ASKED to name his targets recently, Emanuel Navarrete answered: “Josh Warrington” and he will appear on the IBF featherweight champion’s radar with victory this week. On Friday night (October 9), Navarrete steps up from 122lbs to meet southpaw Ruben Villa for the vacant WBO featherweight championship.

The title was vacated by Shakur Stevenson, a fighter Villa knows well. They shared four fights as amateurs and Villa also had a win over Devin Haney in the unpaid ranks.

The 23-year-old from Salinas, California is a classy operator, unbeaten in 18 fights as a pro. His last three bouts have been 10-rounders that have brought him unanimous points wins over opponents with a combined record of 60-3.

Last time out in January, Cuban banger Alexei Collado (26-2) was comprehensively outpointed, Villa dropping only two rounds on two scorecards and one on the other.

Navarrete has the higher profile and Top Rank chief Bob Arum went as far as to say he is the best Mexican fighter on the planet during his reign as WBO super-bantamweight champion that brought him five defences in a whirlwind nine months.

That’s a statement that reckoned without Saul “Canelo” Alvarez obviously, but the 25-year-old known as “Vaquero” (Cowboy) would unquestionably be near the top of lists that rated fighters for excitement and activity.

Emanuel Navarrete super-bantamweight

The story went Top Rank wanted to keep Navarrete in the gym to prevent him outgrowing 122lbs and once the time was right for everyone, stablemate Stevenson moved up to 130lbs and Navarrete also went up.

The WBO matched Navarrete with former super-bantam champion Jessie Magdaleno for the vacant 126lb belt, but he was unhappy with the money being offered and Villa stepped in.

Trained by Max Garcia, Villa is a polished technician. Collado spoke of his movement after being well beaten in January and previous opponent Ruben Cervera (10-0) said he found Villa to be much faster than he imagined and so good at controlling the distance.
Villa has been boxing for a long time – he was five when he first went to the gym and compiled a reported 135-7 amateur record – and it shows.

He says his approach to boxing follows Floyd Mayweather’s “the less you get hit, the longer you last” mantra and when opponents miss Villa, he counters with precise threes and fours.

Villa is neat, slippery and smooth and the same cannot really be said for Navarrete, who’s trained by his uncle Pedro, beaten in the UK by Stephen Smith six years ago and still punching for pay at the age of 39.

Navarrete (31-1) says his strength is his ability to throw “many power shot combos” and the punches come from everywhere.

He switches stances, punches off the wrong foot and when he launches himself into lead uppercuts and hooks, they sometimes miss by inches.

But when he lands, Navarrete usually hurts opponents and once they are hurt, he is quick to jump through the gears and doesn’t stop throwing until the referee tells him to.

He’s stopped 14 of his last 15 opponents, but the wins over Isaac Dogboe apart, when he won the title as a 5/1 underdog and beat him in the rematch, Navarrete faced fairly moderate opposition as 122lb champion.

Francisco de Vaca (20-0) was overmatched, Juan Miguel Elorde (28-1) was 32 years old and took the fight at short notice, and both Francisco Horta (20-3-1) and Jeo Santisima (19-2) were untested at world level.

Only Filipino Santisima made it beyond four rounds, on the undercard of Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder II in February.

It took Navarette until the 11th to stop him and he put that down to hurting his right hand in the middle rounds and his constant battle with squeezing his long 5ft 7in body down to 122lbs.

The inevitable move up to 126lbs was announced with a predictable six-round breakdown of Uriel Lopez (13-13-1) in June.

It wasn’t until the fifth of that fight that Navarrete started putting any meat into his punches.

Up to then, he had treated the fight as a spar, but once he sensed Lopez growing in confidence, Navarrete opened up to drop him with a body shot and he unloaded non-stop punches in the sixth to beat the demoralised Mexican to his knees for the finish.

The only blemish on Navarrete’s record is a loss to Daniel Argueta (4-0) over four rounds in July 2012. He is unbeaten in his last 27. Villa is a step up from Navarrete’s last few opponents, but though he makes fewer mistakes than the Mexican, he has to find a way to deal with a fighter who has a five-and-a-half-inch reach advantage, a huge engine and a heavy punch.

We don’t think Villa will find the answers and we go for Navarrete to win on points.

The contest will be held inside Top Rank’s Bubble at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The undercard features Kazakhstan’s ex-amateur standout Zhanibek Alimkhanuly.