Mayweather-Pacquiao: It’s right on time

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20

After nearly six years, the maddening soap opera between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao will culminate inside the ring on May 2 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Depending on your perspective, it will be the most important fight boxing has seen in 30 years (if not more) and clearly one of the biggest stories in all of sports.

Like a jaded lover protecting our heart from being hurt yet again, we’ve convinced ourselves at numerous times in recent years that we just don’t care anymore or that we’ve emotionally moved on.

But we are liars. All of us. You know it, I know it and so does the mixture of hard-core and casual fans expected to purchase more than 3 million pay-per-view buys come fight night.

And while on the subject of lies, allow me to expose one more. It has been exhaled with disgust each time our collective levels of optimism were piqued in recent weeks. It goes like this: Too bad the fight is about five years too late.

It’s a theory that appeared true at various points in recent years, including most of 2013, when Pacquiao was forced to rebuild his stock after suffering consecutive defeats the previous year (including one by a brutal, one-punch knockout). Yet there’s an element of destiny and fate associated with this fight that has allowed it to persevere through time, defeats, egos and the complications of boxing politics.

Would it have been epic, if not preferred, to have seen Mayweather and Pacquiao square off in early 2010, when they were at the peak of their respective primes? Without question.

But that doesn’t mean this fight is taking place too late. In fact, if you ask me, it’s right on time.

While we had an inkling of how good Mayweather and Pacquiao were from a historical standpoint by 2009, we didn’t yet know how great. And despite how excruciating the recent years have been (not to mention the negative impact it had on the sport), the absurdity of this fight taking so long to happen has only added to the anticipation.

This isn’t just a welterweight unification bout between the two biggest stars in boxing. It’s a matchup between the undisputed best fighters of their division, the sport -- and most important -- their era.

This fight represents the missing piece to the legacies of both boxers, and how we will remember this chapter of boxing history for years to come.

Simply put: This fight is bigger right now than it ever could have been, with the journey it took to get here serving as basically a five-year promotion.

Despite their combined age of 74 come fight night, this also isn’t exclusively a money grab between two aging fighters. Yes, we might be seeing this fight only in large part because both had run out of opponents capable of drawing anything close to this much revenue. But it’s still a legitimate pairing between the top two pound-for-pound best in the sport.

Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Getty Images, AP PhotoManny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. will finally meet and that's all that matters.
That’s why merely thinking about this fight taking place brings me back to words such as "fate" and "destiny." For all intents and purposes, this event shouldn’t still mean this much or have this much at stake. But, almost inexplicably, it does.

Boxing in general and the wallets of both fighters are lucky in that regard. And while it would be almost impossible for the actual fight to live up to the hype that will surround this event, I have a sneaky feeling it just might.

Mayweather and Pacquiao are as evenly matched right now as they ever have been. And sometimes throughout history, when you match a pair of aging legends who have slipped just a bit from their peak form, you get something truly special.

Even the unparalleled stubbornness of everyone involved couldn’t stop this fight from happening. And one could argue that boxing has never needed it more than it does right now.

Boxcino heavyweights take center stage

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
On Friday, the excitement of 2015 Boxcino tournament (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) moves to the Turning Stone Resort in Verona, New York, for the heavyweight quarterfinals.

Recognized as one of the most prestigious professional boxing tournaments in the U.S., Boxcino has opened the doorway to stardom for many of its participants since it was first held in 1997 and broadcast on ESPN's "Friday Night Fights."

The heavyweight semifinals will be held on April 10, which will consist of eight-round bouts. The 10-round finals are scheduled for May 22.

Here is a breakdown of Friday's four quarterfinal bouts:

Donovan Dennis (10-1, 8 KOs) vs. Steve Vukosa (10-0, 4 KOs)

This will be an attractive fight between two starkly different boxers because of their unique characteristics.

Vukosa is a 38-year-old veteran looking for a second chance following his return to the ring after a 12-year absence. After a knee injury and two surgeries, he was forced to quit boxing in 2002, right when his career was in full bloom and he was riding an eight-fight win streak.

His return in April 2014 came against former Olympic boxer and fellow Boxcino fighter Jason Estrada. Vukosa won by majority decision and won again in August against Salomon Maye.

Dennis is a 6-foot-4 southpaw with a good history as an amateur. As a professional, he was riding an impressive streak of nine victories and eight knockouts when he was knocked out last April in the closing seconds of the first round against Nate Heaven, another fighter at this year’s Boxcino. Dennis recovered for his next fight, in August when he beat Jamal Woods.

Both fighters are talented and move well on their feet. Dennis is more aggressive, which, coupled with his youth, makes him the favorite. Yet, Vukosa's better technique and Dennis' frequent defensive mistakes could tilt the balance in favor of the Boston veteran.

Razvan Cojanu (12-1, 7 KOs) vs. Ed Fountain (10-0, 4 KOs)

Twenty-seven-year-old Romanian and Las Vegas resident Cojanu is a favorite to win Boxcino 2015. And for good reason. He's on the rise.

After losing to Mexican Alvaro Morales in his 2011 debut, Cojanu has beaten all 12 opponents he has faced. In July in China, he defeated Argentine Manuel Pucheta, and in November he knocked out Darius Shorter in the first round.

His opponent will be the unbeaten Fountain, a resident of St. Louis who is a pupil of Mike Wood. He debuted on May 26, 2012, on ESPN, with a spectacular KO against Brandon McCrary.

Cojanu, who measures over 6-foot-5 and has a crushing right, is the clear favorite, although he can't be careless. Fountain, nicknamed "The Hawaiian Stallion," could make it tough on him with his quick combos and power punches.

Andrey Fedosov (25-3, 20 KOs) vs. Nate Heaven (9-1, 7 KOs)

A 28-year-old Saint Petersburg, Russia, native and Hollywood, California, resident, Fedosov is a quick fighter for the division. He defends himself very well and keeps his guard high.

Fedosov likes to exchange in close quarters, where he can let loose a lot of punches. His biggest problem is his height (6-foot-1), and his lack of activity since an injury in June 2013 forced him to abandon his fight against Bryant Jennings in the first round. Since then, he has fought only once.

His opponent, Heaven, suffered his first loss on July 19 when he was stopped in the first round against 44-year-old veteran Stacy Frazier, an opponent who was 15-15. Prior to that fight, Heaven, 29, a fighter with no prior amateur career who debuted at the age of 24, had won all of his fights, among them a spectacular KO against Dennis last April.

This is an event fight that remains hard to predict, although because of his height (6-foot-6) and longer reach, Heaven is a slight favorite to win.

Jason Estrada (20-5, 6 KOs) vs. Lenroy Thomas (18-3, 9 KOs)

Former U.S. Olympian Jason Estrada was called on at the last minute for this fight to replace Mario Heredia, who had to withdraw because of medical reasons. Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Estrada owns wins over James Northey, Lance Whitaker, Moultrie Witherspoon and Derek Bryant.

