John Molina Jr’s renaissance: The rise of the educated gladiator

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 28: Jorge Romero and John Molina exchange punches during the Premier Boxing Champions at Bomb Factory on November 28, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 28: Jorge Romero and John Molina exchange punches during the Premier Boxing Champions at Bomb Factory on November 28, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images) /

John Molina Jr., who is coming off a convincing upset win over Ruslan Provodnikov, is set to challenge WBC/WBO junior welterweight champion and pound-for-pound stalwart Terence Crawford this Saturday (HBO, 9:35 p.m. ET). As Molina embarks on his sternest challenge to date, a career renaissance has him brimming with confidence.

The comparison between boxers and gladiators is ingrained in the sport’s lore and lexicon to the point where it has practically lost meaning. Still, while boxing does often operate in the realm of hyperbole, it is one of the few sports that can produce seemingly inhuman acts of courage and perseverance. And when it comes to fighters who embody such attributes, John Molina Jr. has always stood out.

Although Molina (29-6, 23 KOs) is a significant underdog heading into his challenge of unified 140-pound champion Terence Crawford — in Crawford’s raucous home city of Omaha, Nebraska, no less — he’s reached a new phase of his career — a renaissance, if you will, that has given him a stoic and thoughtful perspective on the tribulations he’s endured and the trials still to come.

After all, how many fighters are able to go from being stopped 44 seconds into a lightweight title fight against Antonio Demarco to the highs of rallying to score a sensational comeback stoppage of then-emerging contender Mickey Bey? And this is just the tip of the iceberg for Molina, who later suffered through a three-fight losing streak that included a thrilling Fight of the Year classic against Lucas Matthysse but culminated in a dud with Adrien Broner. What it comes down to, for Molina, is perseverance ingrained in the very fibre of his athletic being.

“That’s something you can’t be taught,” Molina said when speaking of his resilience. “It’s instilled in you – it’s something you’re born with. And it’s a competitive spirit; hence the name ‘The Gladiator’. It’s kill or be killed, and, you know, I’m never out of a fight. I don’t care how bad it looks – I’m never out of a fight. Just like if I got stranded somewhere, trust me, I’d figure it out and I’d survive”.

When asked about those three consecutive losses, and the Broner fight in particular, Molina refreshingly claimed that disappointment goes a long way in boxing. Molina didn’t begin his career as a professional with hype or fanfare — he only had 24 amateur fights — so every bout, and each experience, provides him with the possibility to learn.

This is part of an “educated” approach that Molina emphasized on multiple occasions. Detail work — in the gym during camp — has taken a central role in his preparation for fights, which certainly showed against Ruslan Provodnikov. And yet, this cerebral inclination is balanced by something elemental.

“It really boils down to I have a family to feed,” Molina said. “And boxing has provided me a lifestyle that is one I never knew I could accomplish, and I don’t ever want that to change. At the end, what it really comes down to is my family. I swear to you, in the hardest times, in the crunch time of camp, in the heat of battle, on everything holy I see my family’s faces, which is my two daughters and my wife. And that really pulls me through.”

When John Molina Jr. fought Ruslan Provodnikov, many felt that his career hung in the balance. At that point, Molina had bounced back from his three-fight skid with a win over Jorge Romero, but the Provodnikov bout was a classic crossroads contest — against one of the sport’s most rugged, punishing pressure fighters.

The fight, as expected, produced sustained action and an abundance of brutal exchanges. However, a curious thing happened. Molina bossed the action behind a crisp jab, and he almost exclusively dictated the terms of engagement. To do so required an impressive punch output and laser focus, and in winning a unanimous decision, Molina raised plenty of eyebrows.

Interestingly, Molina feels the Provodnikov fight was actually his easiest, but don’t mistake that for arrogance. Molina fully admits that Provodnikov is a “beast” who “can take a hell of a shot” and “punches like a ton of bricks”. Instead, Molina’s rationale is based on the inarguable reality that he didn’t cheat himself in the gym or in his preparation for what essentially amounted to a do or die fight. “I did everything humanly possible to be prepared for the fight.”

