As the boxing world slowly starts rolling back into full gear, this weekend's fights represent a burst of momentum leading into the busiest month in boxing we've had in over a year.
It kicks off on Friday in London (ESPN+, 4 p.m. main card; 2 p.m. ET undercard) with a card featuring rising featherweight Michael Conlan, fighting as a junior featherweight, and headlined by a flyweight title fight between world titlist Moruti Mthalane and Sunny Edwards.
On Saturday, action moves north in England, to Manchester, with heavyweights Dereck Chisora and Joseph Parker headlining a card that features Dmitry Bivol defending his light heavyweight world title and Katie Taylor putting her undisputed women's lightweight championship on the line.
Finally, in the card claiming the most headlines of the weekend, heavyweight Andy Ruiz Jr. makes his long-awaited return to the ring for the first time since losing his rematch against Anthony Joshua in late 2019. He takes on veteran Chris Arreola, as each man looks to post a notable win as the two look to climb the heavyweight ranks. That card, in Carson, California, also features two world title fights.
Here's what you need to know ahead of this weekend.
Mexican American heavyweight boxers Ruiz and Arreola making history
Despite prolific success in other divisions, boxers of Mexican descent had never, until recently, reached the pinnacle of the sport at heavyweight. Ruiz finally achieved that milestone and became a champion in June 2019, when he handed Joshua the first loss of his pro career.
"I am Andres and I am very proud to be Mexican," Ruiz said at WBC's Coffee Tuesday virtual meeting, alongside Arreola, his opponent on Saturday. "I was representing Mexico in the Mexican Olympic Committee, and from a young age I always wanted to be the first champion. Nothing is easy in life, but everything is possible.
"I am proud of what I did. Without the Mexican blood, I don't think I would have been here. We are going to win and then we are going to win back the titles to take them back to Mexico."
"My name is Cristobal, but only the gringos call me Chris," said Arreola. "I am well ready for a great fight, with the pride of being Mexican. If they knock me down, I show my heart of being Mexican. I came from nowhere, immigrant father, they taught me that money comes from working hard, and I don't want to disappoint my father, I want to show that I still have something to give them."
Arreola had three chances of his own to achieve that same milestone, but fell short in each of his world title shots -- all for the WBC belt -- against Vitali Klitschko, Bermane Stiverne and Deontay Wilder. But rather than harbor any ill will, Arreola is happy for Ruiz and hopes to use that moment as inspiration for himself.
"That's not on my head, no man. I respect him and I'm happy for him for being the first Mexican American heavyweight champion," Arreola told ESPN. "It took a monkey off my back, you know. I don't have to do it anymore, he did it already and I have nothing but respect for him. I've always had respect for him, and that's why I'm working hard, because I respect him as a fighter and I respect him as a man. I'm working hard because I know he's working hard and I gotta give my all to win this fight to be a champion like himself."
It's notable that two Mexican American heavyweights are clashing in a major pay-per-view headlining bout as well. In the lead-up to the fight, both promised not to disappoint the fans when they meet on Saturday.
Ruiz and Arreola also agreed that they are going to create fireworks. Ruiz is claiming the lion's share of headlines heading into this fight, thanks in large part to his decision to join Team Canelo Alvarez a few months ago. After falling short in his rematch to Joshua, Ruiz's dedication was publicly questioned, but all signs point to Ruiz benefitting tremendously from the work he's done with trainer Eddy Reynoso thus far, and the trust of Canelo Alvarez and his team.
"When I lost [to Joshua] I felt down, I didn't want to fight, but something in my heart told me that I had to get up," Ruiz said. "I asked Canelo if they could open the doors for me, and he told me 'Andy, I know you have the skills, come here, but I want you to give me 110 percent.' I thank God Eddy and Canelo opened their doors for me. We are working on a lot, in and out of the ring," said Ruiz.
For Arreola, this fight represents his last great opportunity to move back towards one final shot at a world title.
"I always fight with the mentality of being a world champion. I'm not here just to collect a paycheck," Arreola said. "It's about my legacy. I worry about my legacy. I worry about what people are gonna say when they talk about Chris Arreola. I'm tired of people saying 'Oh, that fat guy that didn't do it.'
"Yeah, I was that guy, and I was also that guy that whether fat or skinny, whatever you wanna call it, I came to fight. I came to give everyone a great show. I came up short a lot of times, three heavyweight title fights I came up short, Vitali Klitschko, Wilder, Stiverne. I gave it my all, and in every one of those fights I came out to win. It didn't come out my way, but trust me, I gave me all and I came out with respect for myself."
As for his thoughts on Ruiz and this fight, Arreola admitted it won't be easy on Saturday, but he said has worked very hard in the gym to surprise the world.
