You’d expect some butterflies or perhaps just a hint of nervous energy from a 23-year-old fighter on the brink of his second championship less than two years into his professional career.
Not this fighter.
The stage never seems too big for Khiary Gray. He’s at his best under the spotlight.
“I don’t know what it is with Khiary, but he’s very, very relaxed,” said Gray’s trainer, Kendrick Ball. “Sometimes he seems like he might be too relaxed.”
There’s no mistaking Gray’s calm demeanor for apathy once the bell rings. That initial burst is like a projectile shot out of a cannon. The unbeaten Worcester, Mass., junior middleweight wastes no time exchanging pleasantries or charting tendencies.
Relentless in his attack, Gray (11-0, 9 KOs) has stopped 7 of his last 8 opponents in the opening round and carries an 11-fight win streak into his upcoming bout Friday, Feb. 19th, 2016 when he battles Washington’s Cameron Sevilla Rivera (6-2-1, 5 KOs) for the vacant World Boxing Council (WBC) Youth Title in the 10-round main event of CES Boxing’s season opener at Twin River Casino.
Already the reigning Universal Boxing Federation (UBF) Northeast champion, Gray is starting to get used to the idea of collecting additional hardware each time he steps into the ring. No jitters or stage fright – this is where he wants to be, and each challenge is an opportunity to prove he belongs.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a good pressure,” Gray said. “I want to show who I really am and where I stand in my division.”
He’ll have a much better idea if he takes care of business on Feb. 19th. A win will put Gray in elite company as one of only 13 fighters to have captured the WBC Youth title in the 154-pound division since its inception in 2000, among them former WBC middleweight world champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., who won it in 2006.
Including Chavez, 47 former WBC Youth champions have gone on to capture world titles in various weight classes, most notably Juan Diaz, Chad Dawson, Devon Alexander and Timothy Bradley.
In a sport where too many titles tend to muddy the waters, the WBC Youth championship has been an important stepping stone in the careers of many young fighters, and now Gray has an opportunity to bring the belt to Worcester, a city rich in boxing history desperately waiting for its next world champion.
The approach this time will be simpler, and, Ball hopes, more effective. Gray has always been the aggressor, but he’ll look to adapt and adjust against Rivera, relying more on his patience and ability to counterpunch without sacrificing what has made him so successful in the past.
“We’re going to dictate and see what he does,” Ball said. “Everybody eventually has a little opening. I know he’s definitely protecting himself because everyone knows we go to the body really well. I don’t think he’s going to really understand how much of a body puncher we are until he gets hit with something.”
Ball has coached Gray into a smarter, more relaxed fighter as the length and significance of his bouts has increased. When Gray fought 4-rounders, he emptied the tank quickly without fear of tiring in the later rounds since there weren’t any. His Feb. 19th showdown against Rivera will be his first scheduled 10-rounder, so the game plan has to be amended in the event his opponent can survive the initial onslaught.
“I always felt that when I fought a 4-rounder, I had to push the pace,” Gray said. “My approach now is more about sitting back and relaxing. Now I can settle in and find more openings instead of just going out there and swinging.”
“But we’re going to make our own openings, too,” Ball added. “We’re going to use our jab and make our own openings. He’s going to be a lot more relaxed, making subtle movements instead of making big, circular movements, and getting out of the pocket – taking little steps out of the pocket and picking this kid apart.”
Going the distance – or close to it – wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Gray hasn’t fought past the second round since November of 2014 and Ball has hinted that his fans have yet to see the best Gray has to offer because he hasn’t had an opportunity to show off all his talents.
Kenton Sippio-Cook, his challenger for the UBF title, was supposed to be that first real test, but he didn’t even make it past the first round. Rivera might be the one to finally push Gray and force him to deal with adversity he’s yet to wrestle with as a pro.
“I’ve been wanting that for a while,” Gray said. “I want someone to push me so I can see how I will respond and react and how I will come back from that in the next round. You have to learn as you go.”
Until then, Gray remains as calm as ever, even with another pressure-packed bout on the horizon.
“His mindset is in a good place,” Ball said. “We keep him where he’s stress free and just focused on bringing the belt back and performing well. We don’t stress the part about a first-round knockout.
“Everyone’s always asking, ‘Are you going to get him out of there in the first round?’ That’s not something we really focus on. We don’t really care about that. Our main thing is to get the win and look good doing it, whether it’s a knockout or going the distance.”
The Gray-Rivera main event is one of two title bouts on CES Boxing’s 2016 season debut. Female middleweight Kali Reis (7-5-1, 3 KOs) of Providence, a former International Boxing Association (IBA) champion and two-time world-title challenger, returns home for the first time in more than three years to face New Mexico’s Victoria Cisneros (12-18-2, 5 KOs) in a 10-round bout for the vacant UBF World Middleweight Title.
Feb. 19th also features the return of five unbeaten prospect, starting with fellow Worcester native Freddy Sanchez (7-0, 5 KO), who faces the battle-tested Evincii Dixon (6-13-1, 2 KOs) of Lancaster, Pa., in a 6-round junior welterweight bout. Holyoke, Mass., junior middleweight Mohamed Allam (1-1) returns to Twin River to face Boston’s Brian Walsh (1-3, 1 KO) and Framingham, Mass., junior welterweight Julio Perez (3-0) battles Skowhegan, Maine, native Josh Parker (0-1-1), both 4-round bouts.
Stoughton, Mass., junior welterweight Travis Demko (4-0, 1 KO), Framingham featherweight Timmy Ramos (2-0-1, 2 KOs) and Alaskan middleweight Fatlum Zhuta (2-0-1, 2 KOs) are also featured on the undercard in separate 4-round bouts.
Tickets for the Feb. 19th season debut are priced at $40, $75 and $125 (VIP) and are available for purchase online at www.cesboxing.com or www.twinriver.com, by phone at 401-724-2253/2254 or at the Twin River Casino Players Club.