His opponent, Jamaican Lenroy "TNT" Thomas, is a 29-year-old southpaw who resides in St. Petersburg, Florida. A former top prospect prior to 2010, Thomas had amassed 16 consecutive victories.

He recently returned in 2013 and suffered two tough defeats by knockout against Dominic Breazeale and Arron Lyons. In 2014, he got back on the winning track. In March, he beat Travis Fulton, and in May, he knocked out Jason Pauley.

This will also be an even match and hard to predict. The only factor that could tilt the match Thomas' way is his longer reach.

15 years ago: Morales defeated Barrera

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
Erik Morales and Marco BarreraJed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesErik Morales, right, won in a split decision against Marco Antonio Barrera in 2000.

Thursday is the 15th anniversary of Erik Morales’ decision win over Marco Antonio Barrera, the first matchup of their legendary trilogy, regarded as one of the best in boxing history.

ESPN Stats & Information takes a look at the fight.

Top Things To Know
1. Morales was 35-0 and defending his WBC junior featherweight title for the ninth time entering his 2000 title unification fight with Barrera. Morales won the title in September 1997 with an 11th-round knockout of Daniel Zaragoza.

2. Barrera was 49-2 with a no-decision and seeking the third defense of his WBO junior featherweight Title. Barrera won the title for the second time in October 1998 with a fourth-round TKO victory over Richie Wenton.

3. According to CompuBox, Morales outlanded Barrera 319-299 in the bout and 290-272 in power punches. Barrera scored the only knockdown of the fight in Round 12, and at the final bell both men were bloodied and bruised. Morales won a controversial split decision with scores of 115-112, 114-113 and 113-114.

4. Ring magazine named the bout fight of the year and Round 5 of the fight was named round of the year. Morales would vacate his titles to move up in weight, which would result in the WBO “re-awarding” its title to Barrera.

5. Morales and Barrera would meet twice more, in 2002 and 2004. In both bouts, Barrera would avenge the earlier loss by defeating Morales in a unanimous decision (2002) and majority decision (2004).

The Buildup

Morales was rolling through competitors in the junior featherweight division throughout the mid-1990s. He won the WBC title in 1997 with an 11th-round knockout of Zaragoza. From 1997 to 1999, Morales made eight title defenses. Barrera was also a top-notch competitor in the 122-pound division, winning the WBO title in 1995 with a unanimous decision win over Daniel Jimenez. Barrera made eight defenses of the title before losing back-to-back fights against American Junior Jones, whom Morales defeated in 1998. Barrera would regain the title in 1998 with a fourth-round TKO over Richie Wenton and defend twice before the bout with Morales was agreed upon for Feb. 19, 2000.

The personal animosity between the two was fueled by the claim that the winner would be the “Next Great Mexican superstar,” an unofficial title previously held by Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez. The fighters’ Mexican heritage and upbringing also played a major part in the buildup. Barrera was from Mexico City while Morales was from Tijuana, which already inspired geographical and class battles.

At the sports books, the undefeated Morales was a 3-1 favorite. At the weigh-in, both fighters were under the 122-pound limit; Barrera came in at 121.5, Morales at 121. The bout would take place at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and would be shown on HBO as part of its “After Dark” series.

The Fight

Although Morales was favored, it was Barrera who was the early aggressor. From what the crowd and analysts saw, it appeared as if Barrera had jumped out to the early lead on the judges’ scorecards. But nothing in the fight would compare to what was witnessed in the fifth round. Both men spent the three minutes firing punches at one another, and according to CompuBox, Morales landed 51 of 95 punches while Barrera landed 24 of 50. Despite the lower output, many believed Barrera took the round when he was able to connect with Morales, sending “El Terrible” into the ropes.

The back-and-forth action would continue throughout the second half of the fight, with both fighters landing power shots and putting each on the ropes. But in true warrior fashion, both fighters took the punishment and fired back at his rival. In the final round, Barrera wobbled Morales with a couple of punches and seconds later, Morales’ knee touched the canvas. Morales said it was a slip, but referee Mitch Halpern ruled it a knockdown and in the eyes of most, it sealed Morales’ fate. Both fighters ended the way they started, throwing punches at a ferocious pace as the bell rang to signify the end of 12 brutal, bloody rounds of action.

When the judges’ scorecards were read, many did not expect to hear what came out from the microphone of Michael Buffer. “Duane Ford scores the bout 114-113 for Barrera . . . Carol Castellano scores the bout 114-113 for Morales . . . and Dalby Shirley scores the bout 115-112 for the unified champion by split decision . . . Erik “El Terrible” Morales!”

Morales became the new WBO junior featherweight champion and successfully defended his WBC junior featherweight title for the ninth and final time.

The Aftermath

The immediate discussion of the fight was more about the verdict than the fight itself. The men would face off twice more in their careers. In the 2002 rematch, many believed Morales won the bout, but it was Barrera who won, according to the judges, by unanimous decision. The rubber match took place in 2004, and once again it was Barrera who was victorious by majority decision.

Morales would compete until 2012, when he lost back-to-back bouts to current light welterweight champion Danny Garcia. Morales finished his career with a record of 52-9 and world title reigns in four different weight classes.

Barrera competed until 2011, but lost important bouts against Juan Manuel Marquez, Manny Pacquiao and Amir Khan. He finished his career with a record of 67-7 with a no-decision and title reigns in three different weight classes.

Boxcino quarterfinals kick off on FNF

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
Fresh off a successful relaunch in 2014, Banner Promotions' Boxcino tournaments return on this week's "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) from Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Established as one of the most prestigious tournaments in professional boxing in the United States, Boxcino returns in 2015 with a pair of tournaments in the junior middleweight (beginning Friday) and heavyweight (beginning Feb. 20) divisions.

Boxcino is considered a true boxing star factory. The first edition, in 1997 -- which aired on ESPN -- was won by Brazilian Acelino "Popo" Freitas, who went on to win world titles in two divisions.

Last year's tournaments created new fighters to watch in middleweight Willie Monroe Jr. and lightweight Petr Petrov. Both have used their success in the Boxcino tournaments to climb the rankings, as have runners-up Brandon Adams and Fernando Carcamo.

Adams, who lost to Monroe in the finals of the 2014 Boxcino middleweight tournament, has moved down in weight to enter this year's junior middleweight draw. Friday's quarterfinal bouts will be six rounds, with the semifinals set for eight rounds (April 3) and the finals scheduled for 10 rounds (May 22).

Here is a breakdown of Friday's quarterfinal bouts in the junior middleweight bracket:

Ricardo Pinell (10-1-1, 6 KOs) vs. John Thompson (14-1, 5 KOs)

The 2015 Boxcino tournament was supposed to be a big opportunity for Cleotis Pendarvis, a native of Los Angeles, who was seeking for more than 10 years to direct his career toward the elite of professional boxing. But Pendarvis, despite moving up two weight classes, came in overweight on Friday and was ruled out of the tournament.

Pendarvis' last-minute replacement will be John Thompson, 25, a native of New Jersey, who will snap a 13-month layoff dating back to the first defeat of his career last January when he was knocked out by Frank Galarza.

