LAS VEGAS – You don't have to insult Brandon Rios' mother or shove his grandmother as she's crossing a street to get him to fight. The former lightweight champion loves his job and fights with a glee rarely seen. You get the feeling he'd be ready to throw down at a chess match.
It's hard to imagine enjoying a right cross to the chin, but watch Rios fight and you'll see him smile even when he's slugged.
If you offer Rios a fight, his first question is when, not how much.
Brawling and being a tough guy can get a man a long way. Rios won the World Boxing Association lightweight title and has accumulated a 29-0-1 record with 21 knockouts.
Now, he's on the verge of taking the next step, and that will require adding a little subtlety to his game.
Rios goes for the WBA belt Saturday night – the one he lost on the scale in December when he missed weight – when he meets Cuban Richard Abril at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in the co-main event of a split-site, pay-per-view show.
(UPDATE: Rios missed weight Friday. He came in at 137, was given two hours to lose two pounds in order to make the 135 weight limit, but came back at 139. The fight with Abril will go on, only Rios will not be in line for the WBA title. Abril, with a win, would earn the WBA lightweight belt.)
If he wins, and if Juan Manuel Marquez defeats Sergey Fedchenko in Mexico City – the other half of Saturday's main event – Top Rank likely will stage Marquez-Rios on July 14 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
A fight with Marquez would bring Rios into an entirely different realm. You don't intimidate Marquez, and you don't beat him by bum rushing him. Against a fighter like Marquez, a game plan and an agile mind are just as important as a great chin and physical toughness.
First, though, Rios must get past Abril, and while Abril is no Marquez, few men are. But Abril is a talented, tough boxer who is vastly underrated by the public and even the boxing media.
Abril is hardly the no-hoper that many have portrayed him to be. He's tall and lanky with a good jab and surprising snap in his punches.
Cameron Dunkin, Rios' manager, said he awakened at 4 a.m. on Friday because he was concerned about the match and couldn't sleep. Rios was originally slated to face Yuriorkis Gamboa, the former featherweight champion, in what would have been a high-profile fight.
Interest in the bout isn't the same since Abril replaced Gamboa, who refused to fight in a contract dispute, but that doesn't mean the threat is less.
"I haven't slept, and I'm scared to death," Dunkin said. "I don't like the fight, and I didn't want this fight. Fights like this are ones where you can really get screwed. [Rios] was ready for Gamboa, and he was so excited he was bouncing off the walls. He was calling me and thanking me for getting the fight made and was saying, 'This is the greatest thing in the world.'
"He was getting ready to fight this little 5-foot-3 midget, and now it completely changes. He was really in the dumps when [Gamboa] pulled out. And now he's in there with a guy who's 6 feet tall and really motivated and who can really fight."
Rios laughs when he hears Dunkin express concerns about his motivation. Getting the opportunity to throw punches at another man and getting paid well for it is all the motivation that Rios needs.
He said he'd be ready no matter who he fought, and points to his dedication in making the lightweight limit as an example. He hired a nutritionist, Cecilio Flores, and has been much more diligent about his strength and conditioning in camp than he'd been in the past.
He lost his championship in New York in December on the night before his scheduled title defense against John Murray at Madison Square Garden because he came in at 1.6 pounds over the lightweight limit of 135.
He looked like a refugee from a concentration camp when he stepped to the scales. His eyes were sunken and his color wasn't good because he literally didn't eat all week. He'd trained for Murray in Mexico and didn't have supervision in shedding the weight and eating properly.
"It was all my fault," he said. "I didn't do it right, but I learned from that. I'm a different guy right now."
He's different in more ways than one. Robert Garcia, Rios' sage trainer, said that Rios' skills are underrated because his toughness is so evident.
Rios was the 2004 U.S. national featherweight amateur champion and was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team. As a professional, he's won a world title and is 3-0 in championship matches. He's also steadily improved as a pro and has scored 10 knockouts during his 11-fight winning streak.
That's attributable to what he's done in the gym with Garcia.
"Look at what he has accomplished," Garcia said. "You don't win what he's won if you aren't skilled. The thing about Brandon is, he loves to fight and he has a tremendous work ethic. He's in the gym all the time and that makes a difference. He gets better all the time because he's working at it all the time."
Rios insists he's not looking ahead, not toward a match with Marquez in the summer or further down the road to a fight with Manny Pacquiao. Top Rank's Bob Arum said Rios is on the long-term list of potential Pacquiao opponents.
Top Rank president Todd duBoef said if Rios can keep winning, a Pacquiao-Rios fight would be a high-profile match down the line.
"Manny has a real telegenic style, and he likes to get in there and battle with guys," duBoef said. "We want to put him in with guys who fight like that because we know that makes the most entertaining fights. Brandon is a guy who has been progressing well, and he'll definitely fight that style. When you project, he's clearly a guy you could see who could fight at that weight and make the kind of match with Manny that would get people excited."
Pretty much every Rios fight is fun to watch. He's anything but boring.
He tells his team all the time that he's looking to be in an all-out slugfest – to land a fight that would be similar to the 2005 classic between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, which is one of the greatest bouts of modern times.
That's a bit much for Dunkin to handle, though.
"Brandon has much better skill now, and Robert has done a great job developing him," Dunkin said. "There was a time when he was coming up that he didn't have it, but he's come along and he's got real skills now. He's moving his head and doing the things that good boxers do, using his jab, closing the gap, putting pressure on, cutting the ring.
"He's making tremendous progress. But we've had long talks about what he wants to do. Brandon's always telling me, 'Cameron, I want that war. I want that Corrales-Castillo fight. That's what I'm looking for.' And I just shake my head. I'm trying to keep him out of those kinds of things, and he's going looking for it. What can I do? That's Brandon."
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