LOS ANGELES — Alexis Rocha is a 26-year-old boxer on the rise and on the cusp of a world title shot.
The Mexican fighter has been doing it all his way, following a hard path trodden by ambassadorial boxers from yesteryear like Andre Ward, the Klitschko brothers, and Lennox Lewis.
In an era in which it is easier to be a Misfit, where trash talk and unconventional behavior sells so well that greater paydays can be secured earlier in a career, it remains refreshing to see classier approaches — even if it is a somewhat slower build to the top.
For Rocha, who has graced the presence of morning talk show sofas in Los Angeles this week, celebrity and stardom is finally coming his way even though he doesn't tend to seek out the Hollywood limelight but, rather, seemingly prefers to mentor troubled or overweight kids in Santa Ana, at his coach Hector Lopez's non-profit gym.
"I’ve noticed a lot more fans recognize him and want to talk to him in more places," Lopez told ProBox TV this week, commenting on Rocha's growing fame.
"It’s neat for him," Lopez added. "It’s nice."
Golden Boy Promotions have always observed class in Rocha
Whether it's promoter Oscar de la Hoya, or company president Eric Gomez, they seem to always talk with pride when they speak Rocha's name.
They will both no doubt be rooting for him to win decisively against Top Rank's Giovanni Santillan at the Kia Forum this weekend in a bout that has all the makings of a world championship event — yet has no actual title on the line.
"The winner here, especially if it is clear cut, goes right into the [world title] mix," ProBox TV commentator Chris Algieri said on our talk show this week.
"It's going to lead to a lot of opportunities," Algieri said. "A world title isn't on the line, but you have to treat this like a world title fight. I think these guys understand that, and if they bring their A-game, we've got a really good fight on our hands."
This is a fight befitting of a year in which many quality scraps have been made when, in previous eras, they may have otherwise been left to marinate.
Yet, here we are, one day before the two 147-pounders go to war, in a Golden Boy Promotions show that airs on DAZN.
"I'm sure if Terence Crawford may have vacated the title, went up to 154, this could have been for a world championship," Golden Boy founder Oscar de la Hoya told ProBox TV.
Lopez added: "To be honest, we were hoping it was going to be elevated for a world title but, unfortunately, it didn't happen and so it is what it is. Either way, this is a good fight, and a tough fight, against a rugged opponent."
Rocha, too, is not underestimating Santillan even if it is for a No.1 position he already holds with the WBO, rather than a shot at the championship.
"I truly believe, stat-wise, and on-paper, that this is a hard fight, Rocha told ProBox TV recently when we asked if this was the toughest test of both his, and Santillan's, respective careers. "I'm ranked No.1 by the WBO, and he's No.4. This is the hardest fight of my career."
It all goes down at a venue which means the world to many involved.
For de la Hoya, it is where he made his pro debut just months after winning an Olympic gold medal in 1992, beating Lamar Williams via first-round knockout to kick-start a 45-fight career that would see him win world titles in six weight classes, and become a Hall of Fame fighter.
Rocha told us that headlining the Forum is "a beautiful thing."
Meanwhile, it takes Lopez back to his own childhood, to the days he first became a fight fan and wanted to get a glimpse of his icon Marco Antonio Barrera, who fought frequently at the Forum from 1992 to 1996.
"With Alexis now in the main event, it's a dream come true for us all, and I'm super excited," Lopez said.
How close was Rocha to fighting Terence Crawford?
So close is Rocha to a career-changing fight, offering life-changing money, that he was earlier in the year linked to Terence Crawford.
A source with knowledge of the situation told ProBox TV that, before Crawford signed the term sheet for a historic fight with Errol Spence Jr., Golden Boy Promotions were talking to him about a three-fight deal with them.
The first fight on that deal would have been Rocha.
"I know we had a purse bid with the WBO, as I'm the mandatory. Activated it, actually," Rocha told us about how close he may or may not have came to competing against the consensus No.1 boxer in the entire sport.
"I didn't know about the negotiations, and to be honest I don't think there were any real talks about me fighting him," he said. "I think he always wanted to fight Spence. The [status of us being] mandatory pushed Crawford's team to push the fight even more with Errol Spence."
Though that bout never materialized at the time, it may still happen.
There is speculation Crawford and Spence will contest a box office rematch at super welterweight but de la Hoya feels Crawford's future remains at welterweight.
"We know Crawford will stay at 147," de la Hoya told us. "He'll keep his belts. And this fight here is for that No.1 position."
Again, it goes back to the quality of Saturday's match-up with Santillan, and what is at stake for the winner.
It could mean a shot at Crawford, or it would lead to a shot at a vacated belt and a legitimate championship.
"This fight here will show us a lot and will show us who wants it," said de la Hoya.
"Santillan is an undefeated fighter. He doesn't want to lose his [zero]. And Rocha’s thinking about a knockout."
The Rocha-Santillan fight will be familiar for both fighters
Unlike de la Hoya, Rocha feels Crawford and Spence will move to 154-pounds which "opens up the belts, and the division," Rocha said.
The winner in the Santillan fight can help usher in a new era.
"Now," said Rocha, "You've got the new generation … which is me, Vergil ortiz, Jaron Ennis, and Giovanni Santillan. I'm taking a risky fight but it's the fight I want.
"This is what I'm in boxing for, to fight the best, and be one of the best out there."
Rocha and Santillan will have an absurd amount of intel on one another after sparring approximately 50 rounds, with the most recent session earlier this year.
"Obviously, you have head gear and oversized gloves so sparring is different," Lopez said.
But, we're told, they went pretty hard.
"If you look at Gio on tape, he's tough, very rugged and throws a lot of punches," Lopez told us. "That's the fight we're training for."
Said Rocha: "He's a very tough opponent and very game. I know he's worked really hard and will put the pressure on me, but I'm going to be ready."
Victory over Santillan would be a springboard for Rocha
Golden Boy, Lopez, and Rocha all feel the fighter is in prime position to challenge for a championship.
"It's hard," Lopez said. "You can't go higher than No.1 in the division and we're banging at the door."
But, he added, "it's how you win, too. You've got to win impressively to get the promoters and the fans excited. We're expected to win, but we've got to take this fight seriously, and win."
Though Rocha's status in the fight game may continue to change as he goes from contender to, as Golden Boy hopes, world champion, one thing that will stay the same is Rocha, Lopez told us.
"He's a quiet young man and he's a great role model. What you see is what you get. He’s not in your face, like others can be, but he’s a great guy — especially outside the ring."
Rocha's imprint is being felt at home in Santa Ana because the more kids that see Rocha on TV — whether in the ring, or on talk shows — the more they turn up to Lopez's gym.
"That’s what we’re here for," Lopez told us. "To help get these kids off off of the street and into the gym — and what better sport for them to do that in than boxing."