For the last several years, the welterweight division has been ruled by two men, Terence Crawford and Errol Spence. Until the two of them finally got in a ring together earlier this year, every 147-pound fighter, along with their matchmaker and promoter laid out their respective paths with eyes on tempting one of them into facing them. Such was the case for young contenders like Alexis Rocha, whose name fruitlessly swirled around as a potential Crawford challenger in the early stages of 2023.
As a member of the Golden Boy stable, Rocha hasn’t had a bounty of in-house options to face in order to climb the rankings, or more importantly, prove his mettle to the viewing audience. Instead, Rocha has had to make due with what he’s been fed. Since a close loss to Rashidi Ellis in 2020, Rocha refused to spiral down a path that many fighters have gone down in the wake of such losses, ultimately becoming a recognizable B-side. Rather, Rocha rediscovered his belief in himself, and his promoter decided to maintain his.
Rocha has told the story before that following the loss to Ellis, he would go for a run every day and replay the fight in his head, dwelling on possible corrections from various specific points in the bout. Ultimately, those runs became a practice in self-discovery, and after weeks of introspection out on the pavement, he emerged with a self-belief he’s described as being “on another level.” Since the loss to Ellis, he’s rattled off seven straight victories against an assortment of fringe contenders, most recently Anthony Young, a fifth-round knockout this past May that represents the best win on his resume to date.
What Rocha has lacked in terms of premier names on his schedule, he’s made up for in sheer regularity, reliably fighting three times a year, and sometimes doing so on somewhat short-notice for a fighter of his caliber.
“Alexis’ confidence and dedication can be seen in the fact that he fights more often than any contender in the sport and takes on all comers, including those with undefeated records,” said promoter Oscar De La Hoya in a recent news release. “While Lex fully deserves a title shot, he also knows the value of staying active as demonstrated by his vast improvement over the last few years.”
This weekend, Rocha will take the type of step up he and his fans have been asking for. Rocha will battle the 31-0 Giovani Santillan at the Kia Forum in Inglewood in a bout headlining a DAZN broadcast. Not only does the fight represent a step up in opposition, it’s also an example of Golden Boy reaching across the aisle and working with Top Rank, which finds itself in the same situation with regards to developing welterweights. Once the promotional home of Crawford, Top Rank had an obvious pipeline for 147-pounders who showed promise. Now, with the titles at least temporarily monopolized by Crawford, but the more likely scenario that the titles dissipate as he and Spence venture upwards in weight at least temporarily, it’s both necessary and advantageous for promoters to take risks with their rising welterweights.
“October is a big month in my career. This is the type of match up that I have prepared for,” said Rocha. “I know my opponent and his entire team well. I respect them all, and I know I’ll need to be at my best come fight night. But that’s what I demand of myself in every fight and that’s what will happen come October 21. I will be at my best, and my best is at a different level. I know Giovani asked for this fight, but like my coach always says, be careful what you wish for.”
Although fans justifiably want unified champions and undisputed champions, both for the clarity they provide but also the fantastic matchups required to create them, divisions opening back up again can be exciting too. If Crawford and Spence rematch at 154 pounds, it could free up at least one of the world titles, but perhaps more if Crawford chooses to stay north of welterweight. Were this to happen, suddenly, a whole host of up-and-coming 147-pounders including Rocha, Jaron “Boots” Ennis, Eimantas Stanionis, Cody Crowley and Shakhram Giyasov would find themselves free to fight one another with titles available to be on the line. This group would have also included Vergil Ortiz Jr. as well, if his health troubles stemming from bouts with rhabdomyolysis forced him up in weight. As a result, another impediment Rocha dealt with, the reality that Ortiz was a promotional priority for Golden Boy ahead of him, is no longer a concern.
“I feel that I’ve grown so much over time and now’s my moment, and I want to keep just banging on the door for a world title. I know that Giovani is gonna be a good opponent. I’m not thinking about (undisputed champ Terence) Crawford, for me this is a world title shot, this is a world title fight,” said Rocha at the recent kickoff press conference.
Rocha-Santillan may very well represent the beginning of a new era in the welterweight division, and an entry for the winner into a new echelon. A graduation from a curiosity to a genuine world title threat.