Omar Figueroa Jr: “We all know the blueprint on how to beat Broner.”

Omar Figueroa Jr: “We all know the blueprint on how to beat Broner.”

By Gary Kittilsen

Omar “Panterita” Figueroa of Weslaco, Texas, a small border town in the Rio Grande Valley, will battle “The Problem” Adrien Broner on July 23rd in a must-win bout for both men. Figueroa is best known for his relentless, come forward, swarming style. He won a world title at 135 pounds and had epic wars with some of the best names in the sport. However, he may be winning his biggest battle outside the ring. The former lightweight champ spoke of his mental health battles:

“It’s a lifelong struggle. At least I know what I am up against, and I know why my life has gone in this direction and why things worked out the way they did.”  

The former champ credits the most unusual of sources for helping him with his mental health battle. Gymnast Simone Biles, a 4-time Olympic gold medalist, seven-time medalist, and fellow Texan, withdrew from much of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, including the individual all-around competition citing mental health issues. Figueroa explained: “Mainly, I want to give a shout out to Simone Biles. If she hadn’t pulled out of the Olympics, I would have never taken my mental health seriously, because of her, I started on this whole journey, trying to figure myself out and to be a better version of myself starting from the inside out.”

Mental health issues have hampered Panterita for years. His start in boxing was due to his dad, Omar Sr, who had immigrated to the US from Mexico as a kid and was bullied and often got into fights. He had a love and passion for boxing, which led him to push his son toward the sport:

“At six years old, my dad said I am going to teach this kid how to defend himself, so he doesn’t have to go through what I went through in school.” Boxing was never his passion. It was his Dad’s:

“He wished he would have gone further with boxing, so he is kind of living vicariously through me.” The Texan explained, saying he was forced into boxing and that his love was another sport:

“I love baseball, it’s my passion, and it’s my love.” Figueroa received a full scholarship to play baseball at Texas A&M, one of the premier baseball programs in the US. However, he decided against taking the scholarship to pursue boxing. He explained the decision: “In high school, I was 5’6, I am barely throwing 86 or 88 MPH, and to know there are some guys out there who are 6’5 and doing the same thing as me, it kinda puts things into perspective.”

So the Rio Grande Valley native embarked on his professional career. He ran his record to 13-0-1 (10) before getting his big shot on a Showtime ShoBox card in California. Panterita made the most of the opportunity he took apart unbeaten lightweight prospect Michael Perez. A win that changed his career, a career that was in great danger. Figueroa felt his promoter, Golden Boy, was looking to drop him:

“We all felt Golden Boy was trying to get rid of me at that point. I had so much stuff going on outside of boxing. We all had a feeling Golden Boy was trying to get rid of me. I was becoming baggage that I didn’t want to deal with … That’s the fight that changed my career.”

A year later, he got his next massive opportunity. It came in his home state, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, just a few hours north on I-37 from where he grew up. On the undercard of Canelo-Austin Trout, Figueroa scored a sensational first-round knockout of Abner Cotto that would put him in position to fight for the WBC lightweight title, a title that was vacated by Broner. Figueroa was unable to enjoy the monumental victory saying: 

“I had so much other crap going on in my head, especially mental health issues. I don’t even know what the hell I was thinking. I was just rolling with the punches. Like Bruce Lee said, I was trying to be like water, adapting to whatever situation I was presented with. I was just trying to survive at that point.”

Panterita made the most of his world title opportunity beating up Nihito Arakawa, in San Antonio, on his way to becoming a world champion. A moment he didn’t quite enjoy saying: “It honestly wasn’t a good thing for me. It left me in a deeper hole. Boxing, for me, was something that was started because of my dad. It wasn’t really my dream.” 

The newly crowned lightweight champ went on to make two world title defences, including against Jerry Belmontes in an all Texas showdown. After a slow start, Panterita rallied and captured the decision victory saying:

“I don’t really remember much, just putting my head down and trying to throw as many punches and land as many punches as possible. That’s usually my goal when I fight.”  

Struggling to make 135-pounds, the Texan vacated his belt. Despite dropping the belt, he picked up perhaps the most notable win of his career. A UD victory over Ricky Burns in the Rio Grande Valley. A card that also featured his little brother Brandon Figueroa’s pro debut. 

After a year and a half layoff, the Texan returned in a major way. Blowing away three-division world champion Robert Guerrero: “That’s me, as close to my best as possible… I love that fight. That’s one of my favourite fights, but the mental health issues came back around, and it started taking its toll… I started getting into trouble outside of boxing. That’s when my life went on a downward spiral. I remember just putting my head down and trying to fight through it all.” 

Things went sideways in a hurry. He faced legal troubles, mounting mental health issues, another year and a half out of the ring, and a subpar performance in outpointing John Molina. He described the situation:

“At the point, I was just swinging at thin air. I hurt my hand, and everything went downhill from there.”

Battling both injuries and mental health issues, Figueroa dropped his next two fights. However, the Rio Grande Valley native seems to have worked out his mental health issues, at least for now, is winning that battle and is focused like never before, and is ready to finally fight Broner, a grudge match four years in the making.

Broner-Figueroa was the topic of discussion since Panterita won the WBC lightweight belt, a belt vacated by Broner:

“We’ve been talking about this fight since I won the title. It was Broner’s title that I won when he vacated. It was kinda left unfinished, and it finally materialized. That’s as simple as I can put it.”

The bout was originally scheduled for 2018, but both fighters ran into legal issues and Figueroa suffered a shoulder injury that curbed that fight. With both fighters now into their 30s and looking to make one last push for a world title, it’s a make-or-break fight for each man: 

“This is the perfect fight for both of us at this stage of our careers. We both have plenty left in the tank. We’ve both had issues outside the ring that have impacted our in-ring performances.” Figueroa explained. 

Staying humble and modest the former lightweight champ expressed confidence in himself and the game plan, although he wouldn’t make an official prediction:

“Honestly, I am done making predictions. In my last fight, I know, if I was healthy, I could have finished him in the first round, and I’m sure Abel [Ramos] knows it. I just want to get there healthy and make it through the fight… and be the best version of myself. That’s entirely my goal.” He is, however, extremely confident, believing he has already solved “The Problem” claiming:

“We all know the blueprint on how to beat Broner we all know what happened when he fought Maidana. I feel I have a similar style to Maidana. So we are going to try and implement that, obviously.”

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