After time away from the ring, Figueroa returns with renewed fighting spirit

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Omar Figueroa Jr. stood there, oversized gloves dangling by his sides, before around 300 strange faces in a converted wrestling arena in his parents’ hometown of Rio Bravo, Mexico. He had every right to be filled with nerves. He was 7 years old, and about to embark on what’s become a life’s journey.

Omar Figueroa Jr.

Omar Figueroa Jr.'s come-forward style has earned him a world championship and a record of 26-0-1, but it has also resulted in a variety of injuries. (Lucas Noonan/Premier Boxing Champions)

They said the fighter opposite him was 9. Figueroa didn’t know any better. All he knew was that the other kid seemed a little tall for his age.

It was there where Figueroa’s path took root. Looking at an unknown, it’s where he discovered something very vital about himself.

Five years later, Figueroa and his father, Omar Sr., found out the boy he faced that day was about to turn pro. The Figueroas were mystified. How can that be, since the kid was allegedly 9 five years ago? It’s because he wasn’t. He was actually 13—six years older than Figueroa.

There’s one other thing you should also know about the first time “El Panterita” competed in the ring: He won the fight.

“I wasn’t afraid, I’ve never been afraid to get in the ring with anybody,” said Figueroa, 27. “I have no idea where that attitude comes from. It’s always been there. The way my father raised and trained me, he beat the fear out of me, so there was nothing left.”

Coming off a 19-month layoff, Omar Figueroa Jr. (26-0-1, 18 KOs) is stepping back into the ring Saturday night to face former two-division champion Robert Guerrero (33-5-1, 18 KOs) in a 147-pound, 10-round main event at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Long Island, New York (FOX, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT).

Figueroa, a former 135-pound world champion, had long struggled with injuries, and was stripped of his title and declared a “champion in recess” in November 2014 after suffering a serious gash over his left eye three months earlier during a successful title defense against Daniel Estrada.

After defeating Ricky Burns and Antonio DeMarco in a pair of 12-round unanimous decisions in 2015, hand and elbow injuries once again sent Figueroa to the sideline, where he has remained until now. The ex-champ returns with trainer Joel Diaz, who worked with Figueroa previously and now replaces Omar Sr., who trained his son for Figueroa’s last three fights.

“Boxing is a very jealous sport. You do it 100 percent or you don’t do it at all,” Figueroa said. “After my last fight, I felt that I needed a break—time to be a father, a son, a brother and a friend. I needed the time to heal my body, mind and soul. I fought with broken hands; I fought world-class athletes. Having fought since I was 7, I wanted to take a break and just be human, so I took a year off to heal from the injuries, be with my family and friends, be a father and just be me.

“I have been training with Joel Diaz in Indio, California, and going back to Texas to see my family. My dad will always be my father and a big part of my career, but I felt that when I ended my break, I wanted to change my program and go back to Joel. This is our first fight back and I’m looking forward to it in many ways.”

Boxing is a very jealous sport. You do it 100 percent or you don’t do it at all. After my last fight, I felt that I needed a break—time to be a father, a son, a brother and a friend. I needed the time to heal my body, mind and soul. Former 135-pound world champion Omar Figueroa Jr., on his hiatus from boxing

Despite his desire for a fresh start, it’s Figueroa’s past that makes him such a relentless competitor in the ring. He grew up in Weslaco, Texas, not far from the Progreso–Nuevo Progreso International Bridge that connects the United States and Mexico. He lived a dual life between the two countries, making him appreciate the opportunities he’s received in the U.S., while still being exceptionally proud of his Mexican heritage.

Omar Sr. simply wouldn’t let the streets suck up his son.

“I grew up in the hood,” Figueroa said. “It used to be a rough area. Over time it’s changed, and a lot safer. A SWAT team raided a neighbor’s house four or five times when I was a kid, though. I used to wake up in the middle of the night to gunfire. We had our lawn mower stolen maybe three times a month. I told several people that have asked what I would be doing if I wasn’t boxing that I’d be selling drugs or in jail, like 90 percent of the people that grew up in my area.

“My parents did a great job. They led us away from that. My dad forced boxing on me when I was younger, and through time it’s something that I loved to do. My first fight was when I was 7, going back to the time I fought the kid who was older than they said he was. Baseball was my thing, though. The biggest arguments with my dad were over that—he wanted me to box, and I saw my future with baseball.”

Omar Sr. compromised and eventually won out. Figueroa received a few college offers for baseball, and the New York Mets showed a little interest, but he eventually left the game behind. Now a father of three children, ages 4, 2, and 9 months old, Figueroa says it’s boxing that has always been in him.

“My dad didn’t make it fun; he made it torture when I was young,” Figueroa said. “I agree that if my father didn’t make it torture, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Aside from it being physical torture, he made it mental torture, too. I keep those things personally between us. I know Guerrero is a very tough fighter and we’re prepared to go 10 rounds, and I wanted to make sure that I’m in shape to go 10 rounds.

“I just hope that my hands and my body hold up. Joel comes with great experience. The main reason why we get along so well is because he was a fighter and he understands me and my perspective, compared to my dad, who never was a fighter. He never had to make weight or get into the ring, so he couldn’t empathize with what I’m going through. Joel lost his eye fighting and knows the dangers of boxing. It’s a lot better.”

For a complete look at Figueroa vs Guerrero, visit our fight page.

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