Pick It: Rafael Espinoza vs. Sergio Chirino

When to Watch: Friday, June 21, 10 p.m. Eastern Time 

How to watch: ESPN+

Why to Watch: Espinoza is coming off a big upset — so big that it was named BoxingScene’s Upset of the Year for 2023 — winning a world title over Robeisy Ramirez.

Now Espinoza wants to make sure that his first title defense doesn’t wind up with him taking a dose of his own medicine.

When Espinoza challenged Ramirez last December, he came in with a decade of experience but had never fought anyone near Ramirez’s level. Espinoza’s record, while unblemished, came against 23 opponents with a combined record of 232-257-15. That gave good reason to doubt how he would fare against Ramirez. 

Yet it quickly became clear that Espinoza not only had confidence to go along with his undefeated record and 6-foot-1 height — he had ability as well. He took an early lead over Ramirez, a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2012 and 2016) who had won the WBO belt earlier in the year.

And then Ramirez put Espinoza on the canvas.

At the end of an entertaining fifth round, Ramirez threw a lead right hook that sent Espinoza crumpling down. Espinoza rose on unsteady legs, fortunate for the final bell. Ramirez continued to have success over the coming rounds, while Espinoza gamely took the punishment and fired back.

This was Espinoza’s opportunity. He couldn’t let it slip away. He needed to seize it. 

That’s what he was able to do in the 12th round. Espinoza let loose with a barrage in the final minute, with the fight possibly on the line, and sent Ramirez onto a knee for a momentary respite and some recovery time.

That final round won Espinoza the fight. The final scores: 115-111, a pivotal 114-112, and an even 113-113. Espinoza earned the majority decision, the world title and a ton of respect. The 30-year-old from Guadalajara moved to 24-0 (20 KOs) and recently signed a contract with Top Rank.

The promoter will feature Espinoza in the main event at the Fontainebleau Las Vegas against Chirino, a 29-year-old from Oaxaca, Mexico.

Like Espinoza, Chirino’s record — 22-1 (13 KOs) — doesn’t catch the eye once you go past the number of wins and look at the actual opposition. His 22 victories came against foes with a combined record of 166-114-18. 

The most familiar name Chirino has faced was his lone loss, a two-round technical knockout loss to Mauricio Lara back in 2018. Lara eventually would go on to score his own shocker for a featherweight world title. Beyond Lara, there’s Chirino’s last appearance, a TKO3 win this past February over Dennis Contreras. While Contreras came in at 24-13-1, at least he has been in with some recognizable names for those defeats, a measuring stick opponent that Chirino took care of.

The featherweight division is in flux. The winner of Espinoza-Chirino will be in position to move forward toward fights against fellow titleholders at 126 or a number of contenders, or perhaps he will be selected if and when Naoya Inoue decides to move up from 122.  

But first they need to get through Friday. Will Espinoza’s Cinderella story continue? Or will Chirino steal his glass slippers, the WBO belt, and the opportunities that await?

As for the undercard, the co-feature sees junior lightweight prospect Andres Cortes, 21-0 (12 KOs), face recent title challenger Abraham Nova, 23-2 (16 KOs). Nova’s two defeats came via split decision against WBC titleholder O’Shaqie Foster in February and a KO5 loss to the aforementioned Robeisy Ramirez back in 2022 down at featherweight.

Also on the show: middleweight prospect Troy Isley, 12-0 (5 KOs), will face Javier Martinez, 10-0-1 (3 KOs).

More Fights to Watch

Thursday, June 20: Jordan Panthen vs. Victor Toney (TrillerTV, 10 p.m. Eastern Time)

Panthen, a 27-year-old prospect with a record of 8-0 (7 KOs), is slated to move down from middleweight to junior middleweight for this main event at The Hangar in Costa Mesa, California. He faces Toney, 8-2-1 (6 KOs). The 36-year-old’s two defeats came against a young Sebastian Fundora (UD6 in 2017) and middleweight prospect Troy Isley (UD6 in 2022). Toney has won two in a row since that last loss.

Friday, June 21: Lyndon Arthur vs. Liam Cameron (Channel 5 in the United Kingdom, time 10 p.m. BST)

Arthur is returning from his shutout loss to light heavyweight titleholder Dmitry Bivol this past December. The 32-year-old from Manchester fell to 23-2 (16 KOs), ending a four-fight win streak that began after his only other defeat, a fourth-round KO at the hands of Anthony Yarde in 2021.

Cameron, a 33-year-old from Sheffield, is 23-5 (10 KOs). His last loss came via unanimous decision to Zac Dunn in 2016. Cameron was out of the ring from April 2018 until October 2023. After spending the first part of his career at middleweight and super middleweight, Cameron came back initially as a cruiserweight and then worked the pounds away, appearing at light heavyweight for quick wins over designated opponents in February and March.

Saturday, June 22: Felix Cash vs. Tyler Denny (DAZN. The preliminary broadcast begins at noon Eastern Time / 5 p.m. BST. The main broadcast begins at 2 p.m. Eastern Time / 7 p.m. BST)

Cash returns to the ring for the first time in 18 months after taking time off amid struggles with mental health. This will also be the unbeaten middleweight’s first fight under trainer Adam Booth.

The 31-year-old, originally from Chertsey and now out of Wokingham in England, is 16-0 (10 KOs). He stopped previously unbeaten Denzel Bentley in three rounds in April 2021, then won decisions in 2022 over Magomed Madiev and Celso Neves.

Denny, a 32-year-old from the West Midlands, is 18-2-3 (1 KO). He dropped a majority decision in 2019 to Linus Udofia and has gone 6-0-1 since. Denny’s last appearance brought his first and only professional knockout, when he stopped Matteo Signani on cuts in the eighth round of their November 2023 bout.

Saturday, June 22: Tayden Beltran vs. Cesar Villarraga (Fox Deportes, Fubo Sports, 11 p.m. Eastern Time)

The undefeated Beltran, 8-0-1 (4 KOs), has been competing between lightweight and junior welterweight. Beltran, a 25-year-old from Southern California, is coming off his first victory over an opponent with a winning record: a unanimous decision this February against the 12-3-2 Willmank Canonico Brito.

Villarraga also has a winning record, but barely, at 10-9-1 (5 KOs). The 38-year-old from Colombia has gone 1-8-1 in the past eight years. Villarraga, who has only been stopped once in those nine defeats, is likely there to give Beltran rounds.

This show will take place in Long Beach, California.

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.