Pinell, of California, is a southpaw and is looking to find his place in the competitive elite of professional boxing in the United States. Boxcino can be the door to that dream if he can defeat Thompson.

Pinell accumulated a run of five straight wins since his only loss, in 2013 against Eric Mendez. Pendarvis' experience and better technique should favor his victory; however, keep in mind that he has been inactive for the past 21 months and will be moving up two weight classes to face Pinell.

Stanyslav Skorokhod (8-0, 6 KOs) vs. Michael Moore (13-0, 6 KOs)

This will be an interesting battle between undefeated opponents with contrasting styles. The Ukrainian Skorokhod looks to apply pressure, has good power and moves intelligently in the ring. Moore, 28, of Cleveland, is a technically gifted southpaw with good movement, although he lacks power.

Expect Skorokhod to be aggressive off the start, looking to test Moore, who hasn't fought in 16 months. The Ukrainian will be making just his second appearance in the U.S., and will need to overcome a lack of experience to get the best of Moore.

Nevertheless, in his previous fight, Skorokhod knocked out lefty David Lopez in October in Hollywood, which would certainly be a performance he should look to emulate in his Boxcino debut.

Brandon Adams (15-1, 10 KOs) vs. Alex Perez (18-1, 10 KOs)

Adams, a native of Los Angeles, enters the tournament with the greatest amount of expectation following his performance in the middleweight draw last year. The 2014 middleweight runner-up has dropped to 154 pounds and is coming off a Jan. 16 knockout over Lekan Byfield on "Friday Night Fights."

Perez, 32, of Newark, New Jersey, is a southpaw with good power who moves well around the ring. But he'll be having an aggressive puncher like Adams, who has dynamite in his fists, coming at him.

Despite holding a height advantage, Perez (6-foot) will need to overcome the fact that he has not fought regularly in the past three years. Due to his aggressiveness and the power of his punch, Adams (5-9) is the favorite.

Vito Gasparyan (14-3-5, 8 KOs) vs. Simeon Hardy (13-0, 10 KOs)

This fight promises to set off sparks between two good opponents.

The Armenian Gasparyan enters the bout after losing a unanimous decision to current junior welterweight titlist Jessie Vargas. But that fight took place in December 2012 and Gasparyan, who is tough and able to withstand punishment, hasn't fought since.

Hardy, who was born in Guyana but resides in Brooklyn, has worked under the tutelage of mentor and trainer Colin Morgan in the Trinidad Boxing Gym. Hardy is a rising undefeated prospect, who has won his past three fights by knockout.

Boxcino will be Hardy's first big challenge, and Gasparyan is the most dangerous opponent he has ever faced.

Mora faces late replacement Han on FNF

February, 4, 2015
Feb 4
Former junior middleweight world titlist Sergio Mora returns to action on Friday, but it won't be against the opponent he expected.

After seeing his middleweight title shot against Jermain Taylor fall apart in recent weeks following the former undisputed champion's rib injury and subsequent arrest, Mora will face late replacement Abie Han at the Beaux Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. The 12-round bout will headline ESPN's "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).

Taylor suffered a broken rib during training and was arrested days later on charges of aggravated assault after firing a gun in public and three counts of endangering the life of a child. He was also cited for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

Mora (27-3-2, 9 KOs), the champion of the first season of "The Contender" reality show, prepared six weeks to face Taylor, but he took the change of opponent calmly and had some words of solidarity for Taylor.

"Everything happens for a reason," Mora said. "But I think Taylor should pray and ask the man upstairs or someone for protection, because he's certainly going to need a lot of help."

Mora, 35, who is advised by Al Haymon, has won four straight fights since his last loss in 2012. He defeated Dashon Johnson in December by unanimous decision in his most recent bout.

Regarding his new opponent, Texan Abie Han (23-1, 14 KOs), Mora avoided any kind of triumphalism. On the contrary, he has great respect for him.

"My coach [Dean Campos] checked him out in recent days," Mora said. "[Han] reminds us a lot of another very tough opponent I faced in the past, Archak TerMeliksetian. Despite his height, Han is aggressive all the time and throws a lot of power punches. His style is difficult, and I will have to be very careful.

"Don't forget that his only loss was against an undefeated and rising prospect like Glen Tapia."

Mora spared no arguments to justify the need for precautions against his opponent on Friday.

"Today, opponent's records don't mean much to me. In my last fight, I fought a guy with 15 losses [Dashon Johnson] and went through hell before getting the victory," said Mora, who got off the canvas to win that fight.

Mora is right to take his opponent with caution. Han, a native of El Paso, has won four fights in a row since his only loss in July 2013.

"I'm always training, but it's just like the last fight, when I was called with less than three weeks in advance to prepare for the fight and I took it because I'm in no position to turn down an opportunity like this," Han said. "I'm thrilled to have another opportunity.

"I'm 30 and I've never starred in a big main event like the one this Friday, or against an opponent with the prestige of Sergio Mora. It will be a big challenge. He has a rare and different style from everything I've faced, but I feel confident that it will beat him."

Han, who trains in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with former world champion Austin Trout, comes from a family of fighters. His father is a martial arts master, and his three sisters and brother practice boxing and martial arts. In fact, his older sister, Jennifer, has been an amateur national champion and as a professional has fought for the International Female Boxing Association's world featherweight title.

For the fight this Friday, Han assures he will maintain his aggressive style, although he will take some precautions.

"I like to hit. I always go forward and set the pace from the middle of the ring," Han said. "If there's nothing happening, I'm always in charge of forcing the action, which can sometimes be my downfall. With my coach [Louie Burke], we've been working to correct that problem."

The battle between Mora and Han is interesting because of the contrasts that make up their styles. There's a slight advantage in height and reach for Han, and he'll seek to work from the inside with strong combinations. Mora will be the one to resort to jabbing to establish an appropriate pace; he will move sideways and seek to surprise from the corners or with a surprise right hand from any position.

It will be a difficult fight to forecast. Mora is the favorite due to his experience, but it is unknown whether the disappointment of not facing Taylor will affect his enthusiasm and hurt his performance. By contrast, Han will be excited about the opportunity to headline a show on national television, and that incentive might be the biggest obstacle to any favoritism for Mora.

In the co-main event, junior middleweight prospect Erickson Lubin (8-0, 6 KOs), 19, faces Michael Finney (12-1-1, 10 KOs) in an eight-round bout at a catch weight of 157.

Dargan tangles with Luis on FNF

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
videoA pair of rising opponents who live up to their names will square off in the main event of this week's "Friday Night Fights" when unbeaten Karl "Dynamite" Dargan squares off with Canadian Tony "The Lightning" Luis (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) at the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

Luis (18-2, 7 KOs), a native of Ontario, lost to unbeaten prospect Ivan Redkach in January 2014. Luis, 26, bounced back in his most recent bout, outpointing Wanzell Ellison in July.

