LAS VEGAS – Richard Abril is one of the hundreds of anonymous boxers who dedicate themselves to their profession without making much money, gaining any recognition or being promised a thing other than a damp shirt at the end of training.
Abril is one of the lucky ones. He holds a world title – OK, an interim world title – and that should separate him from the pack a bit.
Yet, it doesn't.
Former World Boxing Association lightweight champion Brandon Rios inadvertently proved just how unknown Abril is last month at a news conference at the Versailles Restaurant in Miami. The news conference was supposed to be the first of two to announce a highly anticipated match for the WBA belt between Rios and Cuban star Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Though he had no part in the news conference, Abril showed up anyway to make a point to Rios and Gamboa that he was the champion. Problem was Gamboa never showed and Rios, who was there, didn't know who he was.
"When I saw him there, I had no idea who the [expletive] he was," Rios said Tuesday prior to a workout at the Top Rank Gym. "I just thought he was a fan or something."
The scene got heated when the always emotional Rios realized that not only was Abril a fighter, but that he hoped to fight him one day.
Ultimately, though, the decision to show up unannounced at the news conference paid off big-time for Abril, who on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center will headline a pay-per-view card by fighting Rios for the WBA belt.
It will be only the second time the 29-year-old Cuban has fought in Las Vegas. He was on the undercard in 2007 when Ricky Hatton defeated Juan Urango at the Paris Hotel & Casino. As he sat on a ring apron talked to a dozen or so reporters, Abril reflected on the changes in his life with a big smile.
"The last time I was here, no one was talking to me," Abril said.
In order for them to remember his name, though, he's going to have to put on a show in the ring. Top Rank president Todd duBoef insisted that Abril's anonymity is indicative of nothing more than the global nature of the sport.
It is, he said, impossible for any one person to know every fighter. He pointed to a 1982 bout at Madison Square Garden in New York City when the great Salvador Sanchez took on Azumah Nelson.
Nelson would go on to a phenomenal career and was eventually inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. But less than two weeks before Sanchez was to fight, his opponent was dropped out. Promoters chose the theretofore unknown Nelson, who only had one bout outside of Africa prior to meeting Sanchez.
Sanchez, who was one of the sport's biggest stars at the time, was widely expected to roll, but Nelson put on a great display and the fight was a tough, competitive affair that ended with Sanchez stopping Nelson in the 15th round.
"Boxing is an Olympic sport and countries all over the world are taking their kids and putting them into boxing to prepare them for the Olympics," duBoef said. "There are great fighters all over the world – in Africa, in Cuba, in the Dominican [Republic], in Korea, everywhere. We don't see them because we're focused on what's going on here, around us, but that doesn't mean just because someone may not have heard of a guy that he can't fight."
Abril won his interim belt by defeating Miguel Acosta in Panama City, Panama, on Oct. 22. He knocked Acosta down three times and won a unanimous decision.
Just eight months earlier, Rios lifted the regular WBA title from Acosta by rallying in the second half of the fight to stop Acosta in the 10th round.
Rios brushed off Abril's win over Acosta – "I heard that Acosta took the fight with just one week's notice," Rios said, sneering – as no big thing.
To Abril, though, it put him on the map.
It got him the opportunity he wanted. The reason he went to the Versailles Restaurant in the first place was because he wanted to remind Rios and Gamboa that he held a version of the belt and he wanted the winner to think of him for a future match.
A little more than a month later, Abril was surrounded by reporters talking about everything from Cuban politics and Fidel Castro, to the ins and outs of promoting and the quality of the lightweight division.
He's one of the rare Cuban boxers who didn't defect but is fighting in the U.S. on a visa. Though there has been outrage over comments made by Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen that he loves and respects Castro, Abril shook it off.
He wasn't worked up like many of the Cuban exiles who had seen Castro slaughter their family members or their friends.
"Castro, there are good things and bad things [about him]," Abril said. "I don't care about politics." His position on Castro is likely colored by the fact that his brother and sister still live in Cuba and speaking out against the government could put them in jeopardy.
He's enjoying his moment in the sun, however brief it may be. He wanted recognition and a big fight and now it's up to him to do something with the opportunity.
"This is the story of boxing going back years and years and years – a guy coming seemingly out of nowhere and, against tremendous odds, putting on a great show and winning the fight," duBoef said. "Remember In-Jin Chi. We put him in against [Erik] Morales in 2001 and we were thinking, 'No one knows this guy. How are we going to promote this fight?' It turned out to be one of the best fights of the year and Chi turned out to be a great fighter.
"Not every fighter is handled properly and gets the chance to be marketed and promoted. Abril has been impressive and now he's got the big chance."
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