarrete became the 10th Mexican boxer in history to win a world title in three weight divisions.
Phoenix has been a popular destination to bring fights recently, in part because the large Hispanic population in the city shows strong support for their fighters, and also due to the presence of large-capacity venues including Desert Diamond Arena and Footprint Center.
Last December, Desert Diamond Arena hosted a title fight between two of the best fighters in boxing, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada. The fight was a major get for Phoenix and its fight fans as it was the third and likely final bout between the two future hall-of-famers after each fighter had beaten the other once before.
Over 9,000 fans turned up to witness the action that night and they did not leave disappointed as Gonzalez and Estrada battled back and forth for 12 rounds in an extremely close fight for the WBC junior bantamweight title. To the delight of fans in attendance, Juan Francisco Estrada, who is from Mexico, narrowly won the fight by majority decision.
“Phoenix has been a great market … that felt almost like Mexico out there tonight,” said Eddie Hearn, head of Matchroom Boxing.
Two months earlier, the Valley hosted a major card headlined by Jake Paul and UFC legend Anderson Silva. Although the fight wasn’t for any sort of belt, Jake Paul’s boxing career has garnered immense interest from fight fans and young social media users. Silva represented his toughest opponent to date and around 14,000 fans packed Desert Diamond Arena to see if Paul would pass the test.
Paul won what was an evenly contested fight that had fans up out of their seats throughout. The fight was the highest-grossing boxing event ever held at the arena according to Showtime.
David Benavidez, a Phoenix native, two-time champion and the No. 2 rated super middleweight in the world. has had his last two fights in his hometown, first at the Footprint Center and most recently in May at Desert Diamond Arena, which was then called Gila River Arena.
In that fight, Benavidez picked up his 23rd knockout victory defeating David Lemieux for the interim WBC title. The fight was one of multiple events that made May the highest grossing and highest attended month in the arena’s history.
Almost 12 months ago the Footprint Center hosted a title fight between a then up-and-coming Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez and Carlos Cuadras for the WBC junior bantamweight title. The Sinaloa-born Cuadras was upset by Rodriguez who stepped in at the last minute and jumped two weight classes to take the fight.
As boxing continues to grow in Arizona, it can only be expected that the Valley will see more title fights soon and fans will surely be eager for another exciting card like Friday’s.
In last week’s main event Navarrete battled back after getting knocked down in round 4 and eventually finished Wilson in the ninth. Navarrete is the WBO champion at featherweight and this was his introduction to the super featherweight division, where he was able to capture the vacant WBO belt.
Navarrete was supposed to take on former super featherweight champion Oscar Valdez for the vacant title, but Valdez suffered a rib injury and was forced to withdraw, leaving the door open for Liam Wilson to get his first title shot.
After Navarrete’s victory, Valdez came into the ring and expressed his desire to make that fight happen once again.
“I should have been fighting tonight here with ‘Vaquero’ Navarrete. Unfortunately I had an injury and it couldn’t be, but hopefully we come back to Arizona and make this fight happen,” Valdez said.
That fight is likely to take place later this year at a location to be determined, but there’s no doubt it bring out a lot of fans in Phoenix with both Navarrete and Valdez hailing from Mexico.
Although Wilson was a late replacement for Valdez and a big underdog in the fight, he put on quite the show as he became the first man to knock Navarrete to the canvas.
In the aftermath of the fight, many argued Wilson should have won after Navarrete was given 27 seconds from the time he was knocked down to when the fight resumed. Navarrete spit out his mouth guard as he picked himself up off the canvas and the referee allowed him time to get it back in, a decision many fans have criticized. No Limit Boxing, which promote Wilson, appealed the decision afterward.
Regardless of the appeal, Wilson had nothing to hang his head about after taking a world champion in Navarrete to his very limit.
Despite hitting the canvas for the first time in his career in round 4, Navarrete responded extremely well, regaining his legs in the fifth.
After the knockdown in round 4, as the fifth was about to begin and Wilson looked primed and ready to capitalize on a clearly dazed Navarrete, chants of “Sí, se puede,” began raining down from the stands as fans tried to will their countryman on.
“It (was) very fundamental for my effort to have the Mexican fans supporting me to keep that heart, to keep going and to (give) my best effort,” Navarrete said after the fight, via a translator.
From there he steadily worked his way back into the fight, trading shots until eventually scoring the knock down on Wilson in the ninth. Wilson was able to continue after going down, but Navarrete quickly jumped on him, unleashing big shot after big shot until the referee stepped in, stopping the fight.
On the undercard, Arnold Barboza Jr. kept his undefeated record with a unanimous decision victory over former world champion Jose Pedraza, setting himself up for a title shot in the near future. Richard Torrez Jr. also extended his perfect record to 5-0 (five wins, five knockouts) with an uppercut that sent James Bryant into the ropes and ultimately ended the fight after one round.
Nico Ali Walsh, grandson of Muhammad Ali, also extended his unbeaten record with a unanimous decision victory over Phoenix local Eduardo Ayala. Ayala had the clear hometown advantage with the crowd roaring in support for him from the time he walked out until the final bell rang, but it didn’t faze Ali Walsh one bit.
“He was a big guy, and I wanted to show that I could muscle him around on the inside,” Ali Walsh said after the fight. “Ayala was the hometown favorite. That was a new experience for me, but it was a valuable one.”
It was another successful title fight in the Valley on Friday night as Emanuel Navarrete claimed the vacant WBO junior lightweight with a TKO victory over Liam Wilson in what was perhaps the best fight of the year so far. Phoenix fight fans will hope to see Navarrete again soon as he looks to face Oscar Valdez next, potentially in the very same arena.