As his name suggests, Luis is a quick, explosive fighter who comes forward behind a high guard defensively that is tough to penetrate. He looks to throw two- and three-punch combinations on the inside, but despite his irregular fighting rhythm, he sometimes leaves himself vulnerable to counterattacks.

Philadelphia's Dargan (17-0, 9 KOs) makes his return to Foxwoods, where he already displayed his virtues in September by getting up off the canvas to defeat Angino Perez by fifth-round TKO.

In order to get closer to a title shot, Dargan, 29, will have to use his quickness to overcome a complicated opponent in Luis. Dargan, trained by his cousin Naazim Richardson, utilizes good technique and fast combinations.

Dargan's jab is effective, and he uses bursts to surprise his opponents with right hands. While both of his hands are effective, Dargan's main weapon is his right hook. On defense, he dodges punches by moving his torso and always looks to stay quick on his feet in order to complicate his opponent's attack.

Luis, who turned professional in 2008 after a successful amateur career, is also a well-regarded social worker who became a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor at a boys' group home. He suffered his first professional defeat in January 2013 when he was stopped on FNF against Jose Hernandez.

But Luis says the loss was the best thing that could have happened at the time because it showed him that he wasn't invincible, something that many young fighters can start to believe after 15 straight victories.

Luis' father and trainer, Jorge, recognizes that his son's loss to Redkach, however, left a "bad taste" in his mouth that he still hasn't gotten over.

"It should have at least been a draw," Jorge Luis said.

Regardless, both father and son have taken it as another lesson, one that requires them to increase their sense of perseverance and endurance to achieve all their goals.

Friday’s fight promises to be an explosive, even match between two opponents with similar traits in terms of technique, defense and punching speed. However, the physical advantages (height and reach) widely favor Dargan, whose effective jab will likely allow him to control the distance and set the rhythm of the fight.

In this type of scenario, Luis will have to be more aggressive and risk more than normal to get at his opponent. By opening up, Luis will surely be vulnerable to Dargan's counterattack, which is why Dargan is slightly favored coming into the bout.

In the co-main event, Thomas Falowo (12-3, 8 KOs) of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, takes on Russell Lamour (11-0, 5 KOs) of Portland, Maine, in an eight-round middleweight bout.

Unbeaten Dargan ready for next level

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
There's a quiet strength that exudes from the voice of veteran trainer Naazim Richardson -- better known to just about everyone in the boxing world as "Brother Naazim."

He's stoic and wise, having seen it all throughout multiple decades in the sport training the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley and Steve Cunningham. But when you ask him about his latest pupil on the rise, unbeaten Karl "Dynamite" Dargan, a different emotion begins to bubble to the surface: joy.

After all, they are family.

Dargan (17-0, 9 KOs), a cousin of Richardson, headlines this week's "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) against Tony Luis in a 10-round lightweight bout from Foxwoods Casino and Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

A native of Philadelphia, Dargan, 29, was the youngest of those close to him who grew up in the gym observing and learning from Richardson. There was his older brother Mike, along with Richardson's three sons -- the Allen boys -- Rock, Tiger and Bear. All were decorated amateurs and most turned pro, to varying degrees of success.

But Richardson knew from the very beginning that Dargan was different. His attention to detail was unique. His intellect was special.

"He knew everything. He was a know-it-all," Richardson said.

Every day, wherever Richardson went, Dargan was right behind him like a shadow.

"We would babysit him in the gym while we were training his older brother and he would remember everything," Richardson said. "He would say, 'You're not jumping rope right. You're not doing this right. He's not doing that right.'

"He was always like my little assistant. So I told him, 'How long have you been training fighters?' Finally I told him he better come out on the floor and everything he had watched, he could do."

Getting the green light from everyone in the family to enter the diminutive 7-year-old Dargan into the sport wasn't so easy for Richardson, who admitted, "They wanted to kill me. All of them." Dargan, himself, was equally reluctant at making the plunge.

But the slick boxer with the quick hands took quickly the sport. After a brief -- and admittedly ill-advised -- run trying to emulate Mike Tyson's fighting style as an amateur, Dargan began to develop his own style as a boxer. He studied tapes of Sugar Ray Robinson.

Soon enough, Richardson began to notice something unique about the way Dargan moved.

"I always told him that he fights how other people try to fight," Richardson said. "He fights with a natural pizazz and a natural flash where other people try to force and emulate and try to do a lot of things because they want to look charismatic. His is natural."

Dargan mixes that fluidity and athleticism in the ring with a strong boxing IQ, cultivated through years of soaking up wisdom not just from Richardson, but from being around the training camps of the ageless wonder Hopkins. Dargan has taken much of "The Alien's" teachings to heart, including the need for a fighter to protect himself at all times, whether in or out of the ring.

"I can't go against the stuff Bernard says," Dargan said. "As a pro, he said that once you start making money, this is a business and it needs to become a lifestyle. It isn't, 'OK, you've got a fight and have to get in shape for the fight.' You have to always be prepared."

Like Hopkins, Dargan extends that wisdom to the way he fights. He doesn't identify with the normal stereotype of a "Philadelphia fighter" or feel any pressure considering the platform of Friday's fight to go for the knockout or absorb any unnecessary punishment.

Dargan says it's no disrespect to the fans, but his main focus is to listen to his corner and get the job done.

[+] EnlargeKarl Dargan
Rich Graessle/Main EventsUnbeaten lightweight Karl Dargan, right, believes he's getting closer to fulfilling the dream of fighting for a world title.
"I'm from Philly and being from Philly you have to know how to fight," Dargan said. "But I wouldn't consider myself a 'Philly fighter.' I adjust to my habitat. If the strategy is to move around and pick my shots, that's what it is.

"A lot of people from Philly like to fight for Philly and fight to impress the fans. I have to do what I have to do and what is best for me."

Richardson firmly believes that 2015 will be the last year that Dargan might appear in the ring without a world title belt around his waist. The next step in that journey will come against Luis (18-2, 7 KOs), a native of Canada, who is no stranger to making exciting fights.

"I like this kid, I like that he doesn't give it away," Richardson said of Luis. "You've got to work in everything you do to get something from him.

"Tony has faced some good competition and there's no quit in the kid. We just have to change his mind about feeling like he is able to have success."

For Dargan, who eventually sees himself moving up to the 140- and 147-pound divisions, his journey is all about chasing that dream of a world title that began years back inside the gym.

"At the end of the day, I love the game. I want the hardware," Dargan said. "Of course, the money comes with it. And I do want the money. But from the day I first started fighting, I wasn't thinking about that. I was focused on winning."

Five things we learned: Alvarado-Rios III

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25

Brandon Rios was victorious in the third fight of his all-action rivalry against Mike Alvarado on Saturday night by scoring a third-round stoppage at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colorado.

