Teenage phenomenon Ryan Garcia steps up in competition

Junior lightweight prospect Ryan Garcia had an impressive unbeaten record of 14 wins with 13 KOs. Photo provided by Tom Hogan/Hoganphotos/Golden Boy Promotions

Ryan "Kingry" Garcia's rapidly growing fan base didn't get to see much of the popular junior lightweight in his most recent bout, which was March 22 against Fernando Vargas.

ESPN's 2017 prospect of the year unleashed a cluster of rapid-fire punches that put Vargas down for the count, 2:55 into the opening round.

Friday at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, it will be Jayson Velez's turn to test the undefeated Garcia (14-0, 13 KOs). Velez is a step up from Vargas, but whether that step is high enough to extend or perhaps even defeat the sensational 19-year-old from Victorville, California, remains to be seen.

"When we sat down to look at opponents for this fight we had the opportunity to fight a guy that had lost to Jayson Velez," said Garcia's manager, Roger Ruiz. "I said, 'If he lost to Jayson, in my opinion, he's a weaker opponent. Let's go with Velez.'

"Hopefully that will silence the people who are saying Ryan needs to step up. He is stepping up, but at the right time, at the right pace, with the right opponent."

Velez's team clearly understands what they are up against.

"We know Ryan Garcia is a young prospect. He's a fast boxer and we've seen that he has a strong punch," said Velez's promoter, Javier Bustillo. "But there will be two things different for Ryan in this fight. Jayson will have the experience and he has a very strong chin."

The chin part is true enough. The 30-year-old Velez (26-4-1, 18 KOs) has never been stopped. But will a durable chin and veteran's know-how be enough against a teenage phenomenon such as Garcia?

It wasn't that long ago that Velez was the hot prospect riding an undefeated streak longer that Garcia's current run. After turning pro in October 2007, he went unbeaten in his first 24 fights bouts. Then hit a rough patch.

In November 2015, Velez tasted defeat for the first time as a pro when he lost a 10-round unanimous decision to Ronny Rios. Velez built an early lead but Rios finished the stronger of the two.

Then things got worse.

Velez's first pro defeat turned into a four-bout losing streak, when Joseph "JoJo" Diaz, Rene Alvarado and Alfredo Santiago all beat him via decision. The Alvarado and Santiago fights were close, a split and majority decision, respectively. Even so, four straight losses set Velez back more than a little.

But Velez, a resident of Juncos, Puerto Rico, didn't give up on his dream, and things turned round for him in 2017.

He has won his three most recent bouts, including a 10-round decision over previously unbeaten Alfredo Mercado and a 12th-round TKO of former WBO junior featherweight and featherweight titleholder Juan Manuel Lopez.

Even though Velez is the underdog, it's fairly safe to say that Garcia fans should get a longer look at their hero on Friday than they did when Fernando Vargas was in the other corner.

In the co-feature, Gary "Spike" O'Sullivan, he of the handlebar mustache, faces Berlin Abreu in a 10-round middleweight bout.

When Canelo Alvarez dropped out of his proposed match with Gennady Golovkin, O'Sullivan launched a social media campaign to replace Alvarez -- then thought better of it and withdrew.

Although he was born in Puerto Rico, Abreu (14-1, 11 KOs) has fought mainly in the Dominican Republic, usually against very limited opposition. In two appearances in the United States he was stopped by Sammy Vasquez in 2014 and won a split 10-round decision over David Peralta in December 2016.

It's been 17 months since Abreu, 26, last fought, a problem that has hindered him throughout his career. The most recent layoff was the fourth since he turned pro that lasted a year or more.

"There are a couple of reasons why I haven't fought in so long," Abreu said. "One is that the money they offered wasn't what I expected. Second, I don't have a promoter or manager to guide me through the process."

Abreu took the fight with Sullivan on two weeks' notice and is also jumping up two weight classes. Even with it all, he doesn't seem unduly worried.

"I don't see anything that special in Gary O'Sullivan," Abreu said. "He just pushes forward a lot. I'm a power puncher -- I'm a guy who hits hard."

Sullivan (27-2, 19 KOs) has won five in a row since Chris Eubank Jr. stopped him in December 2017. He's an assertive crowd-pleaser who applies pressure and lets his hands go whenever his target is in range.

In his most recent match, O'Sullivan knocked out Antoine Douglas, who entered the fight with only one loss in 20 pro bouts. It turned out to be a one-sided match. Sullivan bullied Douglas around the ring, rocked him several time and knocked him down in the seventh round. Douglas beat the count but was ruled unfit to continue.

It looks like reasonably easy fight for O'Sullivan. Unless Abreu's punching prowess is as powerful as he claims, and he catches the ever-aggressive "Spike" as he marches forward.