"You have to be smart, and Andy is very dangerous -- he has dynamite and the speed of a lightweight, you have to be ready for everything Andy has," Arreola said. "We did the work in the gym, but the hardest thing will be on Saturday, because I know that Andy is well prepared." -- Salvador Rodriguez
Prediction: For a deeper breakdown of Ruiz-Arreola and a prediction for the event, check out this week's edition of Bradley's Breakdown, as well as our expert picks featuring fighters, trainers and a variety of analysts.
By the numbers
Andy Ruiz Jr. vs. Chris Arreola, 12 rounds, heavyweights
Sebastian Fundora vs. Jorge Cota, 12 rounds, junior middleweights
Title fight: Erislandy Lara vs. Thomas Lamanna, 12 rounds, for the vacant WBA "regular" middleweight title
Title fight: Eduardo Ramirez vs. Isaac Avelar, 12 rounds, for the vacant WBA interim title
Omar Figueroa Jr. vs. Abel Ramos, 12 rounds, welterweights
Jesus Alejandro Ramos vs. Javier Molina, 10 rounds, welterweights
Adrian Granados vs. Jose Luis Sanchez, 8 rounds, welterweights
Carlos Negron vs. Scott Alexander, 8 rounds, heavyweights
Fernando Angel Molina vs. Prisco Marquez, 6 rounds, lightweights
More heavyweight maneuvering in Manchester
When heavyweights Joseph Parker and Dereck Chisora meet Saturday, it will all be about securing a position at the front end of the queue for a world heavyweight title shot in 2022.
In order to do that, and to improve upon the disappointment of their last performances -- a loss to Oleksandr Usyk for Chisora, and an uninspired decision win for Parker -- both boxers have hired new trainers for their non-title bout at the Manchester Arena.
After getting advice from his friend and WBC world champion Tyson Fury, Parker is working with Andy Lee, Ireland's former world middleweight champion.
Parker (28-2, 21 KOs), 29, a former WBO heavyweight world titleholder, made the decision to leave trainer Kevin Barry, who he had worked with for eight years, after a disappointing performance against fellow New Zealander Junior Fa on Feb. 27. Parker registered a fourth successive win with a unanimous decision, but says he needed fresh ideas.
"It's always good to get the win to move on to bigger fights, but the way I won could have been better," Parker told ESPN. "I tried to get the knockout and didn't let things flow better, so I wasn't happy with the performance. I thought it was a little bit of a boring fight. Junior came up with a good game plan, but I should have been able to adjust. The decision to move trainers came from that."
Parker is also coming back from one of the most unusual reasons for fight postponement in recent memory. He and Chisora were originally due to fight in October 2019, but Parker pulled out a few weeks before the scheduled date after being left unwell by a spider bite.
Chisora (32-10, 23 KOs) knows his career is at a pivotal moment and has turned to experienced American trainer Buddy McGirt, the WBC welterweight world titleholder in the 1990s who has coached a list of world champions, for guidance in what looks like being a close encounter.
Chisora, who is based in London after moving from Zimbabwe during childhood, has more miles on the odometer than Parker. And while he has been in some exciting fights through the years, the 37-year-old Chisora's one world title shot was nearly ten years ago, when he was outpointed by Vitali Klitschko. There is some optimism coming out of Chisora's defeat to Usyk, and while Parker's confidence seems high, his view on that fight as an observer reflects what's at stake for each of them -- prime position in the race for a title fight after Saturday night.
"I didn't think he [Chisora] beat Usyk, but it was close," Parker told ESPN, reflecting on that fight. "He was caught and was outboxed at the end. Dereck is very experienced though and he has a lot to offer, this is a big chance for him to show that he still belongs."
Prediction: Parker looked flat in his last fight, and if he's anything like that again, Chisora will punish him. Chisora might have lost his last fight, but you couldn't fault his heart or application. This will be close, possibly ending in a draw. -- Nick Parkinson
Natasha Jonas looks to halt Katie Taylor's runaway momentum
Also on the bill in Manchester, Katie Taylor defends her WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO women's lightweight world titles against Natasha Jonas in an interesting rematch.
Taylor (17-0, 6 KOs), from Bray, Ireland, is a world champion at two weight divisions and has a strong claim to the title of best female boxer in the world, pound-for-pound (ESPN ranks her No. 2), after two outstanding performances last year against Miriam Gutierrez and Delfine Persoon. However, Jonas is in good form herself after holding WBC junior lightweight champion Terri Harper to a draw last year.
Jonas (9-1-1, 7 KOs), 36, from Liverpool, England, will also be super-charged to avenge a points loss to Taylor at the 2012 Olympics. Taylor went on to win gold at those Olympics and turned professional in 2016, while Jonas went on to become a mother before turning professional in 2016.
"I've got absolutely nothing to lose," Jonas said. "I proved last time [versus Harper] I belong at world level. I know I have to be better for Taylor."
