Puerto Rico’s Next Great Warrior: RSR Talks to Francisco “El Gato” Figueroa
Interview by Mike “Rubber Warrior” Plunkett
“Hell no, I’m not doing “a Hector Camacho JR!”– Francisco “El Gato” Figueroa
For prizefighters the ascension to the upper stratosphere in any division is rarely a smooth proposition. Having the right amount of extraordinary desire and career focus are necessary and being blessed with talent and athleticism can take a man a long way, but there is ultimately no forward progress, at a particular point if the fighter doesn’t put in his time gritting it out in the fire. Ask any serious prizefighter, the importance of paying one’s dues early on cannot be understated.
Such is the reality of our sport that so often pitched struggle and even defeat form and refine those that keep at it, plugging forward in the hopes of one day earning the opportunity of a lifetime. For the rest, it becomes a case of either being relegated to the role of journeyman or opponent, or at the extreme, an exit from the sport and onto other less demanding pursuits. Only the most driven and focused individuals have a chance, and even then, there are the intangibles of character, career timing and sometimes sheer luck that play a hand in the matter.
Francisco “El Gato” Figueroa is an example of a prizefighter that has experienced those difficult bumps and potholes early in his professional career. Those setbacks and struggles have served to galvanize the indomitable spirit of this Bronx southpaw, boding him well when the stakes were high and it counted most. In his most recent ring foray, fans around the world watched him endure the fistic defiance of one of the toughest and most determined gate keepers our sport has known over the last quarter century, Emmanuel Augustus. Such was the torrid and controversial nature of that match, and having emerged from it victorious, Francisco Figueroa now finds himself poised for a key title eliminator and beyond that, quite possibly a world title opportunity.
It was a pleasure to represent RSR and sit down with “El Gato” to discuss his early career experiences, his world title ambitions and his views on the current state of the light welterweight division.
MP: How did you first become involved in boxing?
I just came out of the United States Army and was working as a child care counselor for kids that had addiction and behavioral problems. One day I recall watching the much anticipated fight between Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya and as I was sitting there I was saying to myself man I’m quicker and as strong as these guys. I can do it, being that I am a competitor and participated in the sport of wrestling and in it I had done very well.
MP: Growing up were there any particular influences that made you want to become a professional fighter?
No. Wrestling was my life I didn’t care for boxing not one bit. I just knew of boxing being Puerto Rican. Tito Trinidad was one along with Mike Tyson and some other main stream boxing names but no I didn’t care about boxing. Wrestling pumped through my veins and still does. And no, I’m not doing MMA! Lol!
MP: Your record shows a four round majority decision win over one Richard Dean for your initial professional bout back in 2002. What are your recollections of that first win?
Oh yeah, Richard Dean. The first thirty-seconds I was cut and I remember feeling the blood flow down my face. I remember telling myself, hell no, I’m not doing “a Hector Camacho JR” – being that he fought Jesse James Lejia and quit in their fight. So I continued in that fight with blood and all and from that day onward I knew no obstacles would ever get in my way.
MP: Barely three years into your pro career and with a record of 11-2, you won the New York State Light Welterweight Title with a sixth-round stoppage of Hector Alejandro JR. What did it feel like to win your first professional title and did the win position you for greater opportunities?
Man winning the New York State Light Welterweight Title meant the world title to me being that I’m the King Kong of New York City. I started late in boxing and suddenly I’m the NYS champ all these other one-hundred and forty-pounders got nothing on me. Now I’ve been calling them all out now I have the NYS Title, so let’s make it happen. But as the clouds started coming down I noticed they still didn’t want to fight me. With that win I thought they had no choice but to face me and boy was I wrong! I quickly learned how in boxing a fighter can be maneuvered without facing a good or ranked fighter until the very end.
MP: Your next bout was for the vacant WBC Intercontinental Mundo Hispano Welterweight Title. You won via split decision over Maximo Cuevas. The scorecards suggest a pitched, tactical battle that became a struggle. In your next bout, you earned a hard-fought majority decision over the rated and undefeated Joey Rios in defense of your New York State Light Welter Title. Do you feel that such tough early career experiences formed the talented and world-rated fighter that you have become today and what are your recollections of those difficult early wins?
Man, Maximo Cuevas was tough as hell! We went at it, back and forth but I’m a warrior. I’d just rather be called “El Gato” (laughing). Joey Rios, as of right now, was a terrority fight, as the fight was billed “Battle of the Bronx”. That was a fight where an undefeated boxer was fighting a very risky, tough fight, something that the world of boxing usually doesn’t set-up. It happened and it was a tough fight, but I was in shape and had the mentality of me claiming The Bronx as my own territory. Like an old Bronx hip hop star that I follow, KRS-1.
MP: In July 2007 you won the NABF Light Welterweight Title with a twelfth-round knockout over the vastly more experienced and well-travelled Ubaldo Hernandez, a fighter that had faced the who’s who of your division over the better part of the last decade. Did you at that point realize that your career was now coming together nicely and did you feel as though you were now in line for greater things?
No! Beating Ubaldo was a great battle for me but I don’t think about line up that a fight has for me. I just fight! Well, maybe I’m lying. My upcoming fight with Randall Bailey is an IBF eliminator bout. I know that beating him will set me up with a world title shot and I’m ready and super-pumped.
MP: You posted two successful defenses of the NABF Title, impressively posting unanimous decisions over two decidedly talented foes in Noel Rodriguez and Luis Rodriguez. Next up you struggled to a controversial split decision win over the vastly more experienced and seemingly superhuman Emmanuel Augustus last November. Looking back, what made the Augustus bout so difficult and do you feel as though you learned anything that will take you to the next level?
