Light heavyweight contender Sullivan Barrera could have been in the main event against Sergey Kovalev fighting for a vacant world title Saturday night, but he didn't like the money offered and the title belt had not yet made available, so he turned it down.
Instead, Barrera, also in a mandatory position to challenge titleholder Dmitry Bivol, risked that position by taking on little-known Felix Valera. Although he paid a physical price by getting knocked down, repeatedly hit with low blows and badly cut, Barrera won a lopsided unanimous decision on the Kovalev-Vyacheslav Shabranskyy undercard at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Valera (15-2, 13 KOs), a former interim world titleholder, was docked three points for low blows by referee Michael Ortega and Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs) dominated, leading to one-sided scores of 98-88, 97-90 and 97-89.
"It was a tough, awkward fight," Barrera said. "I have beaten two of the three light heavyweights (Joe Smith Jr. and Shabranskyy) shown on HBO. I'm just waiting to finally get the opportunity I deserve."
With Bivol, who outpointed Valera to win an interim belt in May 2016, at ringside scouting his likely future opponent in Barrera, the fight got off to a bit of a wild start as both men got knocked down in the first round.
With a minute to go, Valera nailed Barrera with a left hook for a knockdown. It was the second fight in a row in which Barrera got dropped in the opening round, having also tasted the mat against Smith in July. As the round was ending, Barrera, 35, a Cuban defector fighting out of Miami, caught Valera with a left hook to the chin and dropped him to a knee.
Valera opened a bad cut over Barrera's left eye in the second round. In the third round, Valera nailed Barrera with a rough low blow and referee Michael Ortega took a point away.
In the sixth round, Valera, 29, of the Dominican Republic, went blatantly low again and Ortega took another point from him.
In the eighth round, Valera hit Barrera with yet another low blow and Ortega took a third point, putting him on the brink of being disqualified.
Barrera struck back with a hard low blow early in the ninth round, sending Valera to the mat, and Ortega took a point away from him.
Valera's corner told him he needed a knockout in the 10th round and he went for it, winging punches at Barrera, but he could not break through against his more skilled and poised opponent.
According to CompuBox statistics, Barrera landed 144 of 555 punches (26 percent) and Valera connected with Valera 119 of 469 (25 percent).
Gamboa edges Sosa
Former unified featherweight titlist Yuriorkis Gamboa suffered a knockdown, had a point deducted and appeared to have a lot of problems against Jason Sosa but was awarded a majority decision in their junior lightweight bout.
Thought to be a faded fighter by many, Gamboa (28-2, 17 KOs) won 96-92 and 95-93 on two scorecards, and one judge had it 94-94. ESPN.com had it 96-92 for Sosa, a former world titleholder who dropped his second fight in a row after getting stopped by world titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko in April.
Sosa certainly thought he deserved the decision.
"I was a fun fight. I took some breaks, but I thought I did enough to win," Sosa said. "I know I did enough to win the fight. I didn't get hurt at all during the fight. I spar with middleweights so that was nothing."
Gamboa, of course, thought it was a proper decision.
"Of course, the decision was good," Gamboa said. "I think I won every round except for the knockdown and the point deduction [rounds]."
Sosa (20-3-4, 15 KOs), 29, a Puerto Rico native fighting out of Camden, New Jersey, opened a small cut over Gamboa's right eye in the second round, but it didn't seem to cause Gamboa any issues.
In the seventh round, Sosa landed a right hand to the head that forced Gamboa to touch his to the mat for a knockdown as he tried to steady himself. Later in the round, referee Ron Lipton gave Gamboa, 35, a 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist who defected and fights out of Miami, a stern warning to stop holding of he would take a point away from him.
By the eighth round, Gamboa was sporting swelling on the left side of his face from eating so many of Sosa's hard punches. In the ninth round, Lipton gave Gamboa another hard warning for holding.
After the ninth round, Pedro Roque Otano, Gamboa's new trainer, seemed convinced his man was ahead, telling Gamboa he was up and to box Sosa in the final round. Then Gamboa held again and a fed up Lipton docked him one point. While that appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of a loss, two judges disagreed.
According to CompuBox, Gamboa landed 129 of 450 punches (29 percent) and Sosa landed 132 of 399 (33 percent).
Gamboa was a late replacement for Robinson Castellanos, who knocked Gamboa out in the seventh round in May in a major upset. But when Castellanos suffered a back injury three weeks ago, Gamboa, who struggled to a win in his only fight after the loss to Castellanos, quickly agreed to fill in for him.
"It was a good fight. I didn't have enough time to train. I only had three weeks," Gamboa said. "I didn't have time to get ready. I needed two or three more weeks to lose the weight correctly."
The fight was contracted at 131 pounds and while Gamboa made it at 130.6, Sosa was 131.2 pounds and had to pay an undisclosed financial penalty to Gamboa.
Junior middleweight Frank Galarza (18-2-2, 11 KOs), 32, of Brooklyn, New York, returned from a 14-month layoff to outpoint Jaime Herrera (15-5-1, 8 KOs), 28, of Franklin Park, Illinois. Galarza won by scores of 80-72, 79-73 and 78-74. Galarza had lost two in a row to former junior middleweight world titleholder Ishe Smith and Jarrett Hurd, who went on to win a 154-pound world title earlier this year.
"I feel good after a 14-month layoff, shaking off some ring rust," Galarza said. "I'm so grateful for Main Events to put me on their card. Hopefully, I'll be back in the Garden soon. It felt great. It was where I belong. It felt right. Not many places you can call home, but this is one for me.
"I'm grateful for my supporters, for people who waited it out for me. As a Brooklyn native, a person from New York who's been around, they support me and that's the best thing."
Middleweight prospect LeShawn Rodriguez (8-0, 7 KOs), 24, of Shirley, New York, dropped Alex Sandro Duarte (13-3-1, 10 KOs), 37, of Brazil, in the second round and finished him at 1 minute, 48 seconds of the third round in their scheduled six-rounder.
"It feels good always to win, but to win by knockout is better, sensational, spectacular," said Rodriguez, a former New York Golden Gloves winner at the MSG Theater. "I felt at home. A lot of people came out to see me. This is the first time I've fought in New York since I turned pro."
Junior middleweight prospect Enriko Gogkhia (7-0, 3 KOs), 26, a former kickboxer from the Republic of Georgia fighting out of Los Angeles, won a lopsided decision over Jose Antonio Abreu (13-3, 8 KOs), 29 of the Dominican Republic. Gogkhia, who shares manager Egis Klimas with Kovalev, won 60-53, 59-54 and 59-54.
"It was a good fight, good opponent with a good record," Gogkhia said. "It was harder because the opponent was ready and he also wanted to win. I was just getting started by the last round. Still, a victory is a victory."
Bronx, New York junior middleweight Ismael Villarreal, the 21-year-old son of former welterweight pro Otilio Villarreal, cruised to a four-round shutout decision in his pro debut. Villarreal (1-0) outpointed Race Sawyer (0-5), 33, of West Jordan, Utah, by scores of 40-36, 40-36 and 40-35.
"It totally felt different than the amateurs," said Villarreal, who was 66-7 as an amateur, including winning two New York Golden Gloves titles. "There were so many more people looking at me. I was trying to look good. I was focused on the knockout because it was my very first professional fight. I learned I have to work harder and be careful not to get hit."