On Saturday night, Erislandy Lara will face a younger, harder-hitting, undefeated champion at Barclays Center. But none of that bothers him. For a guy who was once detained in Cuba and told he could never fight again, what transpires inside the boxing ring actually is the easy part.
“I have a young, strong opponent that we’ve prepared for,” Lara said. “He’s a world champion, and I’m ready for the challenge. Saturday, it’ll be my time to take his belt. I’m really excited and happy to be performing back at Barclays Center, the best arena in the world.”
Lara, 35, challenges Brian Castaño for his WBA junior middleweight title in the featured bout of a card televised by Showtime. In the co-main event, heavyweight contender Luis “King Kong” Ortiz fights former world title challenger Christian Hammer in a 10-round fight. Ortiz, who unsuccessfully challenged WBC champion Deontay Wilder a year ago at Barclays Center, also is from Cuba.
“It's an exciting night for boxing, for Latin boxing and more importantly the Cubans,” said Luis DeCubas Jr., Lara’s manager. “They got Erislandy Lara and 'King Kong' Ortiz, two of the best fighters in the world, fighting on the same card together. It's a huge statement for Cuban boxing to show how far it's come.”
In July 2007, Lara and Cuban teammate Guillermo Rigondeaux attempted to defect during the Pan Am Games in Brazil. They were caught, jailed briefly and issued a lifetime ban from the Cuban national team. A year later, Lara successfully defected to the United States to start his professional career.
“I’m very excited to be on this card with Ortiz,” Lara said. “Everyone knows our history, fighting together back in Cuba on the national team. This is really big for us and for Cuban boxing.”
The pro career Lara risked so much to launch has been an impressive one. He won the junior middleweight title in 2013 and has fought in nine straight title fights. He routinely has faced the best fighters in his weight class, beating Alfredo Angulo, Austin Trout and Terrell Gausha while establishing a 25-3-2 record. His three defeats have all been controversial. He lost a majority decision to Paul Williams and split decisions to Canelo Alvarez and Jarrett Hurd.
The Hurd fight last April was a title-unification bout, with Lara surrendering his WBA belt to the IBF champion. One point separated the fighters on all three cards, 114-113, 114-113 for Hurd and 114-113 for Lara. It was named Fight of the Year by ESPN and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
“People want to see what he has left after the Hurd fight,” said Ronnie Shields, Lara’s trainer. “He’s going to surprise a lot of people on Saturday. Erislandy Lara is in the best shape of his life. He always wants to fight the best fighters. You don’t get that too much these days. But he always says, ‘You'll never get anywhere in the sport if you don't fight the best.’”
Castaño is 15-0 with 11 knockouts and plans to pressure the veteran Lara.
"Lara is a great fighter, but we have to beat him to get where we want to go,” Castaño said. "I am a crowd-pleasing fighter. I'm going to be aggressive. That's just my style. But I can also adapt to my opponent. I've been looking for this fight, even before Lara lost to Hurd."
This marks the third straight fight in which Lara will take on an undefeated opponent.
“Lara is a quiet assassin,” DeCubas Jr. said. “I don't think he gets the credit he deserves. If you look at his record, he's fought everybody. He's kind of like the Bernard Hopkins of today. Lara is a throwback fighter. He doesn't care who he fights.”