THE wait is nearly over for Eimantas Stanionis.

Having not fought since April 2022, the Lithuanian returns on one of the biggest cards of the year tonight (May 4) at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. In the main event, fans will watch on intrigued, wondering if the Tijuana tornado Jaime Munguia can end the reign of Guadalajara’s super-middleweight king Canelo Alvarez on Cinco de Mayo weekend.

A bit further down the card, Stanionis, 14-0 (9 KOs), faces Colombian-based Venezuelan Gabriel Maestre, who, despite being 37 years old, has only fought seven times since his professional debut five years ago. His record, 6-0-1 (5 KOs), reads near perfect but hasn’t been without controversy, such as his fortunate win against Mykal Fox in August 2021. Stanionis, however, goes in tonight with an advantage over Maestre, having beaten him nine years ago in Qatar at the AIBA Championships.

It doesn’t matter to Stanionis, who is in the opposite corner tonight. Having endured such a frustrating time since beating Radzhab Butaev, the 29-year-old is simply relieved to be boxing again.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been [the] toughest time in my life,” he told Boxing News.

“I love boxing. Boxing gave me everything and [made me] who I am. I was following the athlete’s protocol [of] staying ready, training, believing in positive things.”

Before facing Butaev, the former MMA fighter and kickboxer agreed to step aside, allowing Yordenis Ugas to face Errol Spence Jr in a welterweight unification. That night at the AT&T Stadium, Ugas lost and Stanionis won.

He then had his name linked to fights against other contenders, but in January 2023, he underwent emergency appendectomy surgery. This postponed a highly anticipated duel against Vergil Ortiz Jr. in March 2023, which was then rearranged for April 29. Then, it was Ortiz’s turn to fall ill, forcing the fight to be called off for a second time. A new date of July 8 was pencilled in, but Ortiz’s health again failed him.

Former welterweight champion Keith Thurman was slated to face Stanionis on December 9 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, but the Showtime pay-per-view was binned in favour of a non-ppv card, marking the end of the broadcaster’s relationship with boxing.

Stanionis reflected on his lengthy absence, sharing his frustrations from a period when his career would have been transformed for good or worse.

“No exact dates so they told me you might fight this month or that month, this date, that date.

“I signed a contract for fights, and it didn’t happen. I was mad. I was thinking, when am I fighting, what’s going on, and if I’ll fight again. In Lithuania every single day they ask me, when are you going to fight, what’s going on. Everybody expects over there. I have a lot of fans over there. I got tired of all the questions, though; it’s not so simple sometimes.”

Last summer, the welterweight division belonged to one man – Terence Crawford. His phenomenal display against Errol Spence Jr left everyone in no doubt that not only was “Bud” the best at 147lbs – winning all four titles in the process – but also the best boxer in the world.

Crawford’s break from the sport left the titles locked up, but now that the Nebraskan has decided to move north to 154 lbs, more opportunities should present themselves for the next group of leading men at welterweight. Stanionis currently holds the WBA’s “Regular” strap and beating Maestre could lead to something bigger in the summer. After playing the waiting game, does the fire still burn?

“For sure, of course I have that fire in my belly. It’s two years I haven’t fought so I have big fire. I’m just waiting for my fight, God willing I’ll get the victory and we can move on to the future.”

And of tonight’s opponent, Maestre, he says, “He has power. He’s [a] good fighter. I like his style because he’s not running a lot, so we’ll meet in the middle of the ring, Cinco De Mayo Mexican style and we’re going from there.”

Fighting “Mexican” style and being involved in toe-to-toe battles is something Stanionis craves. A fan of Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward and Marvin Hagler, he has watched these warriors produce fights so special and unforgettable that it gives them a special place in fans’ hearts across the world.

Why do these types of fighters appeal to him?

“I don’t know, it makes me happy,” Stanionis said.

“It’s strange,” he continues. “It’s not good for your health, I know that. But I know as a fan watching the fights [if] it’s a big brawl, a war, I get so excited, butterflies in my stomach, it’s crazy. I was the same as a kid. When the fight gets tough, I get more excited… let’s go, let’s go.”

Is it his dream to be involved in a “Mexican” style fight?

“I like the chaos,” he replied. “I feel comfortable there. I would like to be in the fire.”

Stanionis was flung into the fire when he left behind his days as an MMA fighter and a kickboxer.

“When I went to boxing, I got beat up in the gym,” he recalled.

“I think that’s what I like. I decided that [after] I got beat up. But after a month I was doing very good against the guys who beat me. After a few more months, I was beating them up. Becoming Lithuanian champion was huge [because] nobody knew me.”

With the welterweight division going through a period of change, new faces and new challenges are presenting themselves. Stanionis, Jaron Ennis, Shakhram Giyasov, Giovanni Santillan, Cody Crowley and Mario Barrios are some of the names vying to take over from Crawford and Spence Jr. There may even be a super-lightweight invasion if Teofimo Lopez and Devin Haney decide to test pastures new once again.

“The 140 guys who come up or the 147 [guys], I can be the guy to introduce them,” Stanionis warns.

“You can always bet on me because I will show up, not doing any bullshit stuff, I will be there. I will be there for sure, and I will fight anybody.”