Here are five things we learned from Rios’ victory:

1. It was over before it started

It took somewhere between 30 seconds and a full minute to gain an accurate feel as to how this fight was going to end. Alvarado came out tentative, with the kind of body language to suggest he lacked confidence. To make matters worse, he was barely throwing any punches. Rios (33-2-1, 24 KOs), meanwhile, looked every bit as motivated and in shape as he said he was coming in. He swarmed Alvarado (34-3, 23 KOs) with power shots throughout, including a vicious right uppercut that simply couldn’t miss. But the story of the fight proved to be one that many were leery about coming in -- Alvarado, 34, is simply not the same guy. With legal issues looming outside the ring and too many wars in succession on his résumé catching up with him, Alvarado proved that both his head and his heart just weren’t in it on this night. Both referee Jay Nady and the ring doctor did the right thing in calling a halt to the bout following a damaging Round 3 in which Alvarado tasted the canvas for the first time in the rivalry.

2. Rios isn’t done yet

At 28, whispers of Rios’ rapid decline thanks to excess damage filled the air just as much as they did for Alvarado entering the fight. But Rios not only scored a much-needed win to quiet even his own talk of premature retirement, he looked fresh and dangerous in doing so. Entering the fight in the best shape of his career, Rios moved well and was constantly on the offensive. After the bout, Rios said the win saved his career. And he wasn’t far off from the standpoint of holding serve as a must-see main event fighter and avoiding a free fall into gatekeeper status. Rios would make an interesting opponent for just about anyone whom promoter Top Rank does business with, from Timothy Bradley Jr. and Juan Manuel Marquez to fellow brawlers Ruslan Provodnikov and -- provided the politics can be worked out -- Lucas Matthysse. Sign me up for all of the above.

3. Alvarado deserves criticism

It’s a harsh reality for any fighter to face, but Saturday’s fight looked like the end of the road for Alvarado, who put forth a lifeless performance after looking distracted and distant in the week leading up to the fight. It’s not surprising when you consider he faces possible jail time after being arrested on Jan. 3 for possessing a handgun as a convicted felon. But it was also unprofessional and climaxed with a profoundly sad postfight interview. As his hometown fans booed him in the background, an emotionally charged Alvarado told HBO’s Jim Lampley that he was far from his best on this night and it was his preparation that was to blame. “I wasn’t training as I should have been and this is what I get. I ain’t done yet. I’m far from done. I didn’t give it all I got. So this is whatever. It is what it is.” Alvarado thrilled fans in recent years with a meteoric run from relative unknown to action star, making a name for himself by creating chaos in the ring just as the same was happening for him outside of it. And while his boxing future is very much uncertain, here’s to hoping he can find peace in his personal life.

4. It was an anticlimactic ending to a great trilogy

Rios and Alvarado were simply made for each other -- a pair of warriors with unrelenting styles and nearly unbreakable wills who put on two violent classics that quickly entered the pantheon of great action fights. But they had an opportunity in their rubber match for their rivalry to make a leap into the upper room of history. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. This fight certainly wasn’t enough to remove Alvarado-Rios from anyone’s list of best trilogies. In fact, many of the top rivalries -- including Gatti-Ward and Barrera-Morales -- featured one fight of the three that wasn’t up to the level of the rest. But it did leave a somewhat sour aftertaste thanks to the quick, one-sided nature of the fight, failing to give the rivalry that one final exclamation point to be remembered by.

5. Ramirez’s hard-earned win will be valuable

It wasn’t the showcase knockout that super middleweight Gilberto Ramirez may have expected coming in. But thanks to the guts and boxing acumen of Maxim Vlasov in Saturday’s co-main event, the unbeaten prospect nicknamed “Zurdo” was able to score a victory that is likely much more valuable. Ramirez’s cardio was pushed to the limit and his toughness was tested in his close unanimous-decision win. Ramirez (30-0, 24 KOs), whose aim is to become boxing’s next great Mexican star, was far from exposed, yet certain deficiencies were revealed. It’s a bit of a wake-up call for Ramirez against a tough opponent in a step-up fight, which is what every young boxer needs.

Five things we learned: Stiverne-Wilder

January, 18, 2015
Jan 18

By becoming the first American to win a heavyweight title since 2006, unbeaten slugger Deontay Wilder silenced his critics with a wide unanimous decision win over Bermane Stiverne on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Here are five things we learned from Wilder’s victory:

1. He answered every question we had of him

Wilder had knocked out all 32 of his opponents entering the fight yet hadn’t faced the kind of step-up opponent to instill a necessary amount of confidence that he was ready for Stiverne (24-2-1, 21 KOs). Outside of his massive power, we knew very little about Wilder’s intangibles. But short of delivering a knockout, Wilder (33-0, 32 KOs) backed up just about every word spoken leading up to the fight. Despite feeling Stiverne’s power and twice appearing to be hurt, Wilder’s chin was more than equal to the task against a heavy puncher. He also dispelled any notions of him being simply a puncher. Although the fight was far from a technical showcase, it was exciting and Wilder got the better of the action by proving that he can box, too. Behind his long jab, Wilder kept himself out of trouble, controlled the distance and utilized a fairly responsible defense.

2. Wilder benefited from the fight going the distance

Raise your hand if you had this fight going the full 12 rounds? Or how about simply more than four rounds, which was the most Wilder had gone in six years as a professional? That’s what I thought. Not only did Wilder impress by showcasing the better gas tank in the championship rounds (despite a few sloppy moments from both), but also it was the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native’s reputation that most benefited from the fight going the distance. Had Stiverne, who was hurt and dropped at the bell in Round 1 (although referee Tony Weeks did not rule it a knockdown) become stoppage victim No. 33 in the early rounds, Wilder would have likely retained his critics. Instead, he was given every opportunity to prove himself as anything but a one-dimensional hype job. “The Bronze Bomber” made Stiverne think twice about coming forward with big right hands, and he knew enough to rely on his size advantage with the lead in hand late in the bout. Wilder was taken into deep waters -- a place many figured he would drown -- and he passed the test with flying colors.

3. Stiverne was game, yet not ready for prime time

Deservedly so, the prevailing narrative from the fight centered around what Wilder was able to do in order to claim a piece of the heavyweight crown. But while Wilder’s performance made a statement, it was far from complete, benefitting greatly from the things that Stiverne, 36, was unable to do. Not only was it a shock to most watching at home that both fighters were still standing late in the fight, it was Stiverne who looked the most surprised. The native of Haiti, who fights out of Canada, was simply unable to cut off the ring consistently and was far too patient (throwing just 327 punches compared to 621 for Wilder) in looking to pick his spot with heavy counter shots. Despite showing a strong chin, Stiverne failed to establish his jab, gassed out late in the fight and never varied his attack or moved his head. While it was Wilder’s thin resume that drew plenty of criticism coming in, it clouded the fact -- in hindsight -- that Stiverne’s wasn’t much to write home about either outside of a pair of wins over brawler Chris Arreola.

