LAS VEGAS -- Former junior lightweight world titleholder Jose "Sniper" Pedraza signed with Top Rank in February hoping it would quickly lead to a shot at another belt.
It probably will because Pedraza won a hard-fought unanimous decision over a bloodied Antonio Moran on Saturday night in the co-feature on the Terence Crawford-Jeff Horn card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to set up a possible shot at lightweight world titleholder Raymundo Beltran on Aug. 25.
All three judges scored the fight 96-94 for Pedraza. ESPN.com had it 97-93 for Pedraza.
"He took a good shot, and it surprised me a little," Pedraza said. "My desire now is to once again fight for the WBO world title against Ray Beltran, and pretty soon Puerto Rico will have a new champion."
The fight began with a quick pace, with both fighters firing hard shots that connected. Pedraza knocked Moran off balance early in the round, and Moran responded with a solid combination later in the round.
Pedraza (24-1, 12 KOs), 29, of Puerto Rico, damaged Moran's nose with clean punches in the second round. Moran (23-3, 16 KOs), 25, of Mexico, with blood on his face, mounted a big rally in the middle of the round, forcing Pedraza to cover up.
They continued to pound each other, and the fourth round was filled with wild action and clean, hard punches from both men. Moran's face was a bloody mess from the nose injury and both fighters' white trunks were covered with blood.
After such a hard fourth round, the pace in the fifth and sixth rounds slowed considerably as Pedraza relied on his boxing skills rather than continuing to brawl.
Pedraza had a big eighth round, rocking Moran with a left hook and forcing him to the corner. It was clear the blood pouring from his face was causing him problems. By the last couple of rounds Pedraza just seemed to have worn the gutsy Moran out.
Beltran (35-7-1, 21 KOs), 36, a Mexico native fighting out of Phoenix, won a vacant title by decision in a hard-fought bout with Paulus Moses in February and was supposed to face Vasiliy Lomachenko in a title unification fight on Aug. 25. However, when Lomachenko suffered a torn labrum during his title win over Jorge Linares on May 12, it meant Beltran was without a summer opponent, and Top Rank promoter Bob Arum told ESPN that Pedraza would be his likely opponent instead.
If Beltran-Pedraza comes off, the winner probably would fight Lomachenko in a title unification on Dec. 8, the date penciled in for Lomachenko's return.
Pedraza won a vacant 130-pound world title in 2015, made two successful defenses and then lost the belt by seventh-round knockout to Gervonta Davis in January 2017. Pedraza eventually signed with Top Rank, returned from a 14-month layoff on March 17 and moved up to 135 pounds for an eight-round decision victory against Jose Luis Rodriguez.
Pedraza faced Moran in the second bout at lightweight and now is probably headed for a title shot.
Benavidez smokes Rojas
Welterweight Jose Benavidez Jr., a former interim junior welterweight titlist and the older brother of super middleweight world titlist David Benavidez, smoked Frank Rojas in the first round to win a world title elimination fight.
Benavidez (27-0, 18 KOs), 26, of Phoenix, barely broke a sweat taking out Rojas (22-1, 21 KOs) in 1 minute, 24 seconds. He rocked him with a right hand and then clubbed him with another right hand, and Rojas went down in a heap in a corner before rolling over onto his front as referee Vic Drakulich counted him out.
"I worked hard for this fight, so I didn't go in there trying to knock the guy out right away," Benavidez said. "But the knockout came. I caught him with some clean shots and he couldn't get back up. I thought I looked good enough. He was a guy who was 22-0 with 21 knockouts. I had a great camp, and the result showed that."
With the victory, Benavidez moved a step closer to a mandatory world title fight against Keith Thurman, although Benavidez could also get a shot at Top Rank stablemate Crawford, who won a welterweight world title in the main event, Arum told ESPN.
The fight was Benavidez's second since suffering a serious gunshot wound in his leg in August 2016. He returned from the injury for a win on Feb. 2.
