Fulfilling his dream to fight in front of his hometown fans, Robert Easter Jr. gave them quite a show on Friday night.
Easter scored three late knockdowns and rolled to a unanimous decision against game Luis Cruz to retain his lightweight world title for the first time in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio. With a near-capacity crowd of about 10,000 cheering him on, Easter dropped Puerto Rico's Cruz in the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds to punctuate a one-sided victory.
The judges all had him winning easily -- 119-106, 118-107 and 117-108.
"It was very important for me to remain focused tonight but also have fun," said Easter, who earned $150,000 to Cruz's $40,000. "My people came out in full force so I wanted to give them a show, a night to remember. I feel like I did that, even though I wish I could've given them the knockout.
"I admit I was very surprised that Luis Cruz could take my punches like that and finish the fight. When I had him down and hurt (in the 10th round), I thought he was done. I give him credit. He came a long way and showed a lot of heart."
Cruz came to fight, landed a few decent left hands and showed tremendous heart, but Easter's talent was on another level and he dominated, as expected.
Easter (19-0, 14 KOs) methodically outboxed him, used his powerful jab well and backed him up throughout the first half of the fight, finally pinning him on the ropes in the seventh round and teeing off on Cruz with both hands. As he was hammering Cruz, Easter was talking to the ringside commentators for Bounce TV, which televised the card.
By the end of the seventh round, Cruz's face was showing wear as it was reddened and he had a mouse under his right eye. In the 10th round, Easter, who had fought in his home state of Ohio only twice previously, dropped Cruz (22-5-1, 16 KOs) with a sharp right hand to the head 20 seconds into the round. He dished out tremendous punishment in the round and was trying hard for the knockout, but Cruz was able to survive.
As the seconds ticked down to the end the 11th round, Easter again dropped Cruz with another powerful right hand. He beat the count and the round ended before Easter could do any more damage.
Easter, 26, who won a vacant 135-pound title by split decision against Richard Commey in an action-packed fight of the year contender in September, said before the fight with Cruz that he expected to win by knockout. He came close again in the final round, blasting Cruz with yet another right hand with about 30 seconds to go, but the 31-year-old Cruz, who dropped to 3-5-1 in his past nine fights, again made it to his feet and referee Lonnie Scott allowed him to continue to the final bell.
"He's a very strong fighter," Cruz said. "I wanted to do more but he took away my energy late in the fight. The first knockdown took a lot of out me. I felt dizzy but it was important for me to finish the fight on my feet. I never stopped trying to win, but he is a great champion and the best I've ever faced."
Easter said he would like to next begin unifying titles.
"I said before the fight and I'm going to keep saying it: I'm here to collect all them belts," Easter said. "I'm not gonna pretend to be that guy who doesn't call out other fights. I'm calling out (fellow world titleholders) Mikey Garcia, Jorge Linares and Terry Flanagan. I want them to see what we were able to do here tonight, the crowd I pulled in. I'm a superstar on the rise and now it's time for me to collect my prizes and bring all of the belts home to Toledo."
Zhakiyanov upsets Warren for bantamweight crown
Kazakhstan's Zhanat Zhakiyanov survived two first-round knockdowns and outfought Rau'shee Warren in a grueling fight to win a split decision and a bantamweight world title in the fast-paced co-feature.
Zhakiyanov, who entered the fight as the interim titleholder and mandatory challenger, applied constant pressure to Cincinnati's Warren and got the nod from two judges, 116-110 and 115-111, while one judge scored the fight 115-111 for Warren.
"I knew at the end of the fight that I deserved to win, but because of where we were, we weren't sure if the judges would give it to us," Zhakiyanov said. "So that surprised us, but not that I won the fight. I was hurt early but I outworked him in almost every round after that and was the stronger fighter in the end."
Warren was very unhappy with the judges' call.
"Man, I won that fight," he said. "I knocked him down, I was landing the cleaner punches and making him miss. The judges are favoring aggressive fighters even when they ain't even landing."
Warren, a close friend of main event winner Easter, looked like he might end the fight early when he knocked the 33-year-old Zhakiyanov down twice in the first round, first with a flush left hand to the chin during a flurry and later with a cracking right hand to the head. But Zhakiyanov, who was pushed hard by trainer Ricky Hatton, the British boxing legend and former two-division world titleholder, made it out of the round and slowly began to climb back into the fight.
"The knockdowns shocked me, but Ricky Hatton kept me level-headed, telling me the adjustments I had to make," Zhakiyanov said. "Once I was able to get inside and force the action, I saw (Warren's) energy level drop."
Hatton was in his share of tough fights during his fighting career and was proud of his man for the way he came through.
"We were surprised when Zhanat went down like that in the beginning of the fight. I just wanted to remind him what he does better and what Rau'shee is good at," Hatton said. "He is never going to outbox (Warren). He had to get in his chest, he had to mug him and make it a brawl. Zhanat did that very well and that's how he won the fight.
"If we lost the fight, we would have been upset but we'd know it wouldn't have been a bad decision. I know that Warren is gutted. He feels like he won the fight and let's be honest -- it was the type of fight where no matter who won, the loser would have felt like he deserved to have his hand raised."
Zhakiyanov, who earned $30,000 to Warren's $150,000, visibly hurt Warren (14-2, 4 KOs), the only American boxer to make three Olympic teams (2004, 2008 and 2012), with a pair of right hands in the third round. Warren went down, but Zhakiyanov (27-1, 18 KOs) had given him a little shove as well and referee Gary Rosato ruled it a slip.
By the fourth round, Warren's nose was bleeding and Zhakiyanov continued to maul him. Warren certainly had his moments and there were a lot of close rounds, but in the end it was Zhakiyanov who got the nod, undoubtedly ruining Warren's 30th birthday, which is on Monday.
Other than the difficulties in the opening round, Zhakiyanov, who was boxing in his 13th different country, looked pretty sharp for a guy who was fighting for the first time in 15 months.
Both sides said they were open to a rematch.
"We are grateful that he gave us the opportunity to fight for the world title. It's an amazing feeling to win that belt. He feels like he won the fight and wants the rematch. We can definitely talk about doing that," Zhakiyanov said.
"I've fought everywhere in the world and don't back down from any challenge."
Said Hatton: "Their styles make for a great fight. Why not do it again? Not just because it was close but because it was such a great action fight and it always will be."
And Warren: "Of course, I want that rematch. I want it next. I want my world title back."