Molina bids to tame heavyweight champ Joshua as late call-up

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — He's the accidental challenger with a checkered boxing record who, away from the ring, teaches kids with special educational needs at a high school.

Eric Molina, in many ways, is an improbable contender for the world heavyweight title.

The American was a late call-up to fight IBF champion Anthony Joshua after the British boxer's proposed super-fight with Wladimir Klitschko failed to be approved in time.

The experts see Molina as the latest fodder for Joshua on his inexorable rise to the top of the heavyweight division, where he's won all 17 of his professional fights by knockout.

But it might be unwise to write off Molina ahead of Saturday's fight in Manchester, northern England.

Molina prides himself on his ability to bounce back from adversity, and he's had plenty of that in a boxing career that began only in 2006. A strong all-round sportsman, especially at baseball, he was studying at college and working in a restaurant when he decided to give boxing a try.

He lost in a first-round knockout on his pro debut in 2007, and again in 2012 when Chris Arreolo brutally ended Molina's run of 18 wins. A third career loss came last year against WBC champion Deontay Wilder in Molina's only previous shot at a world title.

Still, he came back for more, and beating Poland's Tomasz Adamek in Krakow with a 10th-round knockout earned Molina the vacant IBF intercontinental title. When talks with Klitschko broke down, Joshua's team turned to Molina.

"I started my career 0-1, so of course I'm the underdog," Molina told The Associated Press in a Manchester hotel on Thursday. "To get here, I've busted all the underdog odds.

"I've been down and I've regrouped. ... Now I want to shake the world."

There's more to Molina than boxing. In 2012, he got a master's degree in special education from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and teaches in a school in Edinburg. He hasn't worked at the school since last summer to fully focus on boxing but plans to return, perhaps next August.

"They have a couple of strikes against them in their lifetime already," Richard Molina, Eric's father, told the AP about his son's students, "so he decided if he can help each one of them and make their lives better, that's what he does.

"It makes him unique (as a boxer). His humbleness will never fade."

That humbleness extends to the boxing ring. He's not one for trash talk before and after fights, and treats his opponents with respect. He turned up to Thursday's prefight news conference looking sharply dressed, wearing a waistcoat and a bow tie.

Joshua is making the second defense of the IBF title he won in April by beating Charles Martin in London. He beat Dominic Breazeale in June, also in the British capital, after being taken seven rounds — his longest fight since turning pro in 2012 after winning an Olympic gold medal in London that year.

Joshua has barely been tested as a pro but most are in agreement that Molina is a credible challenger, and Joshua's most dangerous fight to date.

"We've specifically trained to land the knockout shot," Molina said, when asked how he has prepared for the fight. "There's nothing else we've worked on, other than landing that shot."

That one big punch is his calling card. Against Wilder, it was a clean left hook that wobbled the champion in his home state of Alabama, but Molina couldn't follow it up and was knocked out in the ninth round.

Molina described Wilder as "the best heavyweight in the world right now." Joshua, with his chiseled physique and ferocious punching power, might have something to say about that, although there's a sense that he still has something to prove.

The fight with Klitschko has finally been sanctioned by the WBA for next year, but he said he will not be looking beyond Molina.

"People were asking me 12 months ago, 18 months ago, when you going to fight this guy and that guy?" Joshua said. "I said, 'Give me 12, 18 months,' and that's now.

"Everyone is here because there is the potential of me taking a loss. That's the heavyweight division."

Joshua, though, promised to "make Eric look like a novice," and it will be a big shock if the Briton loses in front of 21,000 spectators at Manchester Arena. Even Molina said he'll need to be "lucky" to win but believes his back-story gives him strength and hope.

"Anthony Joshua's at the point in his career where he needs to get tested," Molina said. "He's hitting that time of his career where he's going to have to start facing situations he hasn't faced before."

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