4. Wilder very well could be that guy

He’s unbeaten and athletic with crushing power. He’s 6-foot-7, lean and ripped and covered in tattoos. And boy can he create a colorful sound bite. Wilder, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist with the All-American back story who picked up the sport late, has all of the makings to be a crossover star. The 29-year-old possesses the kind of must-see excitement that the division has lacked for over a decade. But if he continues to improve and knock out those placed in front of him, he also represents a potential missing link to reconnect the sport with its casual fan base. And with advisor Al Haymon having announced this week a deal with NBC to bring boxing back to network TV in prime time, Wilder very well could get that chance in a division that’s not exactly overflowing with elite talent.

5. But don’t expect a unification bout anytime soon

While Wilder’s victory brings excitement to an often dormant division, it doesn’t lend itself toward any future clarity thanks to the way things stand politically. With recognized heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko -- who holds the three remaining titles -- having signed an exclusive deal with HBO and Haymon’s fighters currently persona non grata on the network, the search for an undisputed champion will likely have to wait. For now, at least.

Monroe tangles with Vera on FNF

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
Veteran Bryan Vera promises to be a nuisance for 2014 Boxcino middleweight tournament winner Willie Monroe Jr. when they collide on Friday at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York.

The 10-round bout is the main event of this week's "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), and given the contrast in styles between the brawling Vera and the technical ability of Monroe, it should be an exciting bout.

Vera (23-8, 14 KOs), a native of Texas, has been on both the winning and losing end of some epic bouts against top-level opponents, including a pair of competitive defeats in his last two bouts against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

Monroe (18-1, 6 KOs) made a name for himself in 2014 with impressive decision wins over Donatas Bondorovas, Vitaliy Kopylenko and Brandon Adams in the Boxcino middleweight tournament. The victories improved Monroe to 8-0 since his lone defeat, a split decision against Darnell Boone in 2011.

A victory on Friday against a tough, experienced opponent in Vera would likely vault Monroe into recognition as a serious contender in the middleweight division.

"This will tell us if we deserve the third-place WBA ranking," said Monroe's manager, Damian Walton.

Walton acknowledges that it won't be an easy fight for his fighter against an opponent in Vera who is no stranger to playing the spoiler role.

"Bryan Vera is a difficult opponent," Walton said. "He's a tough guy who isn't afraid of anybody, and he needs to win this fight no matter what. Bryan [Vera] is in a downward spiral in his career, and a victory will put him back on the path to big things. That's why we have a lot of respect for him, and we thank him for accepting this fight."

Monroe enters the fight as the favorite because of both his recent success and the great expectations that accompany him. But fans will have their eyes on whether Vera can test the young fighter, especially after the veteran appeared to raise his game during his first fight with Chavez -- a split-decision loss that many felt he had won.

Vera also owns an upset win over current middleweight titlist Andy Lee along with a pair of victories over fellow "The Contender" alum Sergio Mora. He also earned a hard-fought TKO against former junior middleweight titlist Sergiy Dzinziruk in 2013.

Last August, Vera took part in the first event of fighting promotion Big Knockout Boxing, which is contested in a pit instead of a ring. Vera was stopped in the sixth round against Gabriel Rosado, but the result doesn't affect his boxing record.

Following the fight, Vera acknowledged he looked bad and his manager, Dave Watson, admitted he thought accepting the fight had been a mistake. However, Vera appears to have recovered, and his preparation for this Friday’s fight seems to back that up.

"Before finishing his preparation in Texas, Bryan spent four weeks training in Montreal and sparred 50 to 60 rounds with sparring partner Jean Pascal," Watson said.

Regardless, Watson was cautious when referring to Monroe.

"We're definitely not taking this lightly," Watson said. "He has two [regional] belts, and there's a reason why he won the [Boxcino] tournament. He has a lot to lose and a lot to gain, and I think that all fights at this level are difficult. Like I always say to Bryan, 'There are easier fights.'"

A member of a boxing family, Monroe is a quick opponent with good technique who moves well and hits accurately, despite owning just six knockouts in 19 fights. Against Vera, he'll need to pay attention to defense because Vera adapts well and puts constant pressure on opponents, along with having respectable power to finish the job.

Vera will look to close the distance, unleashing bursts inside and out, trying to harm his opponent with power punches. Monroe, meanwhile, will move around the ring and punch from angles or with quick combinations. Monroe will avoid direct confrontation and focus on a decision win.

Haymon Boxing announces first two cards

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
NEW YORK -- True to form, Al Haymon never actually showed his face or addressed the media at Wednesday’s news conference announcing his plans to bring boxing back to network TV in prime time.

But the reclusive and powerful adviser/manager’s actions spoke volumes as it pertains to the future of the sport thanks to his multiyear deal with NBC Sports to produce a new series titled “Premier Boxing Champions,” featuring 20 overall dates and five that will air Saturday nights on NBC.

Fans and critics have debated over the past few years whether the intentions of Haymon, who doesn’t speak to the media and is known for getting his fighters the most money for the least amount of risk, are a good thing for the overall health of the sport.

Haymon’s response to those questions came through loud and clear on Wednesday. And it’s clearly hard to argue with the idea of bringing big-time fights back to the masses on free TV, provided of course that the level of quality for each card remains on par with the first two that were announced: Keith Thurman-Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner-John Molina for March 7 and Danny Garcia-Lamont Peterson on April 11.

And that, of course, is where the proof needs to actually show up within the pudding over the long haul. Critics have a right to withhold their celebration when you consider Haymon’s history of matching his fighters soft on both HBO and Showtime.

The good news is that there’s clearly enough incentive this time around for Haymon to consistently put on great fights when it’s he who is fronting the money as a time buy. But can that model sustain itself in the long term, relying on advertising to pay for the fights? Will that fact alone affect the quality of fights over time?

Boxing as a whole limped through an awfully disappointing 2014, with much of the blame falling on Haymon’s perceived unwillingness to match any of the marquee names in his star-studded stable of more than 150 fighters against each other. The result was one unexplained mismatch after another on premium cable.

And while the announcement of the “PBC on NBC” goes a long way toward explaining why last year was so painful, does it make it right? Why did the networks, Golden Boy (which has acted as Haymon’s promoter of choice in recent years) and, most importantly, the fans need to suffer in order for Wednesday’s long-rumored announcement to create such cheerful feelings? (And why were those fights allowed to air by the networks in the first place?)

[+] EnlargeAl Haymon
Ramon Cairo for ESPNAdviser Al Haymon is bringing boxing to prime time on network television with his new series "PBC on NBC."
Does Haymon’s new plan only feel so good because our expectations have been lowered so far? As much as fights like Thurman-Guerrero and Garcia-Peterson are appealing, couldn’t they have taken place just as easily one year ago?

Being a boxing fan makes it easy to start preparing for rain on such a sunny day as this one. It’s an aptly titled cruel sport that not only takes more from its combatants than it ever rewards, it very often breaks the heart of a fan just as quickly as it captures it.

But despite what it took to get to this point, the star-studded arrival of Haymon’s PBC -- with the news conference held in the same studio where “Saturday Night Live” is filmed -- is a breath of fresh air for the crossover potential of a sport longing to reconnect with a faded casual fan base.

