Saturday's boxing schedule ramps up with a pair of cards -- one headlined by a clash of junior welterweight contenders inside the Top Rank bubble and the other by 154-pounders taking center stage at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut.
While there aren't any direct title implications for the Top Rank clash between Jose Pedraza and Javier Molina at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas, the winner could be primed for big things in the wake of a future title unification bout between Jose Ramirez and Josh Taylor. The winner of the junior middleweight clash between Erickson Lubin and Terrell Gausha -- a WBC title eliminator -- will be keeping a close eye on next week's title unification bout between Jermell Charlo and Jeison Rosario.
There are some intriguing fights up and down both cards, so here's a look at what's ahead this weekend:
Positioning battle at junior welterweight
The main event on the Top Rank Boxing card (ESPN+, 7:30 p.m. ET) is a junior welterweight contest between Pedraza (27-3, 13 KOs), a former two-time titleholder, and Molina (22-2, 9 KOs), in a bout scheduled for 10 rounds.
As you look out at the landscape of this division, there are two clear front-runners -- Ramirez, who holds the WBC and WBO titles, and IBF and WBA belt-holder Taylor. Should Taylor overcome mandatory challenger Apinun Khongsong in late September, the two champions are slated to collide for all the major belts in their next fights.
After that, there are indications from both camps that Ramirez and Taylor will look to move up in weight for bigger opportunities at welterweight -- and that would mean vacant titles and opportunities throughout the junior welterweight division at some point in 2021.
That's good news for everyone else in the division, and Pedraza and Molina can certainly improve their stock with a win.
"It's positioning for the 140-pound division," said Carl Moretti, VP of boxing operations for Top Rank. "I don't think whoever wins or loses is going to take a step backwards. I expect a very competitive fight; I have no idea who wins. But I think you're going to see both guys in 2021 against the other [significant] guys at 140."
Molina last fought on the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury II undercard in Las Vegas, earning a decision win over Amir Imam in an eight-round fight. Pedraza decisively beat Mikkel LesPierre over 10 rounds on July 2 in the Top Rank bubble.
More young hopefuls take the stage
There are several key prospects to watch on the undercard, including the Top Rank debut of heavyweight hopeful Efe Ajagba (13-0, 11 KOs), who faces Jonnie Rice (13-5-1, 9 KOs) in a 10-rounder. In addition to a new promoter, Ajagba now has in his corner trainer Kay Koroma, who replaces Ronnie Shields.
"To all my fans, the wait is finally over. I am ready to get back in the ring and do what I do best," Ajagba said. "I haven't fought since March 7, and I've been looking for someone to devour. On Sept. 19, I finally get to do it. ... You don't want to miss it."
The undercard also features the return of Cuban Olympic gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez, who has rattled off four straight wins after a shocking pro debut loss -- including victories inside the Top Rank bubble in June and July.
There are also a pair of 17-year-olds under the guidance of boxing manager James Prince -- Jahi Tucker and Kasir Goldston -- who are getting a chance to fight on a big stage. That's been a trend throughout the summer, as boxers who are not signed under the Top Rank banner got chances to fight and showcase themselves.
Last week it was 21-year-old bantamweight Manny Flores, a southpaw who shined as he stopped Jonathan Rodriguez in five rounds in a battle of two young boxers who both went into the bout 8-0.
Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman has been eager to offer challenging fights to promising young boxers looking for opportunities. Some of the most compelling stories of Top Rank's era inside the Las Vegas bubble have been fighters who have stepped up and taken full advantage of opportunities -- fighters such as Clay Collard, Gabriel Muratalla, and Robert "Biggie" Rodriguez.
"I enjoy it because I get a chance to see them and take a look at these kids I've never seen before," Goodman explained. "And what I like about it is these kids don't hesitate on who they fight, whether they're undefeated guys or not -- they're just willing to step up to the plate."
Pedraza-Molina by the numbers
Coming off a unanimous decision win against Mikkel LesPierre in July.
Has lost two of his past four fights and three of eight following a 22-0 start to his career.
Has 13 KOs in 30 fights (five in the first round), and one KO since August 2014 (May 2019 vs. Antonio Lozada).
Has won 13 of his past 14 fights (only loss in that span came against current WBA interim welterweight titleholder Jamal James in 2016).
Represented the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (lost in opening round).
