Cruz has been the face of Bethlehem boxing since he fought in the parking lot in 2011 while the Sands Event Center was being built. Bethlehem proved to be a boxing town willing to buy tickets, and soon it was hosting cards televised nationally on NBC Sports Network’s Fight Night series.
Increased exposure lead to tougher competition, and last September he suffered his first defeat at the hands of an over the weight limit Antwone Smith. He was then out-hustled by the slippery Ray Narh in June.
It was clearly time for Hall of Fame promoter and match-maker Russell Peltz to rebuild Cruz’s confidence by matching him against fighters with styles that meshed better with Cruz’s skills. Cruz responded by blowing out the stationary Armenta in two rounds.
On Thursday night he was matched against Morales, a fighter entering the ring on a 0-2-1 skid of his own. He was a fighter who would stay in the pocket and throw punches. But a fighter that Cruz was expected to break down with his powerful body attack.
Cruz began the fight working behind his jab, and touching Morales body. Midway through the round Morales caught Cruz flat-footed as he unleashed and landed a five punch combination. Morales pounded his chest to alert Cruz and the crowd that he was there to fight.
The two would trade punches as momentum would shift for much of the night. Cruz was scoring when he committed to the body and backed Morales up. However, there were far too many moments that he would go into a defensive shell and allow the quicker Morales tee off upstairs. Cruz would block many shots, but I had the feeling that if Morales had a little bit of power he could have really done some damage.
Cruz landed a looping right hand that caught Morales behind the ear at the end of round seven. Morales backed to the ropes on unsteady legs and Cruz finally let his hands go. The steam was back on his punches as he landed a big combination at the bell. This was the first time that he took the lead on my scorecard.
Cruz rushed across the ring to begin round eight. He again seemed to hurt Morales, who suddenly had the look of a fighter whose body was betraying him. The early commitment to the body took away what little lateral movement Morales possessed in the early rounds.
The crowd that was quiet most of the night was suddenly sensing a knockout, but they would have to wait. Cruz allowed himself to again get caught against the ropes where Morales landed a flurry to end the round.
Morales rode the wave of momentum into round nine. He was landing clean shots for much of the first minute of the round. Cruz looked confused as he switched to a southpaw stance. The move bought him enough time so that he could catch his breath and rally at the end of the round.
The fighters touched gloves as the final round started. Each fighter fought with a sense of urgency as the fight turned out to be on the table. Morales landed the first flurry as Cruz’s back touched the ropes. This time, however, Cruz charged off the ropes and landed a big overhand right that sent Morales to the canvas.
Morales got to his feet, joining the rest of the crowd that had not been seated for several rounds, but he was unarmed with anything to keep Cruz off of him. Cruz patiently ripped a pair of uppercuts that connected. A well-placed body shot followed by another uppercut again sent Morales to the canvas where the bout was waved off at 1:29 of the final round.
I along with two of the judges had Cruz up 86-85, while one judge favored Morales by the same score.
Cruz dug deep at the right time to score a dramatic victory. However, he admitted that he was disappointed with his performance and that the fight was much tougher than he thought it would be.
The question now is where does Cruz go from here?
I have seen the majority of Cruz’s fights, but I my day job prevents me from visiting him while he is in camp. That being said, if there is any kind of weight training taking place in his camp it needs to be scratched asap. The more muscular he appears at the weigh in, the more robotic he fights in the ring. At his best he has average speed, but he possesses the thudding power that would break fighters down. The fluidity of his punches has disappeared, and he is solely relying on power. Fortunately for him, on this night, his power was enough.
Once again Arturo Trujillo (3-0, 1KO) stole the show by out-pointing Philadelphia’s Terrell James (1-1). Trujillo is a decorated amateur who burst onto the scene in June when he scored a first round stoppage on NBCSN’s Fight Night.
On this night, he was the one who got buzzed in the opening frame. As he got caught he looked more surprised than hurt as he backed into the corner. Rather than defend himself, he adjusted his shorts and seemed almost insulted that James followed him into the corner and continued to throw. That angered Trujillo, who bit down on his mouthpiece and fought his way off the ropes.
Trujillo soon took control by landing a straight left that he would follow with a right uppercut. He is a fighter who works at his own rhythm. He will throw a two punch combination off the jab. Step around to the side and end his next flurry with a hook, and then finally throw the lead left from the outside. He refuses to let his opponent get comfortable, but by admiring his work, he leaves himself open to get countered.
A memorable round four began with Trujillo landing a booming left hand. He stalked his James with his hands at his side. Suddenly in the middle of a flurry he got caught with a counter right and found himself on the canvas. Replays showed that their legs got tangled, but a punch cleanly landed. Trujillo rose, and punished James for the remainder of the round.
Unfortunately this fight was only four rounds long. It was also unfortunate that two of the judges filled out their scorecards before the opening bell. Despite the knockdown the scores read: 40-36, 39-37, and 40-36, all for Trujillo who will no doubt be back at the Sands soon.
