For most of the 2000s, Winky Wright was one of the best fighters in the world, a defensive master with enough power to keep opponents honest, a great chin and a desire to fight the best opponents.
He was the first undisputed junior middleweight champion in nearly 30 years. He beat Shane Mosley twice, toyed with Felix Trinidad and drew with a prime Jermain Taylor (in a debatable result) in a fight for the middleweight championship.
Wright even acquitted himself very well in a competitive decision loss to then-lineal light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins in a 2007 fight at 170 pounds, well over Wright's best fighting weight of 154 or 160 pounds.
But then Wright was off for nearly two years before returning and losing a near-shutout decision to a prime Paul Williams in 2009.
Now, more than three years later, the 40-year-old Wright is back again, hoping to recapture the form that made him a regular on pound-for-pound lists for most of the previous decade.
But Wright's opponent is no easy mark. He's not taking a so-called tuneup fight.
Wright is stepping in with a legitimate opponent, 26-year-old rising contender "Kid Chocolate" Peter Quillin on Saturday night (Showtime, 9 ET/PT) in the co-feature of a loaded quadrupleheader.
"I'm happy to be back. I'm glad I have a formidable opponent," Wright said. "Peter comes to fight, and we're going to show the fans why we do what we do."
Also on the telecast from the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.: Former light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver (29-6, 20 KOs) will take on Lateef Kayode (18-0, 14 KOs) in a cruiserweight fight; junior middleweight titlist Austin Trout (24-0, 14 KOs) will defend against Delvin Rodriguez (26-5-3, 14 KOs); and Leo Santa Cruz (19-0-1,11 KOs) will face Vusi Malinga (20-3, 12 KOs) for a vacant bantamweight title. In a preliminary bout on Showtime Extreme (8 ET/PT), super middleweight Sakio Bika (29-5-2, 20 KOs) will face Dyah Davis (21-2-1, 9 KOs).
Because of his long layoff, many thought Wright had retired. But that wasn't the case. He had planned one fight, against Grady Brewer in Puerto Rico, but that fell through. Wright's name came up for other bouts, but things didn't work out.
"I wasn't really retired yet. I thought if I wanted to get back in the ring, I had to do it and do it now," Wright said. "I just turned 40, so if I'm going to do this, I have to do it. We're glad to get an opponent like Peter. I'm here to prove that I want to fight the best. I'm not coming back just to fight and get a win, I want to fight the best. I want to be champion. If I can't be champion, there's no reason to do this."
Another reason for the protracted layoff was the difficulty securing a top opponent.
"First of all, there was no one significant that wanted to fight me," he said. "I couldn't get any big fights or any fights that meant something. I'm not just taking fights to entertain or taking fights just to fight. I want to fight because I want to be the best. None of the champions wanted to fight, and I couldn't get any of them to sign on the dotted line. My legacy is in stone. I would love to fight, but if they don't want to fight, forget it. So I had to wait, I did family things and enjoyed life."
Wright, who estimated his weight rose to about 185 pounds, admitted that it was a little tough when he finally went back to the gym and began working with trainer Dan Birmingham to get ready for the fight with Quillin (26-0, 20 KOs), of Brooklyn, N.Y.
"It took some getting used to," he said. "Anything that is worth having is worth working hard for. I worked hard for this. I'm not going to say I stayed in boxing shape. I wasn't fat, but I wasn't in boxing shape."
It remains to be seen how the layoff and age will impact Wright's game. He's the kind of fighter who relies on rhythm and timing.
Will he still have them after more than three years out of the ring, especially against a young and hungry opponent looking to make a name for himself?
Wright (51-5-1, 25 KOs), of St. Petersburg, Fla., said he believes that will be the case and he understands that Quillin is considered a rising star by many.
"I didn't pick a bum to come out and fight; I picked a kid that is undefeated, that is hungry, that wants to prove to the world that he's a great fighter," Wright said. "He's going to have to do that [Saturday]. I think he's a good fighter. He's young, hungry, tough -- and that's what I'm looking for."
Quillin, usually brash and outspoken, has shown respect for Wright during the promotion and said he has been preparing to face Wright as if he were in his prime.
"Every fight to me is the biggest fight of my career. Right now, I'm thinking this is the biggest fight of my career," Quillin said. "As far as his long layoff, I can't necessarily say if that's going to hurt him or help him. I just know that I'm prepared for a 21-year-old Winky Wright and that's what I've been preparing for. I've been preparing for the best Winky Wright, not where he's at right now or his age. I hope this fight right here sets me up for a title shot."
Wright wanted to make sure people didn't think he was only coming back for the reason that so many fighters do: cash.
"I'm not coming back for the money," he said. "I've got money, and I've got friends who have money, so it's good there. The reason I'm coming back is to make a statement. I could have fought a tuneup, but boxing is about accomplishments, and to me that means winning another world championship."