The full card
Jose Pedraza vs. Javier Molina, 10 rounds, junior welterweights
Efe Ajagba vs. Jonnie Rice, 10 rounds, heavyweights
Robeisy Ramirez vs. Felix Caraballo, 8 rounds, featherweights
Christian Montano vs. Ryan Adams, 6 rounds, super middleweights
Leo Ruiz vs. Rodrigo Solis, 6 rounds, junior middleweights
Bryan Lua vs. Luis Norambuena, 4 rounds, lightweights
Jahi Tucker vs. Deandre Anderson, 4 rounds, welterweights
Kasir Goldston vs. Isaiah Varnell, 4 rounds, welterweights
Frevian Gonzalez vs. Carlos Marrero, 4 rounds, junior lightweights
Three years ago, Erickson "The Hammer" Lubin (22-1 16 KOs) challenged Jermell Charlo for the WBC 154-pound title. Lubin was knocked down with a brutal short right hand by Charlo in the first round.
It was an awkward-looking shot from Charlo, one that Lubin never saw coming. But even though it was a single shot that put Lubin out, his trainer, Kevin Cunningham -- who soon took over the training duties with Lubin after that loss -- said it was anything but lucky.
"Because when I went back and looked at it, [Charlo] set it up and ran 'Hammer' right into the punch. I just think it was a fight that was too early for Erickson," Cunningham told ESPN after arriving at Mohegan Sun, where Lubin faces Gausha (21-1-1, 10 KOs).
Charlo, who faces Rosario on Sept. 26 in a highly anticipated unification bout, holds the WBC belt. Should both Lubin and Charlo win their fights, Cunningham has no issues moving forward with another battle with Charlo.
In fact, if Cunningham had been on the team in 2017 and had his say, he would've pumped the brakes on that early title shot, believing that Lubin wasn't ready yet.
"Yeah, definitely," Cunningham said, ''because when I went back and looked at the fights [Lubin] had leading into that fight, I didn't see very many fights that prepared him for a fighter like Jermell Charlo. So I just didn't see the need for the rush."
As a trainer, Cunningham is best known for his work in developing Cory Spinks and later Devon Alexander. The latter won a title at 22, the same age Lubin was when he fought Charlo. But there was a key difference.
"Devon's fighting a 38-year-old Junior Witter -- he was long in the tooth," Cunningham pointed out -- a stark contrast to the strong and robust Charlo, who was in his physical prime. Now 24, Lubin is fully cooked as a fighter.
"He's ready; the meal has all the proper seasoning. More so, all the proper ingredients," said Cunningham, who believes his background in training left-handers in the past has been instrumental in guiding Lubin.
In Cunningham's view, Lubin had all the tools but didn't truly understand how to box like a southpaw, which meant understanding where he was most vulnerable while also exploiting blind spots that are created by simply moving in certain directions.
"He's a totally different fighter now," Cunningham said. "Don't get me wrong, he was a hell of a fighter prior to me training him, but he was the type of guy that went in, gunning his opponents down.
"I was seeing where he was getting touched -- even when he was winning -- because he was so focused on taking his guys out of there and running over these guys," Cunningham said. "Now, being with me for three years, he realizes that, and he has the ability to do everything that I teach. It's all starting to come together."
The co-main event is a featherweight bout between Tugstsogt Nyambayar (11-1, 9 KOs), who lost to WBC titlist Gary Russell Jr. in February, and Cobia Breedy (15-0, 5 KOs), who replaces Eduardo Ramirez after he was pulled from the fight with an undisclosed medical condition.
Jaron "Boots" Ennis kicks off the broadcast, as the blue-chip welterweight is matched up against veteran Juan Carlos Abreu. Many compare the skill set of Ennis (25-0, 23 KOs) to that of Terence Crawford because of Ennis' ability to switch between left- and right-handed stances so effectively and seamlessly.
In the 33-year-old Abreu (23-5-1, 21 KOs), Ennis is facing a seasoned veteran. In 2018, Abreu went the 10-round distance against both Egidijus Kavaliauskas and Alexander Besputin. Abreu also went the distance against current WBA interim welterweight titlist Jamal James in 2015.
Quotes of the fight:
"I respect him as a fighter, but I don't think Gausha is on my level. He's standing in my way of becoming a world champion, so I need to take care of business Saturday night, and look good doing it. I have to make a statement in this fight." -- Erickson Lubin
"This fight is a chance to send a message to all the other fighters at 154 pounds. I want to control every round against Lubin, and if I get him hurt, I'll be looking to get him out of there. I'm planning to show the gap between us as fighters. He was the one to call for this fight, but anyone who plays with my name, I make sure to send for them." -- Terrell Gausha
The full card
Erickson Lubin vs. Terrell Gausha, 12 rounds, WBC junior middleweight title eliminator
Tugstsogt Nyambayar vs. Eduardo Ramirez, 10 rounds, featherweights
Jaron Ennis vs. Juan Carlos Abreu, 10 rounds, welterweights