Linares to fight on — just won’t be at junior welterweight

What was supposed to be another routine victory for Jorge Linares at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden this past Friday instead became the first major upset of 2019, as he was toppled to the canvas three times in the first round and stopped by Pablo Cesar Cano.

As Yogi Berra once said (as only he could): It’s déjà vu all over again.

Because getting knocked out early in shocking fashion is nothing new to Linares (45-5, 28 KOs), who is one of the most gifted yet assailable boxers of the past generation. For all the skills and elegance he brings into the ring, his punch resistance has been nonexistent at times.

He truly is like a chandelier, bright, sparkly and beautiful to look at — just don’t drop it.

After winning the WBC featherweight title early in his career, Linares then moved up to capture the WBA junior lightweight title, and it seemed as if this stylist from Venezuela was well on his way to fulfilling the lofty expectations bestowed upon him. He just looked like a fighter without flaws.

Except, he had a big one.

In his first defense of that belt in October 2009, he was shockingly knocked out by Juan Carlos Salgado in the first round (sound familiar?). Yet, five fights later he was facing Antonio DeMarco for the vacant WBC lightweight belt in October 2011. Well ahead on points going into the late rounds, he was stopped on cuts in the 11th round, in what was his only defeat where he did not hit the canvas. But with the nature of this fight, a rematch was being planned for the summer of 2012. All Linares would have to do is get past Sergio Thompson in what was considered a stay-busy fight. Linares was stopped in the second round in shocking fashion.

It was at this point that obituaries were written for Linares’ career. But to his credit — and to the credit of Golden Boy Promotions, which stuck by him — he rebounded to win his next 14 bouts. During this stretch, he won the WBC and WBA lightweight titles by defeating the likes of Kevin Mitchell and Anthony Crolla (twice) in the UK.

In May he was paired with Vasiliy Lomachenko, and for nine rounds he stayed right with the uber-talented southpaw, even sending him to the canvas, before getting halted by a body shot in Round 10. In defeat he had earned more accolades than all of his previous accolades.

Jorge Linares lands a right hand flush to Vasiliy Lomachenko that sends him to the mat. Lomachenko gets up and survives the round.

Now, just two bouts later, he gets knocked out by a guy who had lost three of his previous five bouts.

Starting with this TKO victory over Abner Cotto in Round 3 back in late September, the decision was made by the 33-year old veteran to move up to 140. It proved to be an ill-fated decision by a fighter whose chin is as soft as his skills are sharp.

“I know a lot was written that it was a tuneup fight. People didn’t give Cano a chance, but going into the fight when it was made, the original offer was made to Marcelino Lopez, who himself had knocked out Cano — the only one that ever stopped him by clear knockout,” said Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Roberto Diaz.

“When Marcelino’s side passed, then I went to Cano, who was coming off a very, very impressive performance versus [Ruslan] Madiev [a fifth-round technical decision]. So going into the fight, yes, you have to favor Jorge, slightly. I was telling everybody, ‘Guys, Cano’s no joke; the kid has power.’

“So Jorge’s going into a new division, and as talented as he is, was going up against a bigger, stronger guy,” Diaz said.

And Cano, who has a record of 32-7-1, 22 KOs, isn’t your garden-variety journeyman. In the past he had battled the likes of Erik Morales, where he was stopped in 10, and many believe he should’ve gotten his hands raised in victory when he faced Paulie Malignaggi in the fall of 2012, when he was the WBA welterweight belt holder. Cano also lost a close decision in his following fight with “Sugar” Shane Mosley.

Coming into last week, there was chatter about Linares facing IBF 140-pound titlist Maurice Hooker, and even WBC champion Jose Ramirez. But from the very onset against Cano, it was clear Linares was out of his depth.

Just seconds into the fight, a chopping right hand sent Linares down. A minute later, the same punch knocked him down again. And with under a minute to go in the first round, a short left hook sent him to the canvas for a third time. While Linares gamely rose to his feet and fought on, as he wobbled late in the round, referee Ricky Gonzalez made the prudent choice in waving the fight off. Linares’ boxing elegance on this evening was simply no match for the brute strength and raw power of Cano.

“Five pounds is so different,” Linares noted in the postfight interview.

“I give all credit to Jorge; he took the challenge in a new division, was looking to fight the best there. It didn’t work out that way,” Diaz said.

And yes, Linares will fight on. Just not at junior welterweight. The decision was made quickly to move back down to lightweight.

“One hundred percent,” said his manager, Jose De La Cruz, “I talked to [Jorge] privately at the house and even in the locker room, and he said, ‘This is just not my weight class; I can’t fight against a guy who’s 159 [pounds] and I’m 151.’ We tried, we couldn’t do it, we move on.

“He wants to fight big fights, and obviously we tried the new weight class, it didn’t work. There’s still potential fights with [Luke] Campbell [a rematch]. If the Lomachenko-Crolla fight doesn’t happen, then maybe we go back to Crolla.”

Although Linares’ prospects and long-term future are uncertain given his latest setback, he is still a well-known commodity within the sport. Besides, being vulnerable has always been part of what makes his bouts so fascinating. Does he have one more revival left him in?

Linares posted this message on Instagram: “I’ve fallen on several occasions, accepting my defeats, or mistakes but so I woke up with much more strength to keep succeeding! When you think you can have it all is where you are wrong and you fall again for x reasons but the important things is to keep correcting, to grow up in many things and be prepared for new triumphs that God has in us in this with great sacrifice, dedication and discipline I will be a great champion again!”

“There’s a lot of fights still out there for him,” De La Cruz insisted.

They just won’t be at junior welterweight.