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Robert Easter Jr. defends lightweight belt against tough mandatory challenger Denis Shafikov

When Robert Easter Jr. won a vacant lightweight world title by split decision against Richard Commey in September, he really had to dig down deep.

It was a brutal fight in which Easter survived a knockdown in the eighth round but persevered to the final bell to pull out the close win as he made his boyhood dream of winning a world title a reality.

Denis Shafikov, right, has lost his two title opportunities, including a defeat against Rances Barthelemy in 2015. Jann Hendry/Premier Boxing Champions
In February, Easter returned home to an adoring crowd at the Huntington Center in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, for an easy assignment against Luis Cruz, whom Easter dropped three times en route to a wide unanimous decision.

When Easter makes title defense No. 2 against mandatory challenger Denis Shafikov in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card on Friday (Bounce TV, 9 p.m. ET) at the Huntington Center, he could once again find himself in a fight more like the one against Commey than Cruz.

It's something the 26-year-old Easter (19-0, 14 KOs) said he is prepared for.

"We've had a real tough camp. Every day I've been pushed by my team and I thank them for that," Easter said at Wednesday's final prefight news conference. "They put me in the position that I need to be in. I understand that Shafikov is a really tough fighter. They've always said the guy in front of me is tough. I'm not here to talk about all the close fights he's almost won. I will be the first man to stop him.

"Where I come from, we don't play games, especially when it comes to somebody taking something from us. We're not going to let that happen."

Indeed, Easter faces a very rugged foe in Shafikov (38-2-1, 20 KOs), 32, of Russia, who is trained by the renowned Abel Sanchez.

Shafikov is the former European junior welterweight champion and has twice boxed for lightweight world titles, losing unanimous decisions to Miguel Vazquez in Macau, China, in 2014 and Rances Barthelemy in Las Vegas in 2015.

But since the loss to Barthelemy for a vacant belt, Shafikov has won two fights in a row. He knocked out 2012 U.S. Olympian Jamel Herring in the 10th round last July and then won a split decision against Commey in December in a title elimination bout to earn the opportunity to challenge Easter.

Shafikov, a southpaw, said he thinks his third time fighting for a title will be the charm.

"I believe that this is my time. It's my third title fight and this will be the time that I take home the belt and reach my dream," Shafikov said. "I give 100 percent every time I step into the ring. I know that this will be an exciting fight but I also know that I have to do whatever it takes to win the title.

"I've been able to bounce back after my last two title defeats and make myself a better fighter each time. You will see that on Friday night and I will be victorious."

Easter is undoubtedly the more skillful fighter and he also has a significant reach and height advantage. He is 5-foot-11 and Shafikov is 5-5.

"I have an advantage in reach, but Shafikov is a tough opponent who's coming to fight. I'm going to show off my skills and be the first to stop him," Easter said. "I just have to be me. If you've ever seen me fight, you can see that I always stay composed. You'll see the same thing in the ring on Friday. When you get in that ring, it's only me and him. These great fans can't help me, only my fists. I'm focused on taking control of the fight. I know how to adjust and be a professional in there if I have to.

"It's been eight tough weeks of training camp and I can't wait to have this beautiful city behind me."

In the 10-round junior middleweight co-feature, Julian "J Rock" Williams (22-1-1, 14 KOs) will square off against Joshua Conley (14-1-1, 9 KOs) as he looks to bounce back from his first defeat.

On Dec. 10 in Los Angeles, Williams, 27, of Philadelphia, got his mandatory shot against then-world titleholder Jermall Charlo, but got blown away. Charlo knocked him down three times en route to a one-sided fifth-round knockout.

"Joshua Conley and myself will put on a really good fight, and I expect to come out on top and get back in that win column," Williams said. "I'm ready to challenge anybody in the division and I'm going to show that I'm back on the right track this Friday night."

Conley, 25, of San Bernardino, California, has won three fights in a row and is aiming for the upset against the most notable opponent of his career.

"I've put in the hard work during camp to get a big victory and put myself on the map in the 154-pound division," he said. "I know that I'm fighting a really good fighter. This is my opportunity and if I knock Julian Williams out, I'll be right in the mix with the best [junior middleweights] in the world."

In the opening televised bout, southpaw welterweight prospects Jamontay Clark (11-0, 7 KOs), 22, of Cincinnati, and Ukraine native Ivan Golub (13-0, 11 KOs), 28, who fights out of Brooklyn, New York, will meet in an eight-round fight.

Source: http://www.espn.com/boxing/story/_/id/19769227/robert-easter-jr-defends-lightweight-belt-tough-mandatory-challenger-denis-shafikov

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