- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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NEW YORK -- After junior middleweights Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez battled to a ferocious draw in a thrilling slugfest July 15 in one of the best fights in "Friday Night Fights" history, fans demanded a rematch.
The fighters wanted it, too, and now they are ready to do it again Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET, $54.95) in one of the featured bouts on the stacked Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito II undercard at Madison Square Garden.
As terrific as the first Wolak-Rodriguez fight was -- and it is a leading candidate for fight of the year -- the fighters believe they have what it takes to deliver an even better bout the second time around.
That probably means more pain, but both Wolak and Rodriguez say they are prepared.
"Pawel Wolak is a warrior. He is a pressure fighter and he is willing to do whatever he can to stay on top of me," Rodriguez said. "I can also box, but I can also stay there and trade, so there is no doubt in my mind it will be a great fight and be even better than the first fight."
Said Wolak: "This time I am looking to win for good, that's it. I know I will fight hard and I am ready. It's gonna be a good fight. I hope it is."
The first fight was so enthralling that, for the first time ever, ESPN2 replayed the bout the following week as part of the regular edition of "Friday Night Fights."
Rodriguez (25-5-3, 14 KOs), a former welterweight title challenger, was moving up to junior middleweight, where he and Wolak (29-1-1, 19 KOs) slugged away at each other for 10 brutal rounds. Rodriguez looked like he was on the verge of scoring a late stoppage because he had badly damaged Wolak's right eye, which was swollen closed. Wolak couldn't see out of it after about the seventh round, but he continued to throw enough punches that the fight wasn't stopped.
Although Rodriguez appeared to have the slight advantage, especially after his late surge, the fight was ruled a majority draw, with two judges scoring it 95-95 and one judge going 97-93 for Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, a Danbury, Conn., resident born in the Dominican Republic, said he thought the massive swelling of Wolak's eye would force the fight to be stopped.
"In the ninth round, I thought it would be stopped," Rodriguez said. "I tried going for the eye. I really thought the referee [Steve Smoger] or the doctor would stop the fight, but they knew what they were doing."
Rodriguez, 31, said he wouldn't specifically target the eye in the rematch, but believes he could do damage again.
"I believe if you're getting hit with straight, hard punches, [swelling] will happen," he said. "If you're getting hit, it will swell. I'm not looking for the eye again. I'm a combination puncher and a boxer, so I'm not just looking to do one thing."
Despite the bum eye, Wolak, 30, a native of Poland living in Rockaway, N.J., said he was OK to keep going.
"I felt fine. I'm gonna fight to the end," Wolak said. "You have to pull me out of the ring to stop me from fighting. The vision was affected and the swelling was bad, but I wasn't affected. My depth perception was off, the way it would be with one eye, but there is no quit in me. I am happy they let the fight continue to the very end and I am glad the fans enjoyed the fight, and we're going to do it again. We're going to do even better this time."
Wolak said the eye looked a lot worse than it felt.
"I wouldn't want to date me, put it that way," he said of his appearance after the bout. "When me and Delvin walled down from the ring for the interview to talk to [ESPN's] Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore, there was a monitor behind us and I saw it, and it was pretty bad."
Wolak and Rodriguez had just been through a very hard fight, but they showed no animosity toward each other and neither complained about the draw. They showed a lot of class, which has continued through the promotion for the rematch.
Their attitude is reminiscent of how it was between fierce rivals Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, who waged three brutal fights and wound up being close friends.
"A fighter like Pawel, you have to respect," Rodriguez said. "He sees like a pretty cool guy. If we bump into each other [after the fight], maybe we can have a few drinks together."
Said Wolak: "I would not mind after the fight sitting down and having a drink with him. He's all right by me."
The only question: Who's buying?
Murray gets another chance
The last time British lightweight John Murray (31-1, 18 KOs) was in the ring, he put up a competitive effort but suffered an eighth-round knockout loss to countryman and fellow contender Kevin Mitchell.
But instead of losing ground in his quest for a title opportunity, Murray will get one instead. The 26-year-old will challenge Brandon Rios for his 135-pound title on Saturday night's Cotto-Margarito II HBO PPV card.
"This is a great stage for me to bounce back after my defeat to Mitchell," Murray said. "Since that loss, we've been back in the gym and have gone back to basics. I've been working on moving my feet and legs a lot more. I think the loss was the kick up the bum I needed to reignite my motivation for the sport. Training and sparring have been going extremely well, and I'm looking forward to just getting back in the ring and putting on a good show."
Murray, the former British and European champion, is from Manchester, the same hometown as former junior welterweight champ Ricky Hatton. He hopes to follow Hatton's success in the United States.
