IT’s an interesting time to be a featherweight. In the UK, unheralded Josh Warrington has strung together a series of superb wins that have placed him near the top of the 126lb pile, while on the other side of the Atlantic, Gary Russell Jnr has shown signs of upping his one-fight-a-year-against-a-mediocre-opponent schedule by talking to Eddie Hearn about joining DAZN. Another key player in this shifting landscape is Oscar Valdez, the two-time Mexican Olympian who on Saturday (June 8) defends his WBO belt against Jason Sanchez at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. The show is promoted by Top Rank and televised by ESPN in the USA.

It looks a routine outing for Valdez, because although Albuquerque’s Sanchez is unbeaten at 14-0 (7) he has yet to encounter a world class name. Yet for the champion, the stakes are high – victory keeps him on course for a showdown with either Warrington, assuming the Leeds man retains against Kid Galahad on June 15, or Russell, if the Washington talent does leave the PBC for Matchroom.

Said Valdez, “I’m excited to be back in the ring for the sixth defence of my world title. I know there is a big target on my back because I’m the champion, but nobody is going to take this title away from me.”

Valdez, 25-0 (20), is best known to British fans for his war with Scott Quigg in March 2018. The Bury man came in overweight yet forced the champ into a gruelling battle that saw him retain on points but suffer a broken jaw.

Oscar didn’t box again for 11 months, by which time he had switched trainers from Manny Robles to Eddy Reynoso (who also trains Canelo Alvarez). Comeback opponent Carmine Tommasone made for an unthreatening challenger, but Valdez knocked the Italian out in seven rounds to show there were no lasting ill-effects from the Quigg battle.

Hooking up with Reynoso has worked well, according to Valdez, who said: “Sanchez will be my second fight training with Reynoso. Training with Eddy, I feel the best I’ve ever felt. I felt great in the ring during my first fight with him in my corner. I know I’ll look even better this time out.”

Interestingly, Sanchez boxed on the same Frisco, Texas show in February that saw Valdez beat Tommasone. He knocked out Daniel Olea in two rounds in his first fight after signing a long-term contract with Top Rank – a move secured by his unanimous victory in October over unbeaten Jean Carlos Rivera in Panama.

That was over 10 rounds for the vacant WBO Youth belt, and while the strap doesn’t mean much, Puerto Rico’s Rivera was 15-0 (10) at the time. It was an occasion when the stamina that comes from living in the high altitude of Albuquerque (5,300 feet) helped Jason to finish strongly.

Sanchez, 24, is determined to win the world title in memory of his elder brother Alan, who perished at just 25 in a 2015 car crash. Alan, a pro lightweight, was nicknamed “Alacran” (Scorpion), hence Jason’s monicker of “Alancranito” (Little Scorpion).

Said Jason, “I will be bringing this belt home to Albuquerque, to my family, my supporters, and most of all, my late brother Alan. I believe he guided me down this road and that my journey is only beginning.”

Noble sentiments, but victory for the challenger would constitute a big surprise. Valdez is much more battle-hardened, having won 12-rounders against tough contenders in Colombia’s Miguel Marriaga and Filipino Genesis Servania as well as Quigg. And he’s held the WBO title since 2016, when Sanchez was still fighting opponents with losing records on New Mexico club shows.

Oscar Valdez
Valdez now has Eddy Reynoso in his corner Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Of course, it’s always possible that Sanchez turns out to be much better than expected. But he’s not a big puncher and just doesn’t possess the experience of Valdez, who is the safe pick to retain via clear decision or possibly via stoppage in this 12-rounder’s second half.

The undercard sees Brazil’s 2016 Olympic gold medallist Robson Conceição, 12-0 (6), look for his 13th pro win in a featherweight eight-rounder against Mexican Carlos Ruiz, 16-6-2 (6).

Elsewhere, Americans Michael Seals, 22-2 (16), and Christopher Brooker, 14-6 (5), clash over 10 at light-heavy.

The Verdict The expected victory can propel Valdez towards bigger things.