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Monday, December 19, 2011
Erislandy Lara set to make ring return

By Dan Rafael
ESPN.com

Junior middleweight contender Erislandy Lara, out of action since a highly controversial majority-decision loss to Paul Williams in July, will return against Ronald Hearns Feb. 11 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on the undercard of the rematch between former welterweight titleholders Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto.

The bout will be part of a televised tripleheader on Showtime. Also on the card in the opening TV fight will be blue chip featherweight prospect Gary Russell Jr. (19-0, 11 KOs) against an opponent to be named, Golden Boy promoter Richard Schaefer told ESPN.com on Monday.

"We are happy to have Lara back in the ring and I have a feeling it will be a great 2012 for him. This fight is only going to be the start of a great year for him," Schaefer said. "At 154 pounds he is a threat to anyone and we are also excited about having Gary on the card. He's one of the best prospects in boxing."

Luis DeCubas Jr., Lara's manager, told ESPN.com that Lara-Hearns has been verbally agreed to by both sides and that the particulars were being put to paper.

The fight will take place at a maximum weight of 157 pounds, DeCubas said.

"I think it's a good fight and a good fight for Lara to stay sharp in and then move on to bigger and better things," DeCubas said. "We're really pleased to be on such a big card. Ronald comes from a good background. He's tall and lanky and has good power like his dad (newly elected International Boxing Hall of Famer Thomas Hearns) and I think Lara deals well with tall, lanky guys. I just have to get the kid back in the ring. I would love a huge fight for him, but he has to just get back in the ring."

By fighting at 157 pounds, DeCubas said Lara, already a top 154-pound contender, would also show that he can be a viable opponent for any of the top 160-pounders at middleweight.

"Ronald is the right guy for Lara to shine against," DeCubas said. "Lara wants to fight the best guys in the world but they won't fight him, so let's see where this takes us. Lara is willing to move up a few pounds to show he would be a good candidate to fight (middleweight champ) Sergio Martinez or any other top middleweight."

Lara (15-1-1, 10 KOs), a former world amateur champion and Cuban defector, appeared to decisively defeat Williams last summer in Atlantic City, N.J., but wound up losing a decision. The outcome was so controversial that the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board took the highly unusual step of suspending indefinitely the three judges who worked the 12-round bout.

Williams and his team declined overtures for a rematch and there had been plans for Lara to return in early 2012 on a Showtime card headlined by Williams. But those plans changed, DeCubas said.

Hearns (26-2, 20 KOs) is coming off a seventh-round TKO loss in Germany to middleweight titleholder Felix Sturm and had a summer shot against titlist Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. canceled when Chavez withdrew because of an injury.

"It's an interesting fight because Ronald can really punch and he is the bigger man than Lara," said Lou DiBella, Hearns' promoter. "This is definitely a winnable fight for Ronald and I know he's going there to win."

On April 16, Ortiz (29-3-2, 22 KOs) outpointed Berto (28-1, 22 KOs) to win a welterweight title in a thrilling slugfest -- both fighters were knocked down twice each -- in one of the year's best fights.

Ortiz then lost the belt by knockout to Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Sept. 17. Berto bounced back from the loss to Ortiz to stop Jan Zaveck on Sept. 3 to win another version of the 147-pound title.

However, Berto relinquished the title rather than face mandatory challenger Randall Bailey in order to facilitate the rematch with Ortiz because he wanted the opportunity to avenge his only defeat.

Dan Rafael covers boxing for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.