Felix Verdejo returns from layoff, Jose Pedraza debuts for Top Rank on undercard

If Puerto Rican lightweights Felix Verdejo and Jose "Sniper" Pedraza are indeed on a collision course, as Top Rank chairman Bob Arum suggested last week after signing Pedraza to a promotional contract, the buildup to that potential fight will begin next week.

Top Rank announced on Tuesday that in addition to Verdejo returning from a 13-month layoff caused mainly by injuries, Pedraza will make his debut with the company when they appear in separate bouts on March 17 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Their fights are scheduled on the undercard of the Top Rank ESPN tripleheader (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) headlined by the vacant junior welterweight world title fight between Jose Ramirez (21-0, 16 KOs) and Amir Imam (21-1, 18 KOs). The Verdejo and Pedraza bouts, along with the entire card, will be streamed live on the ESPN App beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Verdejo (23-0, 15 KOs), a 2012 Olympian and the 2014 ESPN.com prospect of the year, will face Antonio Lozada Jr. (38-2, 32 KOs), 27, of Mexico, in a scheduled 10-round fight that was initially scheduled for Sept. 22 but was postponed because of a Verdejo training injury.

"I'm very happy to return to New York with the task of showing the world that I'm back to retake what is mine," said Verdejo, 24, whose miserable 2017 included various injuries that knocked him out of a mandatory world title shot against then-lightweight titleholder Terry Flanagan. "I was hardened by the tough times we went through after Hurricane Maria, but like my people, I will rise again stronger than ever. March 17 will be the first step in that direction."

Pedraza (22-1, 12 KOs), 28, a 2008 Olympian and former junior lightweight world titlist, will face Jose Luis Rodriguez (23-11-1, 13 KOs), 31, of Mexico, in an eight-round fight. Pedraza, who is moving up to lightweight, will be back in action for the first time in 13 months since losing his world title by seventh-round knockout to Gervonta Davis in January 2017. Pedraza become a free agent, and he signed with Top Rank last week.

"I feel very happy to be fighting for a promotional company like Top Rank. They want to take my career to the next level, and part of that is fighting in venues like Madison Square Garden," Pedraza said. "I'm going to give it my all so fans will enjoy my return to the ring. With Top Rank in my corner, I will become world champion once again, and I know that I have the potential to become a superstar."

When Arum announced Pedraza's signing, he told ESPN that he felt an eventual match with Verdejo would "be a fight that would get all the Puerto Rican boxing fans excited." Verdejo and Pedraza have known each for years, are friendly and have sparred together, but they also are Puerto Rico's most well-known active professional fighters.

Another popular Puerto Rican fighter, junior lightweight Christopher Diaz (22-0, 14 KOs), 23, will face Braulio Rodriguez (19-2, 17 KOs), 29, of the Dominican Republic, in a 10-rounder during the Top Rank event.

"I'm hungry and I want to keep improving as a fighter," Diaz said. "I'm coming to steal the show once again at the Garden. After March 17, I will be closer to a world title fight."

Diaz's last fight also was at the Theater on Dec. 9, when he blasted out Bryant "Pee Wee" Cruz in three rounds on the Vasiliy Lomachenko-Guillermo Rigondeaux undercard.

In addition to Ramirez vs. Imam, the other two televised bouts will be a vacant interim light heavyweight world title fight between Ukraine's Oleksandr Gvozdyk (14-0, 12 KOs) and France's Amar (34-5-2, 16 KOs) and blue-chip featherweight prospect Michael Conlan (5-0, 4 KOs), the two-time Irish Olympian who will sell the bulk of the tickets for the St. Patrick's Day card, taking on David Berna (15-2, 14 KOs), 27, of Hungary, in an eight-rounder. Conlan sold out the Theater for his pro debut on St. Patrick's Day in 2017.