Prediction: Taylor will most likely be too quick and clever for Jonas in a comfortable points win. -- Parkinson
Bivol makes long-awaited return
Taylor's recent form makes her a strong favorite, and she's not the only world titlist in that position on Saturday's card, as Russian Dmitry Bivol has a WBA light heavyweight title defense against Craig Richards (16-1-1, 9 KOs). The English challenger is jumping up at least a level or two for his first world title attempt, against a world champion ranked No. 2 in ESPN's latest light heavyweight rankings, and whom is making his seventh title defense. Bivol (17-0, 11 KOs), 30, has gone the distance in his last four fights and has not fought since October 2019, which Richards says puts him under pressure.
"He'll want to make a statement, so there's going to be pressure on him to go out there and perform, the pressure is on him," Richards said.
Prediction: Bivol will retain his world title, via a late stoppage win. -- Parkinson
Eubank ready to make an impact at middleweight
Middleweight contender Chris Eubank Jr. (29-2, 22 KOs), 31, of Sussex, England, is hoping to be in a world title fight within a year, and has his first fight since moving to trainer Roy Jones Jr. in Florida. Eubank faces Manchester's Marcus Morrison (23-3, 16 KOs), 28, and hopes to progress to face WBA titleholder Ryota Murata, of Japan, or even Gennadiy Golovkin, the IBF champion from Kazakhstan who is based in California.
This is a great chance to assess how much progress Eubank has made working with Jones over the last year, and how serious a threat he is after dropping down a division in late 2019.
"There's such a solid division at middleweight it made sense for me to come down," Eubank told ESPN.
"At this stage of my career it's all about big names or big titles. I've got this fight on May 1 and that is a fight to get me ready for bigger fights at the end of the year. Golovkin is a fight I would want this year 100%, Canelo is a fight I also want but it's harder to make because he's a super-middleweight now. Murata is the WBA champion and that fight makes a lot of sense."
Prediction: Chris Eubank Jr. will also ensure he finishes the job without the judges' help. -- Parkinson
Dereck Chisora vs. Joseph Parker, 12 rounds, heavyweights
Title fight: Dmitry Bivol vs. Craig Richards, 12 rounds, for Bivol's WBA "super" light heavyweight title
James Tennyson vs. Jovanni Straffon, 12 rounds, lightweights
Title fight: Katie Taylor vs. Natasha Jonas, 12 rounds, for Taylor's WBC, WBO, IBF and WBA women's lightweight title
Chris Eubank Jr. vs. Marcus Morrison, 10 rounds, middleweights
Campbell Hatton vs. Levi Dunn, 4 rounds, junior lightweights
Johnny Fisher vs. TBA, 4 rounds, heavyweights
Scott Fitzgerald vs. Gregory Trenel, 6 rounds, super middleweights
Conlan, Mthalane kick off weekend in London
Ireland's Michael Conlan has been in boxing's spotlight since before the start of his pro career, and carved out a strong niche for himself surrounding an annual fight at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick's Day. While he's been unable to take that fight in the last two years, for obvious reasons, he has remained active, and he looks to continue his path towards a future title shot on Friday as he takes on Ionut Baluta in the co-featured bout of the ESPN+ card.
"I'm very excited to get back in the ring against Ionut Baluta on April 30," Conlan said, via press release. "I know how tough of a fighter Baluta is, but I've been training hard since shortly after my last win in August and will be well prepared for victory. I'm looking forward to putting on a great show and can't wait to get back in the ring."
The headliner features South Africa's Moruti Mthalane, the IBF flyweight world titlist who carries a 16-fight win streak into Friday's fight against London native Sunny Edwards.
"Moruti is the most criminally underrated fighter, having not lost in 13 years, and he is a proper, proper threat," Edwards said. "This is no gimme or easy world title fight -- it is very, very far from that. I asked for this fight and, if you look back at press conferences or interviews, you can see that I have wanted it for some time. In my head, this is what was coming to me and it is finally here, and I have got what I wanted."
Mthalane hasn't lost a fight since November 2008, when he fought Nonito Donaire in Las Vegas.
Title fight: Moruti Mthalane vs. Sunny Edwards, 12 rounds, for Mthalane's IBF flyweight title
Michael Conlan vs. Ionut Baluta, 10 rounds, junior featherweights
Troy Williamson vs. Kieran Smith, 10 rounds, junior middleweights
Ryan Garner vs. Paul Holt, 6 rounds, junior lightweights
Joshua Frankham vs. Naheem Ali, 4 rounds, junior middleweights
Levi Frankham vs. Paul Cummings, 4 rounds, junior middleweights
Jonathan Kumuteo vs. Dale Arrowsmith, 4 rounds, junior middleweights
Andrew Cain vs. Stephen Jackson, 4 rounds, junior featherweights