Yes, Emmanuel Augustus is a beast. People say he has an awkward style and being in the ring with him, I can tell you exactly how he’s a difficult fighter. His defense is throwing punches, not in the way he dances or what have you. Most fighters will defend with their gloves or elbows, which you can figure a way out to penetrate, and plan your next attack. But a fighter throwing punches back while you are throwing punches is super hard to set up or plan and attack.
MP: What do you see happening in your career in 2009?
I see myself beating Randall Bailey in the IBF Eliminator and then IBF Light Welterweight Champion Juan Urango
MP: Your roots are in Puerto Rico, a country with a fine and growing heritage of producing great fighters such as Miguel Cotto, Felix Trinidad, Hector Camacho, Wilfred Benitez and of course Wilfredo Gomez. Do you feel as though Puerto Rican fans have placed their hopes in you?
Oh wow! Good question seeing that I’m not from the island. My father is and because of that I represent it just like I represent my family name “Figueroa JR” and the Puerto Rican heritage. So yes, I’m from Santurce, Puerto Rico coming to you by way of The Bronx in New York. We don’t dance, we boogie! Lol!
I’m not sure I’m as recognized as some other up and coming prospects. Hmmm, wow! What a question! I’m more recognized here in New York being that I live here and I know Puerto Rico knows me for the work I was putting in with Miguel Cotto for his bout against Zab Judah. To be honest, if they don’t recognize me, then you know what? I’ll prove it to them because Puerto Rico is all about proving not shouting.
MP: Do you feel additional pressure or a sense of cultural obligation whenever you fight in that you are representing Puerto Rico, a land with deep national pride very much proud of its boxing heritage?
Honestly, I think of no one or the culture. I focus on not losing and succeeding; thinking of ways on how to win either by knockout, TKO, cut, or decision. I’m not losing!
MP: Looking at the current light welterweight landscape, which major world champion would you like to face the most if handed the opportunity; WBC Champion Timothy Bradley, WBA Champion Andriy Kotelnik, newly-crowned Juan Urango, the IBF Champ or IBO Kingpin Ricky “The Hitman” Hatton?
You know, I’ve learned to adapt to “Boxing Business 101”, and that this; I’ll fight whoever they hand me but this is the list I would like to travel as the new world champion. List “A to Z” with “A” being the most money possible as a world champion. You put your dues in early so as champion its time to make some good money. Enough with the struggles and obstacles, you wanna get paid for any injuries that may occur and collect retro pay for the trip it took you to get there.
MP: Who do you like to win in the much anticipated mega fight between Ricky Hatton and multi-division champion Manny Pacquiao?
Hmmm…..I like Ricky but damn it, I just want to see a good fight and this is going to be one of them. Like the old boxing referee, judge Mills Lane used to say, “Let’s get it on” (laughter).
MP: In closing is there anything you want to say to your fans around the world?
First, I want thank my core team, the Team of Gato Productions. They are doing a wonderful job relieving me of some of the duties that I have been doing to get my name out there via the internet, the general media, on the red carpets, not to mention managing tickets and their distribution.
Second to my son who is making me proud everyday at the age of just four telling me how he feels without the fear of disciplinary action. He’s a warrior and destined for greater things.
Lastly, I want thank the Team Gato fans from all over the world. Team Gato of USA, Puerto Rico, Italy, UK, Chile, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Santo Domingo, Mexico, Ireland…from all around the globe. Thank you to all for you being honest with me and sharing your hurts and your dreams. Together we can make it. Remember “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” It’s not just a saying, it’s a movement.
(Interviewer’s Note: I would like to thank RSR’s Scott Hendrix for his assistance in setting up this interview.)
Nickname: “El Gato”
Division: Light Welterweight
Professional Record: 20-2, 13 KO’s
Date Opponent W-L-D Location Result
2002-11-08 Richard Dean 0-1-1 Jamaica, Queens, USA W MD 4
2003-05-31 Jose Felix 0-0-0 Savannah, USA W TKO 1
2003-08-09 Martinus Clay 7-3-0 Winston-Salem, USA W UD 6
2003-08-16 Troy Wilson 2-0-1 Atlanta, USA L MD 4
2003-09-19 Martin Moore 4-12-0 Bronx, USA W TKO 2
2003-10-24 Ben Wagaba 3-7-1 Bronx, USA W TKO 1
2004-08-28 Matt McKart 7-0-0 Detroit, USA W KO 4
2004-09-25 Roberto Bixano 8-5-0 Detroit, USA W KO 7
2004-10-22 Ali Tareh 6-4-3 Sarasota, USA W KO 3
2004-11-20 Francisco Rincon 8-1-0 Poughkeepsie, USA L UD 10
2005-03-10 Ike Ezeji 7-10-1 New York, USA W TKO 1
2005-05-06 Jadschi Green 11-5-2 White Plains, USA W TKO 3
2005-06-02 Leo Martinez 5-4-0 Rochester, USA W TKO 7
2005-08-17 Hector Alejandro, Jr 10-1-0 Rochester, USA W TKO 6
2006-03-23 Maximino Cuevas 7-2-1 Rochester, USA W SD 10
2006-11-11 Joey Rios 14-0-0 New York, USA W MD 10
2007-03-22 Antonio Ramirez 24-14-6 New York, USA W TKO 3
2007-04-13 Ilido Julio 35-10-1 West Palm Beach, USA W RTD 4
2007-07-28 Ubaldo Hernandez 22-17-2 West Palm Beach, USA W KO 12
vacant NABF Light Welterweight Title
2007-11-16 Noel Rodriguez 13-1-0 Kissimmee, USA W UD 12
NABF Light Welterweight Title
2008-05-14 Luis Rodriguez 22-1-0 New York, USA W UD 12
NABF Light Welterweight Title
2008-11-08 Emanuel Augustus 38-29-6 New York, USA W SD 8
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