How does a fighter best prepare for an opponent who can bring pressure in one moment, then switch on a dime and box from the outside? He recruits two sparring partners who are adept at simulating both styles.
That’s precisely what Alexis Santiago did.
Under the instruction of legendary Cuban trainer Ismael Salas at the coach’s Las Vegas-based boxing academy, Santiago (20-3-1, 8 KOs) recently worked with an alternating rotation of sparring partners as he wrapped up preparations for his 118-pound clash with Erik Ruiz (15-4, 6 KOs). The scheduled 10-round bout headlines Tuesday night's Premier Boxing Champions card at Sam’s Town Live in Las Vegas (Fox Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Because of Ruiz’s multifaceted approach, Salas had his fighter break up his 10-round sparring sessions into three segments: For the first four and final three rounds, Santiago brawled with a pressure fighter, while the middle three rounds were against a more conventional boxer.
“We had a sparring partner who was coming forward and throwing a lot of punches right in front of us. That way we’ll be ready for [Ruiz’s] pressure and everything he has coming for us,” says Santiago, who has won his last nine fights.
“We had the other [sparring partner] who can box real good, so if Ruiz decides to do that, we’ll be ready for both.”
During these sparring sessions, Salas wasn’t the only one whose eyes were focused on the 25-year-old Santiago. Also taking in the action while awaiting some mitt-work tutelage from Salas were Rances Barthelemy and Jorge Linares, a pair of two-division world champions and current 135-pound titleholders.
Working in Salas’ gym, the trio of fighters developed something of a bond, with Barthelemy and Linares serving as quasi mentors for Santiago.
“With Barthelemy and Linares being around, that’s a big motivation,” Santiago says. “We run and train together, and during workouts, they’ll say, ‘Do this. Correct that. You’re doing this wrong,’ so that's a great advantage for me."
As helpful as Barthelemy and Linares have been, the most important figure in Santiago’s career right now is Salas, who boasts an impressive résumé. He’s groomed—among others—champion countrymen Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Joel Casamayor. The esteemed trainer also has worked with former 140-pound titleholder Jessie Vargas, and recently took on former 175-pound champ Beibut Shumenov, who holds an interim 200-pound title.
Santiago says Salas’ influence was immediately apparent during his first fight with the trainer, a dominant eight-round unanimous decision over Gustavo Molina on October 14.
“Everything Ismael Salas told me in the corner was helping me to execute and adapt my game plan so much better than before,” Santiago says. “Knowing that he’s had those other champions is a big motivation. He’s a great trainer who’s corrected a lot of things and constantly improved my fighting style.”
Santiago, who makes his home in Phoenix, got off to an impressive start to his pro career, going 8-0-1 in his first nine fights from October 2009 to June 2011. He then hit a yearlong rough patch in which he went 3-3, with two losses to undefeated opponents Randy Caballero and Roman Morales being sandwiched around a defeat against journeyman fighter Evaristo Primero.
Since the Morales loss, though, Santiago has been unstoppable. The highlight of his nine-fight winning streak came in February 2014: a 10-round unanimous decision over Hanzel Martinez, who entered the fight 20-1 with 16 knockouts.
By all accounts, Tuesday’s bout with Ruiz will be Santiago’s toughest test since Martinez. A 24-year-old Oxnard, California, resident, Ruiz is coming off November’s split decision over previously unbeaten Roy Tapia. Ruiz also lost a unanimous decision in January 2015 to hard-hitting unbeaten contender Jessie Magdaleno, who has knocked out 11 of his last 14 opponents.
One of the ringside observers for Magdelano-Ruiz was none other than Salas.
“I saw Ruiz as a very, very strong fighter coming forward,” Salas says. “But Alexis is looking very good in sparring, and the better he performs, the better [his chances] for a possible title match.”
For complete coverage of Santiago vs Ruiz, visit our fight page.