Cruz determined to make most of first championship opportunity

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Luis Cruz’s performance in his last fight was akin to that of a professional golfer who is cruising along with six-shot lead with three holes to play when he inexplicably starts shanking balls all over the course.

Luis Cruz and Edner Cherry

Luis Cruz rocks Edner Cherry with a right to the jaw during their fight in July 2015. Cruz will get his first crack at a world title Friday when he challenges 135-pound champ Robert Easter Jr. in Toledo, Ohio. (Lucas Noonan/Premier Boxing Champions)

Through seven rounds of his 135-pound clash with Ivan Redkach (19-1, 15 KOs) last April, Cruz appeared well on his way to victory. In addition to scoring a second-round knockdown, the Puerto Rico native countered effectively down the middle and used his rival’s aggression against him by doubling and tripling his jab to set up well-timed left hooks.

Then Cruz let his guard down and paid a steep price as Redkach dropped him in the eighth round with left hook to the nose and again in the ninth with a left to the head. With that, Cruz saw what would’ve been his biggest career victory turn into a 10-round split draw.

“After six or seven rounds, I had total control of the fight,” Cruz recalls. “But I lost focus when I needed to be smarter. I needed to stay in the fight those last four rounds.”

Confident that he’s learned his lesson, Luis Cruz (22-4-1, 16 KOs) will try to avoid a similar late-fight letdown Friday when he ends a nine-month ring absence to challenge 135-pound champion Robert Easter Jr. (18-0, 14 KOs) at the Huntington Center in Easter’s native Toledo, Ohio (Bounce TV, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).

Easter is making the first defense of the crown he won in September by rising from an eighth-round knockdown to win a split decision over previously unbeaten Richard Commey.

Although Cruz knows he’s a heavy underdog in his first-ever title fight in the champion’s backyard, the challenger says his eyes are set firmly on the prize.

“This is a big opportunity in my career, especially in this moment. I’m 31 years old, and I boxed for 18 years waiting for a title fight,” says Cruz, who will yield two inches in height and four inches in reach to the 5-foot-11 Easter.

“Easter’s talented, tall and his camp thinks I’m at a low point in my career. But I’ve been the underdog and ‘B’ side before. It was that way for Redkach. I just didn’t stay focused on strategy, but I’m doing my job in the gym and am on the right track. I’m focused on beating him one round at a time.”

Cruz’s career got off to a blistering start, as he won his first 19 fights (including 15 by knockout) after turning pro in March 2007. However, he then suddenly hit the skids, losing five of his next seven bouts from November 2011 to July 2015.

Two of those setbacks were by majority and unanimous decision against two fighters—future title challenger Juan Carlos Burgos and Jose Felix Jr.—who entered the ring with a combined record of 48-1-1.

However, Cruz also fell to Joaquin Chavez (who was 7-13-3) by split decision in August 2014. That was followed by a ninth-round knockout loss to two-time title challenger Edner Cherry in July 2015.

Cruz got back in the win column with a six-round unanimous decision over Robert Acevedo in November 2015 before battling Redkach to a draw in his only fight of 2016.

Now Cruz is facing by far the biggest challenge of his career. But if he can defy the odds and take down Easter, it will be huge not only for himself and his family, but also his homeland of Puerto Rico. That’s because after countryman Jose Pedraza lost his 130-pound title to Gervonta Davis last month, Puerto Rico is now without a male world champion.

It’s just another source of motivation for the highly focused Cruz, a married father of a 4-year-old daughter who says he’s finally at a comfortable point in his life and career.

“I had different distractions during periods of my career before big fights with contracts, managers and promotional problems,” says Cruz, who in addition to boxing runs separate personal training and drywall businesses. “I’m a happy man with my family, my home, my jobs and with boxing, but I’m still hungry and focused day-by-day, round-by-round.

“I’m ready to use my experience to become a champion. It’s very important for my people that I return to Puerto Rico with another belt.”

For complete coverage of Easter vs Cruz, visit our fight page.

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