Luis Alberto Lopez attempts to continue his fine form and set up a possible world title unification fight when he faces Joet Gonzalez at American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday (ESPN/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET, undercard on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET).
Lopez (28-2, 16 KOs), the IBF featherweight champion and ESPN's top boxer at 126 pounds, headlines a Top Rank card for the first time in the U.S. after an impressive performance against Michael Conlan in his last fight in Northern Ireland.
A victory will set up a possible return to British soil to face Leigh Wood (27-3, 16 KOs), the WBA featherweight champion, who defends his title against English rival Josh Warrington on Oct. 7 in Sheffield, England.
Wood thinks Lopez will have a happy Mexican Independence Day weekend and said he would be interested in facing the Mexican fighter in a title unification fight.
"I would expect Lopez to come through that one, and I'm sure he will then have his eyes on me against Warrington," Wood told ESPN. "The fight against Warrington could be my last fight at featherweight. If offers are there for me to step up to junior lightweight, then I would do it. But if Lopez's belt is on the line, that could make me stick around at featherweight for one more fight."
Wood added that Lopez is not sound in his fundamentals and that while his unorthodox style is effective, there are flaws in that approach.
"Fundamentally, Lopez gets away with a lot of things. He throws shots from unpredictable angles, and he gets away with his chin in the air a lot of the time. He will drop down to throw a left hook to the body but then jump up to throw a shot upstairs.
"He's got good strength and he's durable -- but he's got a lot of flaws and if the fight got made, I could exploit them."
Lopez, 30, from Baja California, won the title by traveling to England to earn a majority decision over Warrington in December, before dropping Conlan with a right uppercut in his fifth-round win last May.
His progress over the last year will be tested by a hungry and experienced challenger.
Gonzalez (26-3, 15 KOs), 29, from Los Angeles, has twice lost world title attempts on points to Shakur Stevenson in 2019 and Emanuel Navarrete in 2021. After losing another decision to Isaac Dogboe last year, Gonzalez will be fighting to revive momentum in his career.
"I am thankful to Top Rank that I am receiving another shot at the world title," Gonzalez said when the fight was announced. "I plan on taking full advantage of this opportunity and fulfilling my dream. Lopez is an excellent champion, but I'm coming to Texas with every intention on hearing the words, 'and NEW!'"
Lopez has a tricky style for opponents. He scored four stoppages in his last five fights.
"I'm going for the knockout...," Lopez said during a recent training session. "Joet Gonzalez has faced great fighters like Shakur Stevenson, Emanuel Navarrete and Isaac Dogboe, and he has never been knocked out. Knocking out a tough fighter like him is a huge goal for me.
"I know this fight will be difficult. Joet Gonzalez is a fighter who comes forward throwing a lot of punches. But I like to come forward, too. So, we know it's going to be a real clash."
The card also offers the chance to check out one of the most exciting young talents in boxing. Here's why you should pay attention to the undercard:
Xander Zayas, 21, junior middleweight
Zayas faces Roberto Valenzuela Jr. in what promises to be an entertaining 10-round junior middleweight bout.
Zayas and Valenzuela have knockout power, but Zayas (16-0, 10 KOs) is destined to be one of boxing's future stars. The Puerto Rico-born, Florida-based boxer will have to be careful in the opening rounds of his first ten-round bout against Valenzuela (21-4, 20 KOs), 24, from Sonora, Mexico, who dropped two unanimous decisions last year but is extremely dangerous early on in fights.
Zayas, who's been sparring with middleweight title challenger Juan Macias Montiel, said he's ready to fight on this traditional boxing day.
"I feel great and am prepared to put on a show on such an important date for the Mexican fans, and even more so when it is one of my first battles between Puerto Rico and Mexico," Zayas said when the fight was announced. "I'm excited and focused on getting the job done. It's been eight weeks of solid work throughout training camp. I am sure his style and experience have brought out the best in me, and you will see that on [Friday]."
Jamaine Ortiz, 27, lightweight
It will also be interesting to see how Ortiz performs on his return to action after impressing in a unanimous decision loss to former No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter Vasiliy Lomachenko almost a year ago. Ortiz (16-1-1, 8 KOs), from Worcester, Massachusetts, but now training in Las Vegas, sent Jamel Herring into retirement last year and will want to produce a good display against Antonio Moran (29-5-1, 20 KOs), 30, from Mexico City, Mexico, in a 10-round non-title bout.
"Lomachenko sets things up well and picks up the pace towards the end of each round," said Ortiz via press release on Tuesday. "I would love to avenge that loss.
"After [Friday], the only guys I have my eyes on are [Gervonta] 'Tank' Davis, Shakur Stevenson and Lomachenko.... Me and [George] Kambosos would also be a great fight. Regardless of who you put in front of me, I see me winning. I really don't care as long as I get a world title shot ASAP. I'm ready for anyone."
Robson Conceicao, 34, junior lightweight
Conceicao (17-2, 8 KOs), the 2016 Olympic gold medalist for Brazil, is another former world title challenger as he takes on Humberto Galindo (14-3-1, 11 KOs) from Mexico, looking to make an impression.
Conceicao needs a win to stay relevant. After losses in title fights against Oscar Valdez Jr. and Stevenson, with a decision victory over Xavier Martinez in between, Conceicao fought little known Nicolas Polanco to a no contest after Polanco was unable to continue in Round 2 due to an accidental clash of heads.
In a division full of talent (Valdez, Emanuel Navarrete, Joe Cordina, Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov, O'Shaquie Foster, among others), another loss could be the last chance for Conceicao to get a third title shot.
Ruben Villa, 26, featherweight
Villa (20-1, 7 KOs), from Salinas, California, is coming off an impressive KO of Maickol Villagrana and will be aiming to continue that form against Brandon Valdes (15-3, 7 KOs) from Colombia, in an eight-round featherweight contest. Villa is best known for taking Navarrete the distance in a WBO world title fight nearly three years ago. The scores were close, and Villa is working to get another title shot next year in one of the best divisions in boxing.
He needs a win.
Delante "Tiger" Johnson, 25, junior welterweight
Ohio's "Tiger" Johnson (9-0, 5 KOs) faces Ricardo Quiroz (13-2, 7 KOs) in his 10th professional bout. Johnson, a Cleveland native who reached the quarterfinals representing the United States at the last Olympics, won his last bout in July.
This is the third fight of the year for Johnson, who was selected as one of ESPN's 25 best fighters under the age of 25 last year. He's been busy since turning professional in November 2021.
Emiliano Vargas, 19, lightweight
Vargas (6-0, 5 KOs), son of the legendary "Ferocious" Fernando Vargas, fights at the Texas venue 18 years after his father headlined a card at the same venue (a unanimous decision victory over Raymond Joval).
Vargas, from Las Vegas, has stopped all but one of his opponents since turning pro in May 2022 but faces a fellow unbeaten prospect in Alejandro Guardado (5-0, 1 KO) from Spain. Emiliano's father was one of the sport's biggest names during his two reigns as junior middleweight champion and fought the likes of Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, Ronald 'Winky' Wright, and Felix Trinidad. He also trains Emiliano.