Those close to Haymon said all the right things on Wednesday, including a willingness to work with any promoter and the announcement of an advanced drug testing plan. And despite initial rumors, fighters who appear on the PBC won’t be exclusive to the series, giving them the option to float between pay cable and pay-per-view in search of the biggest opportunity.

Haymon has used the shadow of his reclusiveness to work the magic of his great influence and Harvard-educated mind behind the scenes, graying the definition of his title as adviser by those who believe he has just as easily acted as a promoter and matchmaker. And there’s little question the launch of the PBC could be just the beginning of Haymon’s attempt to take over control of the sport.

One thing we do know is that Haymon has long been a tremendous advocate for the entity within boxing that most often gets the shortest end of the stick: the fighters. But provided he continues to use his vast powers for the good of the fans, Wednesday’s announcement could go down as a turning point for the sport.

And that's something to be excited about.

Is Wilder the next great heavyweight?

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14

It has long been said in America that as the heavyweight division goes, so does boxing. And taking a quick glance at the past decade, business hasn’t been all that good.

So if you ask any expert the one solution that might most help bridge the gap between the casual fan and the sport, the emergence of a dynamic American heavyweight would undoubtedly top the list.

It wouldn’t hurt, of course, if said heavyweight had the requisite level of size, strength and cocky exterior. He would not only need to be powerful, but be able to sell himself through his look and ability to talk.

Basically, this mythical creation would look and sound a heck of a lot like unbeaten Deontay Wilder, which makes Saturday’s showdown against heavyweight titlist Bermane Stiverne at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/PT) all the more interesting.

The crux of the intrigue circles around the fact despite being six years and 32 fights into his professional career, we really don’t know all that much about whether the 6-foot-7 Wilder is for real.

What we do know is that Wilder (32-0, 32 KOs), a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has unquestionable power, specifically in his right hand. It’s a notion that’s illustrated by the fact no opponent has yet to make it out of the fourth round against the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist.

Yet Wilder’s painfully slow matchmaking has done more than delay the proper appraisal of his true class within the division. It has also created a considerable amount of doubt, and idea that the hype surrounding Wilder might be too good to be true.

Wilder, 29, has violently feasted on a potpourri of faded names and no-hopers that, in theory, are no different from the resumes of similar promising heavyweights in recent years. But the major difference is that Wilder has not only lingered for far too long under the category of prospect without having properly stepped up in class, he also has yet to find himself in anything resembling a compromising situation.

Because of that, we know next to nothing about his intangibles. Does he have a strong chin? Can he box anywhere as good as he can punch? Does he have the stamina and toughness to find a second life in the championship rounds?

There are some truths that can only be discovered inside the ring, meaning not only do critics lack sufficient evidence, so does Wilder. It’s the same scenario that fellow protected prospect Gary Russell Jr. encountered last June when he finally stepped up in class for a vacant featherweight title against Vasyl Lomachenko and discovered some hard truths about himself.

Wilder, of course, is facing an opponent in Stiverne who is solid, but not on the same level as Lomachenko. Unlike Russell, he also benefits from being a big puncher, which could prove to be a great equalizer should he fall behind.

But just the same, the untested Wilder is going all-in by simply accepting the fight with Stiverne (24-1-1, 21 KOs), who knocked out Chris Arreola last May in their rematch to claim the title vacated by Vitali Klitschko’s retirement.

Should Stiverne succumb early to Wilder’s power in the same way that 32 fighters have before him, this conversation will become null and void as Wilder chases potential stardom and (hopefully) a unification fight with recognized champion Wladimir Klitschko.

But if the idea of Wilder as boxing’s next big thing proves to be nothing more than a fairy tale, criticism of his handling up to this point will be justified.

That, in a nutshell, is what makes this heavyweight title fight between two prime sluggers a rare case of must-see TV for the division. And it has truly been a long time since we have been able to say that.

Brandon Rios in his own words

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
After two all-action classics against each other, Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado are ready for a third dance to settle the score.

The pair of exciting sluggers will meet in a rubber match on Jan. 24 in Broomfield, Colorado (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET/PT), not far from Alvarado's hometown of Denver.

Rios (32-2-1, 23 KOs), who fights out of Oxnard, California, won their 2012 first meeting in nearby Carson by seventh-round TKO. Alvarado (34-3, 23 KOs) returned the favor in their 2013 rematch in Las Vegas by unanimous decision.

With both of their first two fights finishing as finalist for fight of the year, their rivalry has a chance to enter the all-time pantheon with an equally exciting third bout.

Rios recently took time away from training camp to talk about his preparations and more:

How would you describe your first two fights against Alvarado?

Our first two fights were exciting and have become legendary. I am proud to be associated with them and with Mike Alvarado. We gave the fans and ourselves the best we had to offer and produced spectacular performances. It was so intense and so close. All I kept thinking in each fight was "Don't stop. Keep moving forward."

What are you working on in training camp?

I am training hard and well for this fight. [Trainer] Robert [Garcia] and I are working on using the ring in case Alvarado tries to run. I run in the mornings at 6 a.m. if the weather permits it. On mornings when it is raining I run on the treadmill in my home. The training method I am using is going back to the basics that I used in our first fight.

What do you expect in the final chapter of this trilogy?

I expect Alvarado to do what he did in the second fight, which is to run and move. He thinks I am going to follow him like I did in the second fight. His fight game did change from one fight to the other as he didn't fight toe-to-toe in the second fight. He did move and run around more in the second fight. At least I think he did, you can call it whatever you want. We are working on everything we think he will be bringing to the table, but this time we will be 100 percent ready for him. Preparation is our motto.

Do you have any concerns about fighting so close to Alvarado's hometown of Denver?

No, I don't have any concerns fighting in Alvardo's hometown. It is only a few of hours away from my hometwn, Garden City, Kansas. We are looking to get some Garden City friends and family to come and support me in Denver. I am actually looking forward to fighting in his hometown. It is part of what makes boxing and sports so fun and challenging. Look, he fought me in Carson, California, which is close to my home base of Oxnard. I look forward to fighting him in front of his fans this time.

Perez defends title against Maicelo on FNF

January, 7, 2015
Jan 7
Darleys Perez will defend his interim lightweight title in the season premiere of ESPN's "Friday Night Fights" when he faces Jonathan Maicelo on Friday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ines, California.

Perez (31-1, 20 KOs), of Colombia, is 3-0 since suffering his first career defeat against Yuriorkis Gamboa in June 2013 and will be making the second defense of the interim belt he won last July on his home turf against Dominican Argenis Lopez.

Peru's Maicelo (21-1, 12 KOs) has also lost only once in his career. In April 2013, he was stopped in Round 8 on FNF by Rustam Nugaev. Maicelo returned to FNF last July when he won a split decision against Art Hovhannisyan.

Perez and Maicelo match up well in terms of age and physique. Both are 31 and stand in at 5-foot-7, with Perez holding a mere half-inch reach advantage. Perez, however, holds a distinct advantage when it comes to experience.

