The anticipated welterweight battle could be a Fight of the Year candidate but it’s the stacked undercard that makes this show one of the best in recent boxing history.
When future Hall of Famer Manny Pacquiao meets undefeated Keith Thurman on Saturday, July 20, on PBC on FOX PPV (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT), at stake will be more than both fighters’ respective WBA belts. It’s a crossroads fight about legacy – the end of one, or the start of another.
It’s also a match between two men who are almost never in a bad fight. Yet as good as the main event promises to be that night at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, it may be overshadowed by the undercard.
Undercard is a term held over from those days just before the Walker Law passed, when boxing was banished to backrooms and promoting had to be done on the down low. Since posters could not be used, promoters had cards small enough to fit inside the palm of a hand printed before their shows. Word on upcoming “cards” was spread by men handing out the printed cards, concealed in a handshake, at train stations, pubs, and street corners. On the front, or top, of the cards were the headliners, date, and location. On the flip side, or ‘under’ the card, appeared the names of the preliminary fighters.
In music, they’re called the “Opening Acts” and not only do they get the crowd ready for the featured attraction, they sometimes – like The Beatles opening for Brenda Lee - go on to greater acclaim. Boxing promotions have also used the undercards to showcase talent. Sugar Ray Robinson got his start on Henry Armstrong and Joe Louis undercards. Floyd Mayweather used to open for Johnny Tapia.
The Carnival of Champions card in 1937, back when there were only eight champions in the entire world of sports, showcased four title fights. Before that, Harry Greb and Sam Langford warmed the crowd up for a Jack Dempsey fight. But somewhere along the way, undercards too often became a predictable mismatch between an unbeaten stud and some guy named Johnny.
It wasn’t always so. Long-time Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner was well known for stacking his cards with exciting fights. So much so that the guys in the concession stands pulled him aside one day with a plea. According to legend, they told Brenner his shows were good – too good, that no one left their seats and they weren’t selling any hot dogs.
So, Brenner gave them one fight per night, in the middle of the card, featuring fighters who, if you blinked, you missed nothing, fighters who became known as “hot dog salesmen” because, when they fought, everyone made a run to the concession stands.
Back in the day, when fight cards sprung up in places like roller skating rinks, promoters often used two different fight posters. In those neighborhood pubs by the Verrazzano Bridge where the off-duty cops frequented, the ones with green clovers painted on the windows, the posters with the Irish names in bold were sent. Crosstown, on bodega the windows where the cats slept, the posters with the Spanish names highlighted were hung.
Whether those gimmicks worked or not, the undercards – like appetizers at the finest restaurants – received as much attention as the main dishes. When Brenner decided who to feature on his legendary cards, he took into consideration several things.
“It is a matter first of determining whether the styles of the two fighters blend,” Brenner said. “Then you have to decide if it's an important fight. In other words, will the winner move on to a bigger fight? And is it one that I as a fan would want to see?”
On July 20, before Thurman and Pacquiao fight over the torch, three important crossroads bouts that check all of Brenner’s boxes will take place. Some of the fighters are former champs, each looking to win back a belt.
Welterweight contenders Yordenis Ugas (23-4,11 KOs) and Omar Figueroa Jr. (28-0-1, 19 Kos) meet in an elimination fight. Coming off a very close loss to Shawn Porter, Ugas knows what’s at stake.
"Omar Figueroa Jr. is a tremendous fighter, and that's the style I like to face,” said the Cuban boxer-puncher. “I'm an all-action fighter and the fans are going to be in for a full course meal before the actual main event. That I can promise,"
Figueroa Jr. shares the sentiment. “This fight has definitely raised the stakes for me, so I know I have to be ready.”
Welterweights Sergey Lipinets (15-1, 11 KOs) and John Molina Jr. (30-8, 24 KOs) will do battle in a 10-rounder between two come-forward fighters.
"As always, I'm fighting a guy that is very dangerous and tough to the last bell. My title shot is right around the corner,” said Lipinets.
The fearless Molina agreed. “It's going to be another barnburner like every one of my fights. My opponent is tough and durable, so I know it is going to be another exciting fight for my fans.”
Also, on the card are former champs Luis Nery (29-0, 23 KOs) against Juan Carlos Payano, (21-2, 9 KOs) in what is expected to be a bantamweight brawl.
"All the great Mexican fighters have fought in the fight capital of the world. My fight against Juan Carlos Payano is the last step to me getting my shot at the WBC championship and getting my belt back,” said Nery.
Payano looks to deny him. “Fighting Luis Nery is also a great opportunity for me. Luis is a very hungry, strong fighter looking to regain his championship status. Unfortunately, he is not going to do that with me. I'm sure he will be ready and come for war, and so will I."
The stacked Vegas card begins on PBC on FOX (7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT), headlined by IBF World Middleweight Champion Caleb Plant (18-0, 10 KOs) taking on unbeaten contender Mike Lee (21-0, 11 KOs). Rising heavyweight prospect Efe Ajagba (10-0, 9 KOs) will also be featured.
No question, the July 20th card is a throwback, the kind Teddy Brenner used to put on—minus any hotdog salesmen.
For a closer look at Pacquiao-Thurman, check out our fight night page.