TULSA, Okla. -- Joshua Franco settled the score with Andrew Moloney on Saturday, capping a rivalry that climaxed with a controversial finish in November and ended at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino with a decisive victory in the ESPN main event.
Franco, nicknamed "The Professor," retained his secondary WBA title at 115 pounds with a unanimous decision over Moloney. All three judges scored the fight 116-112.
Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez is the recognized champion at junior bantamweight. Earlier this week, WBA president Gilberto Mendoza announced his intentions to clean up the plentiful secondary titles that have muddied the championship picture. But with the win, Franco figures to earn a shot at one of the "big four" at 115 pounds in the near future, a stacked division headlined by Juan Francisco Estrada, Gonzalez, Kazuto Ioka and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai.
"I see bigger fights. I see Chocolatito, Gallo Estrada, Ioka," said Franco, ESPN's No. 6 boxer at 115 pounds. "For sure, this win puts me top five, on the same list as the other champions. I needed this fight to prove myself."
Franco (18-1-2, 8 KOs) consistently beat Moloney to the punch and landed the cleaner, harder shots. The bout featured plenty of inside fighting, but it was always Franco who was able to push Moloney back in those exchanges.
Despite being just 25 years old, Franco has now been a part of two boxing trilogies. He fought Oscar Negrete three consecutive times in 2018 and 2019, with a win sandwiched between two draws. Saturday's victory over Moloney came in a third meeting.
Franco scored a unanimous decision win over Moloney (ESPN's No. 7 115-pounder) in June 2020, when an 11th-round knockdown was the difference-maker.
In the November rematch, Moloney closed Franco's right eye before the ringside doctor stopped the fight in Round 2.
Believing he had just exacted revenge, Moloney (21-2, 14 KOs) jumped onto the turnbuckle to celebrate. Instead, he was met by the feeling he was robbed of his biggest victory to date. Referee Russell Mora curiously ruled that the swelling was the result of an accidental clash of heads, and the fight was deemed a no-contest even after instant replay was consulted for more than 25 minutes. In reality, it was Moloney's punches -- 51 connected in just two rounds. (Franco landed 18.)
"That eye was closed by 50 jabs," Moloney said in November. "That's why his eye is shut -- not the head-butt. There's no head-butt. I can't believe they took this away from me. I've trained my ass off for the last five months, been away from my family, and they just take it away from me. I can't believe they didn't give it to me. That's why they have instant replay working right now."
This time, instant replay did its job. Referee Jack Reiss called a knockdown in Saturday's Round 7 after Franco fell to the canvas, but after the sequence was reviewed, the ruling was reversed.
"The call wasn't right; I knew that I slipped," Franco said. "When he told me they'd go to replay, I said, 'OK, they'll get it right.'"
The first third of Saturday's fight was difficult to score, with tons of inside fighting. But like in the first meeting, Franco took over as the fight pushed on. His jab was the key this time around, setting up 127 power punches landed to Moloney's 73.
"I had to switch it up on him," said Franco, who is promoted by Oscar De La Hoya. "He thought I was going to put pressure on him the whole time. That wasn't working, so I had to switch it up and go to my boxing skills.
"I had fun with my rhythm, with my jab, my feet. I'm comfortable in there, and that's what I did."
Moloney lost, but his twin brother, Jason, scored a unanimous decision victory over Joshua Greer Jr. on the undercard.
Still, Andrew Moloney was inconsolable. He acknowledged, fighting back tears, that "it'll be a long road back."
Where he goes from here, Moloney is unsure. The 30-year-old said he felt like he let his family and friends down.
But he fought gamely against Franco, the San Antonio native who has simply proved to be a better fighter.
And now, Moloney prepares for a government-mandated, 14-day quarantine in his homeland of Australia, where he'll have plenty of time to plot out his next move.