Back in September, dozens of friends and family members made the trek from Toledo, Ohio, to Reading, Pennsylvania, to watch Robert Easter Jr. claim a vacant 135-pound title with a win over Richard Commey. Easter’s supporters won’t have nearly as far to travel to watch their hometown hero make his first title defense.
Robert Easter Jr. (18-0, 14 KOs) returns to the ring for the first time since his hard-fought victory over Commey when he takes on hard-hitting Luis Cruz (22-4-1, 16 KOs) on February 10 in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card from the Huntington Center in Toledo (Bounce TV, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Another title fight is slated for the co-main, as three-time U.S. Olympian Rau’shee Warren (14-1, 4 KOs) makes the first defense of his 118-pound world title not far from his native Cincinnati against Kazakh slugger Zhanat Zhakiyanov (26-1, 18 KOs).
Easter and Commey went toe-to-toe for 12 thrilling rounds on September 9, with Easter rising from a questionable eighth-round knockdown to eke out a narrow split decision in his first-ever world title fight.
Prior to going the distance against Commey, Easter had recorded five consecutive knockout wins, capped by a fifth-round TKO of former champion Argenis Mendez on April 1 in Washington, D.C.
The bout against Cruz, which comes two weeks after Easter’s 26th birthday, will represent the champion’s third professional fight in Ohio and his first in Toledo.
“Being able to headline a big fight in my hometown after winning a championship is a dream come true,” Easter said. “My first dream was to win the world title, and now I get to defend it in front of my people.
“I had great fan support at my last fight in Pennsylvania, and I know everybody is even more excited to see me at home. ... This is going to be big for the city. I can’t wait to showcase my skills.”
After turning pro in March 2007, Cruz won his first 19 fights, including 15 by knockout. Since then, the 31-year-old Puerto Rican has gone 3-4-1, most recently fighting once-beaten Ivan Redkach to a 10-round split draw on April 19 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
“This is a great opportunity for me, and I’m planning on putting on my best performance,” said Cruz, who has never previously competed for a world title. “I am going to fight for my home of Puerto Rico and become another world champion from the island.
“I know that Easter is a good fighter and he will have the fan support, but I am already training harder than I ever have. This is going to be an exciting fight, but I don’t expect it to go the distance.”
Warren, 29, will be returning to action for the first time since June 18, when he avenged the only loss of his pro career with a majority decision over 118-pound champion Juan Carlos Payano. In their first meeting in August 2015, Payano scored a disputed split decision in his first title defense.
“I'm ready to get back in the ring,” said Warren, who will be fighting in his home state for just the second time. “I'm happy the fight is three days before my birthday, because defending my title for the first time and winning will be the best birthday present.
“We’ve been checking out Zhakiyanov. He definitely isn’t a slouch. I’m just going to enjoy being a champion, defending my title and showing what I'm capable of.”
While Warren will be fighting for the third time since March 2015, Zhakiyanov has been idle since November 2015, when he won a 12-round split decision over Yonfrez Parejo in Monaco. That decision snapped Zhakiyanov’s 12-fight knockout streak that dated from May 2011 to May 2015.
“I’m very happy to be fighting in the U.S. with a chance to become a world champion,” said Zhakiyanov, a 33-year-old will be making his North American debut. “I want to thank Warren for taking this fight, but it will be a big mistake. I’m coming to win and win impressively.
“This is going to be my statement that I am one of the best fighters in this division.”