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Soto Karass and Herrera fighting for one last shot

Fate has kicked Jesus Soto Karass and Mauricio Herrera in the teeth more than once, but they always come back for more, drawn by something larger than wins and losses. They’re fighters. It’s in their DNA. It’s who they are and what they do. More than anything else, that’s what Soto Karass and Herrera are fighting for Friday at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) — a way to stay relevant in a brutal business of diminishing returns.

There are lots of boxers like them. In a way, they’re the backbone of the industry, fighters who are good but not great. They are the guys who still believe in themselves, even when the losses start to pile up.

They often start out as prospects. A few make it big, but most don’t. A good number eventually settle into the role of reliable B-siders, good enough to make a real fight out of it, but usually not good enough to win. You can never have too many of those guys. What keeps this cynical system from becoming a complete charade are the nights when the rank and file rise up. Upsets help restore faith in matchmaking, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the boxers who beat the odds. They’re the ones keeping things at least semi-honest.

The years have flown by quickly for Herrera and Soto Karass, who turned pro in 2007 and 2001, respectively. The bloom of youth has faded along with their reflexes, but the dream is still alive, and the big-money fight still just a win or two away, an elusive carrot that helps them keep going. Both are in their mid-30s and desperately trying to prolong their stay in the sport that gives them their daily bread and identity. On some level, they probably know it isn’t going to end well, but they push it aside and keep punching. It’s the only thing they know how do.

Still, it’s getting tough and tougher. Guile and guts can’t stave off youth forever. Soto Karass and Herrera have 18 losses between them. Time is running out.

It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. There were times when they were close to breaking through to the next level, casting off their journeyman, fringe-contender status in favor of a higher tax bracket. But whenever they’ve put together a handful of significant wins, a loss pops up and sets them back. It’s a common thread that weaves its way through boxers’ aspirations like a virus, reality in the form of a left hook to the cabeza.

Although the arc of their careers are comparable, Soto Karass and Herrera could not be more dissimilar in both appearance and fighting style.

Standing in his corner waiting for the start of a fight, Herrera looks undernourished, frail even, with his pipestem arms and shallow chest. But once the bell rings, you quickly realize he’s no joke. He’s tough and tenacious, and he knows how to fight.

With only seven knockout wins on his 23-7 record, Herrera is clearly not much of a puncher. Aptly nicknamed “El Maestro,” he depends on evasive movement, a busy jab and a high boxing IQ to neutralize stronger, heavier-hitting adversaries.

Soto Karass is the smiling tough guy with a heart of gold. He hasn’t always taken his profession as seriously as he should, but in or out of shape, he is a straight-ahead slugger who loves nothing better than squaring up and swapping punches. It makes for fun fights and is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Despite some encouraging wins along the way, by the summer of 2013, Soto Karass’ career had been sufficiently inconsistent for him to be considered a safe opponent for Andre Berto. The former welterweight titleholder needed a win, and Soto Karass was selected. They figured his face-first style would make Berto look good.

None of that mattered to Soto Karass. He had a wife and four kids to support back in North Hollywood, where he has lived for the past 11 years. The losses were starting to add up, so he did the only thing he could: He threw himself at Berto from the start and never looked back. Soto Karass just kept coming and didn’t stop until the referee rescued Berto in the 12th round. The house fighter went down in flames, out-punched and out-fought from the get-go.

What could have been a new beginning for Soto Karass now looks more like the beginning of the end. Although he has pocketed some nice paydays, he hasn’t won a fight since. A scintillating draw with Yoshihiro Kamegai in April 2016 temporarily raised his profile. But less than five months after arguably the best performance of his career, Soto Karass was crushed by Kamegai in a rematch.

It looked like the first encounter had squeezed the last drops of fight out of him, and maybe it did. We’ll find out Friday when he tackles Herrera in a 10-round welterweight fight, Soto Karass’ first since the Kamegai rematch disaster. This could be Soto Karass’ final shot, and if it is, he wants to leave everything he has in the ring.

“This could be one of my last chances to go all-out in the ring, and I want to be sure it happens in this fight,” said Soto Karass, who according to co-manager Sergio Diaz has been training diligently for 10 weeks.

Herrera has had his own disappointment. He came tantalizingly close to winning a major world title when he challenged then-undefeated junior welterweight titleholder Danny Garcia in March 2014. Garcia was fighting for the first time in the land of his father, and it was intended to be a quasi-homecoming and a bit of a breather against a soft opponent.

Herrera had other ideas.

Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, was packed with Garcia supporters, but it was Herrera who stole the show. It was close fight, but the Mexican-American stayed a few punches ahead throughout, using his legs to keep away from Garcia’s left hook while pelting him with enough jabs to win most rounds.

When Garcia somehow retained the title by majority decision he didn’t deserve, there was good deal of grumbling from the fans and media, but there was nothing that could be done. It was a heartbreaking loss for the long-shot challenger from Riverside, California, made worse by a decision that most felt should have gone the other way.

Then Lady Luck twisted the knife. Herrera dropped another highly controversial decision, this time to Jessie Benavidez in December 2014, offsetting much of the momentum gained in Garcia fight. Herrera has floundered since, winning just two of four subsequent bouts.

Even so, if Soto Karass (28-11-4, 18 KOs) can’t fight any better than he did in his second match with Kamegai, Herrera should be able to jab and move his way to a one-sided victory.

“I think Soto Karass is a tough opponent, and he’ll bring out the best in me,” Herrera said. “I know he doesn’t give up easily, but if I can just be smart in there, I think I can pull this one out. A win in this fight can turn everything around for me.”

The same goes for Soto Karass, and if he has at least one more good fight left in him, we could be treated to valiant struggle between two proud, battle-tested veterans fighting to keep their careers alive.

Good things have been known to happen when neither boxer can afford to lose. They fight like there’s no tomorrow.

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