That said, defeating Ruslan Provodnikov is one thing; Terence Crawford (29-0, 20 KOs) is an entirely different and unique challenge.

John Molina Jr. is known for being a warrior.
LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 07: John Molina Jr. (black and gold trunks) punches Adrien Broner during a Premier Boxing Champions bout in the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 7, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

This, though, is exactly the kind of reality John Molina Jr. has come to relish. While Molina understandably wouldn’t reveal any concrete tactics he plans to employ against Crawford, he’s fully aware that preparing for his upcoming fight requires an entirely different process and focus than the one he crafted for Provodnikov. In sense, it’s back to the drawing board, but with a key constant that Molina feels will enable him to test Crawford in a way no one else has: his perseverance and, as a consequence, his will to win.

As his second world title shot looms, it would be understandable if the DeMarco fight still occupied space in Molina’s mind. In 2012, Molina challenged then-WBC lightweight champion DeMarco, who scored a stunning stoppage inside of a minute. Molina was never down or knocked out, nor does he blame referee Jack Reiss for ending things prematurely; rather, Molina has accepted the outcome while refusing to dwell on it.

Also, in terms of his educated approach, Molina has developed a unique perspective on a loss that for many fighters would have proven irreparably career-altering.

“I was a young guy in the sport,” Molina said. “I only had 24 amateur fights, and I was walking into my first world title fight against DeMarco, who’s a hell of a fighter. I believe, personally, my belief is I allowed the lights, the ambience of the fight, the everything to get into my head. It was a little too quick for me; I shouldn’t have been there. I had the ability to be there, but mentally I wasn’t prepared to deal with that.”

This is John Molina Jr.'s second title shot.
DALLAS, TX – NOVEMBER 28: John Molina looks on before a fight against Jorge Romero during the Premier Boxing Champions at Bomb Factory on November 28, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images) /

The DeMarco loss taught Molina a lot about himself and who he could trust in boxing. It revealed that the sport is largely a “what have you done for me lately” enterprise — a harsh lesson for a contender struggling to deal with a prominent setback. Now, though, it’s just part of larger arc and process.

John Molina Jr. has experienced just about everything a top contender can in a career, which is why he’s far more confident in his current preparation and team — the other sets of “eyes” he trusts — than he is worried about the challenges Terence Crawford brings to the table. Of course, Molina fully and respectfully acknowledges that Crawford is an elite, uniquely skilled champion who adapts on the fly like few other fighters. He even compared Crawford to a professor, which is especially apt. And yet, there’s something different about this latest version of Molina — this newest career renaissance.

“There is a huge difference,” Molina said when asked about this stage of his career “feeling” different. “I’m better now than I was three years ago. And the reason being is – man, I can’t stress enough how much of a mental game this is.”

It’s this mental fortitude that makes the prospect of challenging Crawford in his backyard of Omaha appealing. Rather than being intimated by venturing deep into enemy territory, Molina is actually eager to appeal to Crawford supporters as boxing fans, insisting that everyone is in for a treat on December 10.

Oddsmakers will say what they will, as will fans and pundits. But don’t try to dissuade John Molina Jr. from believing that he’s hitting his stride. And when he asks if there’s a fighter who has scored more significant upsets over the past five years or been more willingly to fight tough opposition on their turf, it’s nearly impossible to come up with a counter argument.

Regardless of what happens against Terence Crawford, this version of John Molina Jr. will enter the ring in peak condition and with unshakable confidence, and given the fight’s odds, Molina suggests that backing him to win is an educated choice.

Next: Julian Williams closes in on a world title

“It’s funny to see because all the people that are saying that this is a one-sided affair are the same people that were saying that about me and Provodnikov. And they were sorely mistaken. I don’t mind. The way I see it is there’s good earning potential for a lot of my friends. You know what I mean?”