Juan Francisco Estrada survives challenge, now focused on Gonzalez

Was the problem the 18-month dismissal of Juan Francisco Estrada? Did he underestimate the relative unknown Argi Cortés? Or is Cortes just so much better than anyone thought?

Whatever the reason or reasons, fans were treated to a surprisingly competitive fight between the junior bantamweights on Saturday in Hermosillo, Mexico.

Estrada won what had been billed as a build-up fight, but he had to work really hard to do it, knocking Cortes down and winning a unanimous decision by scores of 115-112, 115-112 and 114-113.

However, the WBC “franchise champion” did not seem like the dominant fighter we have come to know.

“I was really surprised,” Estrada said. “I didn’t expect it to come out so hard. I have twice as many fights as him. The experience obviously took over. I was surprised. He is a great fighter. But, again, the champion is the champion.”

Estrada (43-3, 28 KOs) is now set to face rival Roman Gonzalez for the third time on December 3, 21 months after Estrada defeated him by a disputed split decision.

Can the version of Estrada that we saw on Saturday beat the great “Chocolatito”?

He put in a solid performance against Cortes, taking the fight to his younger opponent and landing clean, hard shots with consistency. The problem for him was that his inspired compatriot matched him blow for blow and took everything Estrada threw at him, with the sole exception of a left hand to the body that dropped him in Round 7.

Cortés, trained by Nacho Beristain, showed that he is a fine and durable boxer. He also wasn’t fazed one bit by the biggest moment of his career, which added to his effectiveness.

The difference in the fight was Estrada’s success in the championship rounds. He led on two of three cards after eight rounds, but won all three late in the fight, a testament to his determination and experience.

However, if any fighter stepped forward in defeat, it was Cortes. He took five rounds on two cards and six on the third against one of the most respected little fighters of his generation, which was an eye opener to those unfamiliar with him.

The 27-year-old Mexico City resident clearly characterized himself as a rising young contender.

Of course, in the end, the night belonged to Estrada. The future Hall of Famer survived his tune-up and can now focus on what will arguably be the biggest fight of his career, the decider against Gonzalez.

The tough fight with Cortes, he said, served its purpose.

“That’s why I was really looking to make this fight,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I looked good, that I had no injuries. I’m a little bruised but I did what I had to do. The conditioning and work I did for three months is exactly what I needed to do after 16 months off.

“…I will be ready for that date (December 3).”

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