The fighters have different styles, too. Maicelo is aggressive, elusive and explosive, although sometimes his eagerness leaves him dangerously exposed to counterattacks. Perez, on the other hand, is more technical and not as fast, but wields more power.

Perez is very patient and solid defensively, waiting for the right moment to counter. Maicelo isn't known for being as careful defensively. He usually sets the pace and counts on the explosiveness and speed of his combinations.

It's a style that could prove risky for Maicelo against a dangerous fighter in Perez.

"Perez is a very astute, veteran fighter, but I'm taking this fight very seriously," Maicelo said. "My trainer and I have been working in a very smart manner, and I can assure that I'm in the best shape of my life. I know if I win, I can become a world champion, and I'm sure I'll come out on top."

Perez knows he is in for a difficult challenge as well.

"Maicelo is a tough opponent, and I'll have to use all my skills to win," Perez said. "I feel like I have an advantage in this fight, and I know what I have to do to win. It's going to be an exciting fight because we both have a lot to lose. We both need to win to get to the next level, and that's exactly what I'm going to do."

What nobody doubts is how important this bout is for both fighters. That's why both followed a demanding schedule leading up to it. Maicelo fought more than 100 rounds of sparring at his training camp in New Jersey under the careful watch of trainer Butch Sanchez.

Perez, meanwhile, carried out the first stage of his preparations in Colombia and the last two weeks in the Pedro Alcazar Gym in Panama under the orders of trainers Orlando Pineda and Celso Chavez, who was in the corner of former titlist Anselmo "Chemito" Moreno in previous years.

In the co-feature, rising Californian Francisco Santana (21-3-1, 10 KOs), who has won his past nine fights in a row, faces fellow unbeaten Kendal Mena (20-0, 11 KOs) in a 10-round welterweight fight. Santana, who will be fighting for the first time at 147 pounds, was originally scheduled to fight Sebastian Lujan and then Randall Bailey, but both were ruled out.

Thurman OK with tune-up fight

December, 11, 2014

Depending upon the way you look at it, 2014 will go down as either a lost year for unbeaten interim welterweight titlist Keith Thurman or the final stages before his possible launch to boxing stardom.

In support of the former is the fact that Thurman (23-0, 21 KOs), while still unproven at the elite level, has been unable to capitalize on the buzz he entered 2014 with as an attractive candidate to maybe one day face Floyd Mayweather Jr.

After taking a showcase bout in April and blowing out faded former lightweight titlist Julio Diaz in three rounds, Thurman was sidelined by an injured left shoulder. The native of Clearwater, Florida, makes his return Saturday in a bout that screams adjectives like “showcase” and “get-well” all over again -- something not uncommon in 2014 for fighters managed by Al Haymon.

Thurman, 26, faces Leonard Bundu at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET). The fight is a co-feature with the Amir Khan-Devon Alexander welterweight bout.

Bundu (31-0-2, 11 KOs) is a native of Sierra Leone who fights out of Italy. While he's unbeaten, he is also 40 and is making his first appearance fighting outside of Europe. From Thurman’s perspective, Bundu is the right opponent at the right time, considering Thurman’s preferred opponents -- which he identified as Khan, Marcos Maidana and Robert Guerrero -- were either unavailable or unwilling to sign a deal.

“Coming off of a layoff, it’s kind of not that uncommon for fighters to not go and fight the big names and to take a warm-up to brush off the dust,” Thurman said. “I already knew the different names that I was looking at weren’t going to be possible this year. So I simply told Al Haymon, ‘Well, at least give me a guy that doesn’t have six to seven losses on his record. I would like a respectable opponent.’ And he showed up with Bundu.”

An August split-decision win over unbeaten British welterweight Frankie Gavin certainly helped Bundu's chances. Thurman is prepared for a difficult fight considering Bundu's style.

“He doesn’t look 40, you know?” Thurman said. “When you watch him, he’s a hyper fighter. He’s real short, [fights] in and out similar to Manny Pacquiao. He’s a 2000 Olympian. He’s still undefeated so obviously he has a decent grasp on the sport of boxing and knows what the judges are looking for to win a fight.”

While Thurman’s 2014 has played out slower than most expected, it hasn’t dimmed his bright potential when you consider his youth, tremendous power, respectable boxing ability and contagious personality. He caught the attention of upstart promoter Roc Nation Sports, founded by rap mogul Jay Z, which offered Thurman a three-year, $6 million deal to essentially become the face of their operation.

It was an offer he declined, drawing criticism in some boxing circles because of what some construed to be a power play by his manager/adviser Haymon, who has had issues with Jay Z and his wife, Beyonce, dating back to Haymon’s past in the music business.

Another Haymon fighter, former middleweight titlist Peter Quillin, vacated his belt in September to avoid a mandatory defense against Matt Korobov after Roc Nation Sports won the rights to promote the fight in a purse bid.

While Thurman was flattered by the offer, he believes remaining a promotional free agent is the right move, claiming he felt “personally a little ambushed” by Roc Nation.

“I already knew I was going to fight on the Showtime card in December. To me, it was a rushed contract,” Thurman said. “They wanted me to get a fight this year. I’m pretty sure they wanted me to switch over to HBO. And I just felt comfortable knowing what I was going to do.

“Another thing was there were just a few stipulations that I didn’t like, and I didn’t feel like [Roc Nation] was offering me anything that we weren’t going to be able to do on this side of the fence with Team Haymon.”

What also gave Thurman confidence is his belief in himself and the value of his stock within the sport. He wants those who criticize him to wait and see how 2015 ends before declaring whether he is a wise businessman or not.

“I believe I’m going to need a very big statement at the beginning of 2015,” Thurman said. “I would like to open up the year with a respectable challenge that could force the Mayweather fight to happen a little bit more easier.”

Thurman isn’t the only welterweight who plans to use Saturday’s card at the MGM Grand as a de facto audition for a Mayweather fight, as both Khan and Alexander have similar hopes for 2015. But whether Thurman can land such a fight is still unknown.

Without experience against A-level competition, Thurman remains a risky proposition whose crossover potential from a brand perspective is still in the development stages. Much of this hearkens back to the criticism about how softly matched he was in 2014.

Yet Thurman remains optimistic about his chances, especially if he can open the new year with a big fight.

“I think [a Mayweather fight] is realistic,” Thurman said. “First thing is, I’m one of his mandatories. So the WBA -- even though they will probably let the king do whatever he wants -- could at some point in the year issue the mandatory to where they force Floyd to either fight me or vacate his WBA title. He has the WBC as well, so he could easily do that if that’s what he chose to do. Or he could take the fight.”

But Thurman, nicknamed “One Time” because of his power, will need to get past Bundu first. In case you were wondering, he likes his odds.

“I do have a motto that it’s KOs for life,” Thurman said. “I’m always looking for the knockout. I’m always looking for them to slip up one time. Drop their hands one time. Run into a punch one time.

“We are going to be in Vegas. I’m not a big gambler but I’m somewhat of a gambling man. I like blackjack. I like poker. And when we have 12 rounds to land one punch, I like my odds.”