"This is by far the biggest bout of my career to date," Murray said. "To be fighting in the mecca of boxing, Madison Square Garden, for the world title is the whole reason I got into this sport in the first place. If you don't want to have nights like this, then there is no point being in this game. I've fought over in America in the past and have won each time, so I aim to continue that run against Rios. Hatton had many great nights in America, and I hope that I'm the next Manchester fighter who can win there."
Rios (28-0-1, 21 KOs) is making his second title defense since rallying for a 10th-round knockout of Miguel Acosta in February to win the belt. Rios made his first defense in July, knocking out Urbano Antillon in the third round of an all-action fight.
Murray knows he has his work cut out for him.
"Rios is a very good fighter and is the champion for a reason," Murray said. "He is very good coming forward, but at times he tends to neglect his defense a little bit and I'm going to try and exploit that and keep myself tight. The loss to Mitchell comes into play once again because it has made me look at my defense to improve it and get myself sharper. I feel like if I had this fight before l lost, I would just go in there and have a fight with him, but now I want to try and be a little bit smarter."
Dirrell joins Taylor on comeback trail
When former middleweight champ Jermain Taylor (28-4-1, 17 KOs) makes his ring return after 26 months away from boxing to face Jesse Nicklow (22-2-3, 8 KOs) in the main event of a Dec. 30 "ShoBox: The New Generation" card at the Morongo Casino in Cabazon, Calif., he won't be the only American Olympic medalist and former Super Six World Boxing Classic participant coming off a lengthy layoff.
Also ticketed for the card is super middleweight Andre Dirrell (19-1, 13 KOs), who hasn't fought an 11th-round disqualification win against Arthur Abraham in the Super Six.
Abraham was down big on the scorecards when he was DQ'd for badly knocking out Dirrell with an illegal shot after Dirrell had slipped to the canvas. Dirrell, a 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, later dropped out of the tournament, saying he was suffering neurological problems stemming from the illegal blow. Taylor, a 2000 bronze medalist, is also returning after neurological problems stemming from a brutal 12th-round knockout loss to Abraham in the first round of the Super Six.
Dirrell will face Darryl Cunningham (23-2, 10 KOs), who was supposed to fight Kelly Pavlik on "ShoBox" in August before Pavlik abruptly pulled out days before the bout.
Shumenov-Cleverly light heavyweight unification?
Light heavyweight titlist Nathan Cleverly (23-0, 11 KOs) of Wales has talked about his desire to unify belts in a fight with Beibut Shumenov (21-1, 8 KOs). Shumenov, a native of Kazakhstan based in Las Vegas, said he is interested and would like the fight to be held in Las Vegas if it can be made.
"Both of us are world champions," Shumenov said. "I tried to unify against [now-former titlist Jürgen Brähmer], but it didn't work out. This fight should happen for boxing fans all over the world, and we as fighters need to make sure that it does happen. I am sure Cleverly would prefer to fight at home in the U.K., as I would love to fight in Kazakhstan, but this fight belongs in the boxing capital of the world, Las Vegas. I'm ready, and if Cleverly is really willing and able, let's make it happen and get a deal done. My goal has always been to unify the light heavyweight world title."
Shumenov said his adviser, Hall of Fame promoter Don Chagrin, has reached out to Frank Warren, Cleverly's promoter.
"They want the fight in Wales or London; Beibut would like to have it in Kazakhstan," Chagrin said. "I asked if they'd be interested in Las Vegas and [Warren matchmaker Dean Powell] said that was something that could possibly be arranged. I'm still waiting to hear back from them about fighting in Las Vegas."
Shumenov has made three title defenses since claiming a belt in January 2010. Cleverly claimed a belt in May and has made two defenses, the latest being a majority decision against Tony Bellew in a thrilling fight on Oct. 15.
Shumenov and Cleverly have something in common besides belts at 175 pounds. They both have been stood up by Brähmer. Shumenov was supposed to meet him in a unification fight, but Brähmer pulled out a few days before without even notifying the promoter. Brähmer's next fight was supposed to be against Cleverly, but he again pulled out and this time was stripped, allowing Cleverly to move up from interim titleholder to a full titlist.
• Showtime is working on a Jan. 21 doubleheader featuring junior middleweights Paul Williams (40-2, 27 KOs) and Erislandy Lara in separate fights at a location to be determined. Luis DeCubas Jr., Lara's manager, told ESPN.com that the search for opponents was ongoing, but that they would not be fighting each other. DeCubas said Lara would welcome a rematch but that it was Williams' side that was not interested. Williams scored a highly controversial majority decision against Lara (15-1-1, 10 KOs) on July 9 in Atlantic City, N.J., on HBO -- a decision that was so heavily criticized that the New Jersey commission suspended all three judges indefinitely because of their scorecards. It will be the first bout for both fighters since they faced each other.
