Mares' long wait for Agbeko pays off

The semifinals of Showtime's four-man bantamweight tournament went quite smoothly and produced a pair of action-packed fights last Dec. 18, when Abner Mares took a bloody split decision against Vic Darchinyan, and Joseph "King Kong" Agbeko regained his title by winning a unanimous decision against Yonnhy Perez in their rematch in the main event.

It set up a final between Agbeko and Mares, a fight that also -- on paper, at least -- figured to be action-packed. They were scheduled to meet April 23 in Los Angeles, with Darchinyan and Perez squaring off in the consolation match on the undercard.

However, when Agbeko, a native of Ghana living in New York, arrived in L.A. for fight week, he collapsed at the airport and was diagnosed with a sudden onset sciatica, a back injury that forced him to postpone the final.

Mares, manager Frank Espinoza and Golden Boy Promotions were faced with a tough decision: fight a late substitute in a meaningless bout and risk the title shot, or sit out for a few months waiting -- and hoping -- for Agbeko to get healthy enough to reschedule the bout.

While Darchinyan easily handled Perez as Showtime moved forward with the consolation match, Mares, a 2004 Mexican Olympian living in Hawaiian Gardens, Calif., elected to wait for Agbeko.

"At the moment I heard that the fight might be cancelled and that there might be another opponent, I was happy, but I was not mentally happy," Mares said. "I was getting ready for a world title fight and whoever stepped in, it would not be for a world title. Just another 12-round fight. Yeah, I was ready, and yeah, it might make sense, and I could have gone the 10 or 12 rounds with whoever they put in there, but I was kind of mentally disappointed. So I didn't want to take that risk.

"I had more to lose than to win. So, saying that, the whole camp just decided to wait for Agbeko. He made it to the finals and it's only right to fight him for the Showtime bantamweight [tournament] title."

Mares' patience has been rewarded. The fight was rescheduled, and he will challenge the now-healthy Agbeko for his 118-pound crown and the tournament championship on Saturday night (Showtime, 10 ET/PT) at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

"Naturally, it was difficult for me when our fight was cancelled, but eventually I got over it," Mares said. "I took a few weeks off and then was back in the gym. My camp was different this time around. We changed it up, first when I was in Mexico and then when I was in Santa Fe Springs [Calif.], just so I wouldn't get stale. Actually, this camp went by fast and now my training's done. I'm in great shape and very excited about fighting on Saturday. I'm totally focused and ready to explode."

Agbeko (28-2, 22 KOs) followed his doctor's orders by taking off six weeks to let his back heal. He said he has not had any problems with it since he was cleared to resume training in early June.

"I feel good -- actually, great -- and I'm very happy to be back and fighting," said Agbeko, who added that he was happy to be appearing again at the Hard Rock, the site of a knockout victory in his first bout in the United States, in August 2007. "I was never afraid that I would not fight again. I was surprised a thing like this could happen to me, but I knew in my heart that my career was not going to end this way. I mostly felt very bad that our first fight could not come off as scheduled.

"I have trained for nine weeks and my camp was excellent. At no point did I feel weak, and now it is all behind me and I am focusing on Mares. There is no way I am going to lose this fight."

Agbeko said he also appreciated Mares and Showtime allowing him time to heal rather than moving on to some other bout.

"I would like to thank Abner Mares and Showtime for giving me time to recover from this most unfortunate of injuries. I will forever remember their great sportsmanship during my time of trouble."

Said Don King, Agbeko's promoter: "Not only did Agbeko defeat something I can't pronounce [sciatica], but he will defeat Abner Mares and we'll be going on to better things."

A Mares victory, on the other hand, would not only give him a belt and the tournament title, but would make him the first fighter that Golden Boy Promotions (which Oscar De La Hoya founded in 2002) has taken from his pro debut to a world title.

"It's a huge deal," De La Hoya said. "We're still a very young company. [Not building a titleholder from scratch] never bothered us. We have just continued to work hard. With Abner, we signed him after the [2004] Olympics and it will take us about six years to make him a world champion. But he'll do it and he'll do it fighting the best out there."

Golden Boy has promoted numerous titleholders who weren't homegrown, although Mares (21-0-1, 13 KOs) came close in his first title shot. However, he fought to a draw with Perez in May 2010.

"It means a whole lot to me," Mares said of the possibility of becoming Golden Boy's first homegrown titleholder. "I've said this before: Golden Boy is not just my promoter but also my family. I get along with everyone so well. From [publicist] Monica [Sears] to [chief operating officer] David [Itskowitch], the entire staff. We go out to lunch, and outside the ring everyone is so nice and just like family.

"So winning this fight, I'll be the first Golden Boy fighter to start from scratch and become world champion, so that would mean a whole lot for me. And I know it would mean a whole lot to Golden Boy Promotions. We're a big happy family and we would all win that night."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.