A junior lightweight battle of fighters from New Jersey turned out to be a one-sided affair. Camden’s Jason Sosa (10-1-3, 6KO) walked through Middletown’s Tyrone Luckey (5-4-1, 5KO) en route to breaking him down at 2:58 of the second round.
Sosa is a strong and thick junior lightweight who resembles a wrestler that is always in shape. He was able to stay low and get inside of the lean Luckey. Sosa ripped body shots, which opened the door for him to leap into hooks upstairs.
By the second round it was clear that Sosa would be able to walk through whatever Luckey offered in return. Sosa trapped Luckey several times and did a lot of damage against the ropes. The final exchange included a three punch combination of body shots that caused Luckey to crumple over on the canvas where he stayed long after the count of ten.
Popular junior welterweight Jerome Rodriguez (6-0-1, 3KO) took a while to get going, but when he finally hit the gas he was able to cruise past the game Juan Serrano (3-8-1, 2KO). Rodriguez, of neighboring Allentown, PA brought the crowd to their feet during his ring walk, but it then took him half of the scheduled 6 round bout to bring them back to their feet.
Rodriguez fought for the third straight time at the Sands, but this was his most uneven performance. At first he had the look of a fighter that was instructed to work on his defense. However, after moving side to side without taking advantage of wide open counter punches he instead resembled a fighter who left his fight in the gym.
In round four Serrano landed a straight jab that knocked Rodriguez off balance. Suddenly the light switch went off and Rodriguez remembered he was in a fight. He dominated the rest of the fourth round and all of the fifth to create distance on the scorecard. A bloodied Serrano fought until the final bell and seemed to make the fight a bit closer on the scorecards.
The official scores of 60-54, 59-54, 58-54 made it clear that Serrano would have needed a knockout to win on this night.
In the opening bout of the evening Chris Diaz of Berlin, NJ made his pro debut a successful one. Diaz scored a second round TKO over Lancaster, PA’s Johnny Portillo. Diaz fought meticulously in the opening frame. He found success when he threw punches in combinations, often landing his left hook.
Diaz hurt Portillo midway into the second frame and dropped him for the first time with a straight right. Portillo made it to his feet, but he would not stay there long. A Diaz right hand again escorted Portillo to the canvas. He made it to his feet, but after another flurry the fight was mercifully stopped.
Heavyweights Billy Marks (1-1) and Dan Pasciolla (1-1) squared off in the first of two heavyweight swing bouts. They basically gave fans at ringside to chance to reminisce about a time when the heavyweight division was the straw that stirred boxing’s drink. It helped that Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, and Ernie Shavers were sitting at ringside.
At the end of four rounds all three judges scored the bout 39-37 for Pasciolla which surprised many in attendance. To be fair, it was a tough fight to score. There was not anything crisp about the action, and when the taller Pasciolla landed it was usually to the head and thrown from the outside.
Marks weighed in at a soft 297 lbs. which endeared him to local fans that were cheering for the physique more than the action.
The real losers in this bout are the spouses and girlfriends that stayed home while their better halves went out for a night at the fights. They will no doubt be woken up to their men flexing and shadow boxing in their bathroom mirrors. Hell, I may push back my 4th quarter diet another couple of weeks.
In the final bout of the evening Joey Dawejko (8-2-2, 3KO) ripped shots to the body and head of Kevin Franklin (4-7, 2KO) for much of six rounds that they shared in the ring. Dawejko has skills, but he probably would have needed to hit Franklin with the ring post to get him out of there.
Judges turned in scores that reflected the action in the ring: 60-54, 58-56, 58-56.
Prib Notes: The rare Thursday night card was promoted by Peltz Boxing, BAM Boxing, and Legends of Boxing in association with Sands Bethlehem. The twist on this night was the addition of the Legends of Boxing.
Jeff Trainer and Rick Welkowitz, partners in the Sands Bethlehem Event Center invited local legend Larry Holmes, along with Cooney, Shavers, and Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns. They are hoping to bring boxing’s “Legends” to boxing events at Sands locations all over the world and match them with strong fight cards. Using the names of fighters that still resonate with boxing fans and having them serve as a bridge to introduce fans to new fighters is an interesting concept, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.
For me, however, I think that boxing in Bethlehem has been most successful because they are associated with Peltz Boxing. His ability to match fighters that make for crowd friendly fights, while building local attractions is what will keep fans from filling the seats at venues that hang his banner.
I had my doubts about how many tickets would sell on a “school night”, but I was surprised by the crowd that took up many of the seats in the arena. This has been accomplished two fight cards in a row without anyone headlining from Philadelphia or New York. As long as Cruz, Rodriguez, and Trujillo remain active and successful, boxing will be a staple in the Lehigh Valley.
Jason Pribila is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He could be reached for questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter.com @PribsBoxing.