"I felt better tonight. Last time out, I hadn't fought in nearly 18 months and there was some ring rust," Benavidez said. "I'm back and I want the winner of Horn and Crawford."
Rojas, fighting in the United States for the first time, had a glossy record but took a massive step up in competition after facing unknown opponents with a combined record of 29-86-5 before fighting Benavidez.
Blue-chip featherweight prospect Shakur Stevenson (7-0, 4 KOs), a 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist, from Newark, New Jersey, scored five knockdowns in a one-sided destruction of Aelio Mesquita (16-2, 14 KOs), 26, of Brazil.
Stevenson, a 20-year-old southpaw made his Las Vegas debut in impressive fashion. He had a huge first round, dropping Mesquita twice, first with a three-punch combination and then with a straight left hand moments later. He scored three more knockdowns in the second round, but when he hit Mesquita when he was already down for the second time in the round, referee Benjy Esteves took a point from him. But moments later he floored him again with a left hand and Esteves stopped the fight at 1 minute, 45 seconds as Mesquita's corner was throwing in the towel.
"I'm just getting better at my craft," Stevenson said. "I'm working on setting up my punches, and the results show that. This is the strongest I've felt coming into a fight. I was focused on picking my punches and finishing him when I had him hurt. I'm definitely ready for a step up in competition in my next fight."
Promising junior welterweight Maxim "Baby" Dadashev (11-0, 10 KOs), 27, a Russia native fighting out of Oxnard, California, closed the show impressively with a knockout of former lightweight world titlist Darleys Perez (33-4-2, 21 KOs), 34, of Colombia, in the 10th and final round.
It was a hard-fought fight that surely helped Dadashev gain valuable experience. He was in control all the way until putting away Perez. He rocked him in the 10th round and forced him to the ropes before connected with a clean right hand that dropped him. Perez beat the count, but referee Jay Nady elected to stop the fight at 1 minute, 49 seconds, dropping Perez, who was coming off a 14-month layoff, to 1-3-1 in his past five fights.
"Perez is an excellent opponent, and this fight was great experience for me," Dadashev said. "This was my first 10-round fight. This is a great step for my career, winning this [regional] belt. I picked up the pace every round, more punches. Now, I look forward."
Light heavyweight Steve Nelson (11-0, 9 KOs), 29, of Omaha, Nebraska, who is a stablemate of Crawford's, stopped DeShon Webster (10-2, 6 KOs), 27, of Kansas City, Kansas, in the sixth round. Nelson dropped Webster to his knees with an accumulation of shots in the fifth round and battered him around the ring for the final 30 seconds of the round. He was taking clean shots and spitting blood but survived. As Nelson continued to pound Webster in the sixth and final round, referee Russell Mora had seen enough and stopped it at 46 seconds.
"The win ain't the thing I was concerned with. It was stopping him. He'd never been dropped, never been stopped. I came out here and made a statement," Nelson said. "I had him the entire time. I was just working in there, and eventually I broke him down."
Lightweight prospect Gabriel Flores Jr. (8-0, 5 KOs), 18, of Stockton, California, cruised to a shutout decision against Jorge Rojas (4-4-1, 2 KOs), 28, of Mexico, winning 60-54 on all three scorecards. Flores pounded Rojas with combinations throughout the fight.
"I feel great. This is my first win after graduating from high school [last week]," Flores said. "I believe this has never been done. I'm the youngest ever. I'm the chosen one. I want to keep improving with each fight that passes and continue moving up the ranks."
Los Angeles-based Israeli junior middleweight David Kaminsky (2-0, 1 KO), who is just 17, knocked out Trevor Lavin (1-1, 1 KO), 27, of Topeka, Kansas, in the second round. Kaminsky dropped him a minute into the second round and then landed a right hand moments later that sent him to a knee, where he took the full count from referee Esteves at 1 minute, 12 seconds.