• Top Rank's Bob Arum met with HBO executives Wednesday to talk about plans for several of the fighters in his stable, including middleweight titleholder Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Arum had contacted promoter Lou DiBella last week to gauge his interest in matching Andy Lee with Chavez. DiBella said he and Lee were interested. However, Top Rank's matchmakers put the kibosh on further negotiations because they don't want to match Chavez with a southpaw of Lee's caliber. That would seem to also rule out recognized champion Sergio Martinez, another southpaw promoted by DiBella. The new name under discussion as a possible opponent for Chavez in his second defense is England's Darren Barker (23-1, 14 KOs). Barker challenged Martinez on HBO on Oct. 1 and gave him some early trouble before being knocked out in the 11th round. Before DiBella put Barker in with Martinez, Top Rank wanted to match Chavez with him.
• Although there had been some discussion about former light heavyweight champ Jean Pascal fighting in December in his first bout since losing the title to Bernard Hopkins on a unanimous decision in May, promoter Yvon Michel told ESPN.com that Montreal's Pascal (26-2-1, 16 KOs) wouldn't fight until at least early next year. "Pascal will not fight this year. We are looking for a February date at the Bell Centre [in Montreal]," Michel said. "He is in training now, but the timing to get the promotion going for this year was not good."
• Middleweight prospect Fernando Guerrero (21-1, 16 KOs) has been added to the undercard of unified junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan's defense against Lamont Peterson on Dec. 10 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., Peterson's hometown. Guerrero, a popular draw in his hometown of Salisbury, Md., figures to bring some fans. It will be Guerrero's first fight since suffering his first defeat, an upset fourth-round knockout at the hands of Grady Brewer in June. Guerrero dropped down to junior middleweight for the fight, but he is now back at middleweight. "I am excited to be getting back in the ring and fighting in the D.C./Maryland area," Guerrero said. "I'm looking forward to putting on a great performance in front of all my fans." Guerrero is in soft, however, facing Robert Kliewer (11-13-2, 5 KOs) in a scheduled eight-rounder. Lightweight contender Anthony Peterson, Lamont's brother, is also on the card. He will be fighting for the first time since he was disqualified for excessive low blows against Brandon Rios, who was up big on all three scorecards when it was stopped in the seventh round, in a September 2010 title eliminator. Peterson (30-1, 20 KOs) will face Washington-based Nigerian Daniel Attah (28-8-1, 9 KOs), who is coming off a sixth-round knockout to former junior lightweight titlist Roman Martinez in October.
• Super middleweight titlist Robert Stieglitz (40-2, 23 KOs) of Germany was scheduled to face former titleholder Mikkel Kessler (44-2, 33 KOs) in Kessler's native Denmark on Nov. 5, but the fight was postponed until 2012 (probably April 14) after Kessler suffered a right hand injury. However, rather than wait on Kessler, Stieglitz will take an interim bout against countryman Henry Weber (15-0-1, 3 KOs), according to Weber's promoter, Chris Meyer of Sauerland Event, which also promotes Kessler. Stieglitz-Weber will take place Jan. 14 in Germany. "[Stieglitz] wants to stay active and not wait so long," Meyer said. "For our guy, Weber, it is a chance to step in, and who knows?" Meyer said Stieglitz's promoter, SES, indicated the fighter would be ready to face Kessler in April if he defeats Weber. Stieglitz will be making his fifth title defense against Weber.
• Middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin (21-0, 18 KOs) has been added to the undercard of heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko's defense against former cruiserweight champion Jean-Marc Mormeck at ESPRIT Arena in Düsseldorf, Germany on Dec. 10 (4 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com). Golovkin, a native of Kazakhstan living in Germany and a 2004 Olympic silver medalist, will make his third defense, against Philadelphia's Lajuan Simon (23-3-2, 12 KOs). That bout is slated to be part of the ESPN3.com live stream. Simon is known to German fans because he fought there twice in 2009, losing decisions to Arthur Abraham (in a world title bout) and Sebastian Sylvester. "I am excited to fight on such a big show with Wladimir Klitschko in one of the best soccer stadiums in Europe," Golovkin said. "I will make the most of this opportunity and show my talent in front of all the fans in the stadium and everybody watching around the world." Also on the card, fringe heavyweight contender Johnathon Banks (27-1-1, 18 KOs) of Detroit, a regular on Klitschko undercards, will face former title challenger DaVarryl Williamson (27-6, 23 KOs) of Denver.
• Featherweight titlist Jhonny Gonzalez (50-7, 44 KOs) of Mexico will defend his title against Panama's Roinet Caballero (31-10-1, 22 KOs) in Mexico City on Saturday night. ESPN Deportes is scheduled to carry the fight at 9 p.m. ET. It's the third time Gonzalez and Caballero have been set to meet, but the two previous times it was called off because of Caballero's visa issues coming to the United States -- once in July in Atlantic City, N.J., and again in September in El Paso, Texas. With the fight now staged in Mexico, everything appears to be in order. Gonzalez will be making his third title defense. Caballero fought for a title once before, but he was stopped by Chris John in the seventh round.
