Justin Figueroa's dream becomes reality Saturday.
When the 2017 Holy Spirit High School graduate was younger, Figueroa and his brother played the boxing video game series "Fight Night." As a lifelong Atlantic City resident, he always chose the same venue to have those simulated fights — Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
"At the time, Atlantic City was all we knew," said Figueroa, who started boxing at age 10. "It's just insane that it's coming to life. We kind of manifested it."
The 23-year-old will make his professional boxing debut Saturday at Boardwalk Hall when he fights Tavaris Smith (0-5) of Toledo, Ohio, one of eight bouts on the Boardwalk Boxing: Rising Star Series card. The fights will start at 6:30 p.m. Figueroa's is a four-round middleweight bout.
"I am definitely excited," said Figueroa, who has been training at different places around the state and the Philadelphia area since finishing an amateur circuit in December 2021. The past 12 weeks, he has been mainly training in the resort. "It's honestly a dream."
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"I feel like I've been waiting for this moment for a while," he said. "I feel ready. I am ready to lay it all on the line. Sometimes I do get a little nervous and have a little anxiety about it because it's my first go-around at it. So there is a little bit of nervousness, but then I remember all the hard work I've put into this. I feel like I am going to seize the moment.
"I can’t wait to showcase the hard work I put in."
Weigh-ins are set for 2 p.m. Friday at the Spirit Bar at Showboat Atlantic City and will open to the public. Millville-based company Rising Star Promotions, along with Atlantic City Sports Commission, will stage the event. Local fighter Thomas "Cornflake" LaManna runs Rising Star, which has promoted cards since 2015.
LaManna (31-5-1, 13 KOs), a 2011 Millville graduate, will fight Saul Roman (46-15, 38 KOs) of Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, in the eight-round main event, a middleweight bout scheduled to start at 9 p.m.
LaManna has not fought in the resort since 2018.
"I'm excited to be back," said LaManna, who had a fight in Philadelphia in 2020. "It's going to be great. I'm just trying to not get all my nerves psyched up. I'm looking forward to it."
LaManna earned a second-round technical knockout in August 2021, his last fight. He had lost in the World Boxing Association middleweight title bout in May 2021, falling to Erislandy Lara.
LaManna thought that was his last fight.
"I just needed to get back," said LaManna. "I just got to a bad place, and I did not want to go out like that. I just missed fighting. I had fun promoting. I will still have fun promoting and will continue to do these shows, but I am a fighter first. I always have and always will. I want to keep going on with my fighting career."
LaManna is tentatively scheduled to fight for a WBA Regional title in Colombia in two weeks. LaManna anticipates his fight and the entire event will go well Saturday.
"I'm excited," LaManna said. "I'm looking forward to everything. Me and all the other fighters have to be great that night and write another piece of Atlantic City boxing history."
Rising Star also staged a card at Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom in March, which Figueroa attended. After he saw the event, Figueroa wanted to fight in the Rising Star's next card.
"I feel like this is what Atlantic City needs," said Figueroa, who praised Rising Star for putting on this event and noted Saturday's atmosphere will be electric. "Boxing played a big part in Atlantic City, and I'm really excited to bring boxing back to Atlantic City, the city I grew up in. It's going to be a great event."
Figueroa's other sport
Figueroa fought up and down the East Coast as a kid but discovered other sports as a teenager. He enjoyed the team aspect and stepped away from fighting. He played football and wrestled at Spirit, his two main sports.
Figueroa also played baseball and competed in track and field. He is a member of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol. Being a well-rounded athlete helps him in the ring.
Figueroa started training to fight again in 2018. He won an amateur fight in 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold. Last year, Figueroa won eight of 10 fights, but his one loss came against the top-ranked amateur fighter in the nation.
“My plan was to win the whole thing because I had high hopes, but when I lost, it was a close fight, but they gave it to the other guy, it crushed my dreams. It broke my heart when I lost that fight."
But he wanted to “go back to my home city and try my best to bring boxing back to Atlantic City,” he said.
"I feel more than ready,” Figueroa said. “I trained my heart out. I gave my life to boxing. I feel very well-prepared. There is definitely room to grow, and I look to get better each fight, but I think I am ready."
Contact Patrick Mulranen: 609-272-7217
"I feel ready. I am ready to lay it all on the line." Justin Figueroa, on his pro boxing debut