• The comeback of heavyweight Odlanier Solis, the 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist who defected, has been delayed, but it's not because of the knee injury he suffered when challenging Vitali Klitschko for a title in March (which cost him a first-round TKO loss). Solis (17-1, 12 KOs) was due to return Nov. 26 on the undercard of the Selcuk Aydin-Jo Jo Dan rematch in Turkey, but he was unable to leave Miami, where he is based, because of what his promoter, Ahmet Öner, described as "pending legal issues." Öner said that Solis is medically cleared to fight after his knee surgery. "He was ready to go," Öner said. "Now we'll see what we will do. We will probably bring him back early next year when all legal issues have been solved. I am still convinced that Solis is the only heavyweight in the world today who can actually beat both Klitschko brothers."
• Dan, who dropped a decision to Aydin in their welterweight title eliminator last Saturday in Aydin's native Turkey, was released from the hospital on Tuesday. Dan, a native of Romania based in Canada, suffered a broken jaw in the loss, a rematch of a disputed fight in June 2010 that Aydin won via controversial decision. "If the jaw break hadn't happened, I would have defeated Aydin," said Dan, who was knocked down in the first and 11th rounds. "I was immediately aware of my injury, but I felt I could continue and win the fight anyway. The official scores proved me wrong, but I certainly came close." Dan, who said he suffered the injury in the fourth round, is expected to be able to begin a fitness program in January.
• Detroit junior welterweight contender Vernon "Ice Man" Paris (26-0, 15 KOs) has signed with promoter Don King. "I can't find the words to explain how I feel signing to fight for a legend like Don King," said the 23-year-old Paris, who has survived being shot and stabbed on the streets of his hometown. "People are now going to see what Vernon Paris is truly capable of." King has high hopes for Paris, who scored the biggest win of his career in August on ESPN2/ESPN3 when he stopped Tim Coleman in the seventh round. "I've been watching this young man closely, and Floyd [Mayweather Jr.], Manny [Pacquiao], Amir Khan, Timmy Bradley and all the rest of them around 140 pounds better watch out," King said. "Vernon Paris is just 23, and his enthusiasm and confidence reminds me of [Muhammad] Ali. I will set them up, and it's up to Vernon to keep on
winning. I like the path this young man is on. I think he is special."
• Sakio Bika (28-5-2, 19 KOs), a former super middleweight title challenger (and the 2007 winner of "The Contender" reality series) hasn't fought since losing a decision to titleholder Andre Ward in November 2010. But after a year layoff, Bika, a native of Cameroon based in Australia, will return on Saturday. He will face journeyman Alfredo Contreras (11-12-2, 5 KOs) on the undercard of the Abner Mares-Joseph Agbeko bantamweight title rematch at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
• After Yoan Pablo Hernandez (25-1, 13 KOs) claimed a cruiserweight title from Steve Cunningham via controversial sixth-round technical decision (24-3, 12 KOs) in Germany on Oct. 1, the organization that sanctioned the bout ordered an immediate rematch. Chris Meyer of Sauerland Event, which promotes both fighters, told ESPN.com that the rematch will take place in early 2012, likely on Feb. 4. "We are working on that," Meyer said.
"Lamont Peterson is on the same level as me, but if you ask me if he's going to beat me, I would say he's good and he's strong and on my level, but he won't beat me. He's tricky. He's tall and he's strong. We all know how good Victor Ortiz is, and to get knocked down and come out with a draw [against Ortiz] is impressive."
-- Unified junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan, sizing up Peterson, whom he defends against on Dec. 10 (HBO) in Peterson's hometown of Washington, D.C.
"I just believe my style and the way I fight is creating a lot of buzz. Not only do I look the part -- I'm 6-2, 240-plus pounds -- but I bring speed and I bring athleticism and I bring the meanness in the ring, and I compete when I'm in the ring. It's just something that I was born with, something that was innate as far as my competitive edge. But with everybody saying that I'm the next 'great American [heavyweight],' [it's] a great accolade, but I don't let that blow my head up or think too much of myself. I believe in myself and I believe I have the tools and the capability of becoming heavyweight champion of the world."
-- American heavyweight prospect Seth Mitchell, who is preparing to make his HBO debut Dec. 10 against Timur Ibragimov
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at danrafaelespn.
When last they met, Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez waged a battle that still has fight of the year buzz nearly five months later. On Saturday at Madison Square Garden, they fully intend to one-up themselves.