Will fortune finally shine on Collazo?

When Luis Collazo fought Ricky Hatton in 2006, he beat the hard-charging Brit everywhere that counted -- except on two of the three judges' scorecards. Collazo lost his WBA welterweight belt and some of the steam he had gathered from winning the title against Jose Antonio Rivera.

"It took a toll on me for a couple of months," Collazo said. "Mentally, it just killed me because I had worked so hard and everybody I saw kept telling me I won the fight. To have the judges just take it away from me like that was just heartbreaking."

Nine months later, trying to get back on track, Collazo fought Shane Mosley for the interim WBC welterweight title. In the third round, Collazo tore three ligaments and fractured the thumb on his left hand. Fighting three-quarters of the bout with one hand, Collazo lost a lopsided decision to Mosley. After surgery to repair the hand, Collazo took time off and disappeared from the upper ranks of the welterweight landscape.

In reality, Collazo, who hails from Queens, N.Y., has been the invisible welterweight for most of his career. A talented southpaw with just three losses in 32 fights, Collazo has spent most of his pro career trying to crack into the upper tier of the division to mingle with Mosley, Antonio Margarito, Paul Williams and Miguel Cotto.

Collazo, 27, will get one more crack at breaking through the welterweight ceiling when he takes on WBC champion Andre Berto (23-0, 19 KOs) in Biloxi, Miss., in an HBO "Boxing After Dark" show Jan. 17.

"This is a very important fight for me, because I can get on top of the welterweight division with a victory," Collazo said. "It's going to be an explosive, exciting fight for both of us because he's fighting for the same thing."

For his part, Berto seems to view Collazo as more than just another challenger. "I'm approaching this very seriously," Berto said. "Guys like Collazo and Stevie Forbes are spoilers. Probably a lot of people look at Collazo and where he is and they take him lightly. I don't do that. I know he's a very skilled, sharp southpaw and he can give me all kinds of problems. These are the kinds of fights that I get up for."

The road to cracking into the upper echelon of the sport has been a frustrating ride for Collazo. His rise has been stymied by the usual mix of boxing politics, untimely injuries and the strange curse of being too talented -- and thus too big a risk -- for many of the elite welterweights in the division. Nirmal Lorick, Collazo's trainer and manager, said his fighter always has been between "a rock and a hard place."

"Luis hasn't gotten the kind of TV exposure that other guys in his position have gotten, and when he was the WBA champion, he didn't get the backing from the sanctioning organization," Lorick said. "Normally, if a champion loses a close decision like that, the organization will let him come back quickly and fight for the title again. But that didn't happen for Luis."

It's been three years since the loss to Hatton, and Collazo still hasn't fought for the WBA title again. Kerry Davis, HBO senior vice president of programming, said Collazo is caught in the same cycle in which a lot of very good boxers in the sport find themselves.

"Sometimes the sport looks at guys like Collazo as gatekeepers," Davis said. "He's a very good fighter. He's absolutely alive in the fight [against Berto]. But he hasn't had a signature fight. By winning this type of fight, Collazo could be the A-side of a card."

Davis said the Hatton fight was a great opportunity for Collazo to move to that A-side. Even though many people thought Collazo won the fight, it went into the record books as a loss. The only thing it proved was that Collazo can fight.

"We know he's a good fighter, but he doesn't have the win to prove his credentials," Davis said. "He needs to show he can win a fight on the elite level."

Collazo was introduced to boxing by his father, Fernando, an avid boxing fan. He started out at the Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn when he was 12, and Lorick was his trainer. Lorick, who is a supervisor for the New York City Housing Authority, has been Collazo's only trainer during his career. For the past 20 years, Lorick has worked his day job and trained Collazo at night. Since Collazo turned pro, Lorick has also been trying to maneuver Collazo through the shark-infested waters of pro boxing toward a world championship.

As an amateur, Collazo won the 147-pound novice division championships in the New York Daily News Golden Gloves tournament, and two years later won the open-class title. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2000 and finished in the top five, but he wasn't on the team. Dante Craig was the U.S. Olympian at 147 pounds.

Following a 97-7 amateur career, Collazo turned pro May 16, 2000, with a first-round knockout of Jose Maldonado. It was the beginning of a 12-fight win streak that paved the way for his first televised fight on Showtime's "ShoBox" series. Collazo beat Luis Alberto Santiago and was moving toward boxing stardom.

Two fights later, Collazo suffered the first setback of his pro career when he was stopped on a third-round TKO by Edwin Cassiani, a veteran who had stopped 20 of his 25 opponents at the time. Cassiani scored with a four-punch combination in the third round, when referee Jay Nady stepped in to wave off the action. Collazo thought it was a quick stoppage.

"Cassiani definitely landed some punches in the third round, but I didn't go down," Collazo said. "As a matter of fact, I wasn't even staggered. To this day, I can't figure out why Nady felt like he had to stop that fight."

Collazo had to get on the comeback trail. And he did, ripping off 10 straight fights, including a 10-round decision over contender Felix Flores at Madison Square Garden, before getting his first title shot.

Collazo has a reputation for always being in shape, and that helped him secure the title shot against Rivera. Collazo took the fight on three weeks' notice after Rivera's mandatory opponent, Thomas Damgaard, pulled out of the fight with pneumonia. Collazo also had to fight Rivera in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., but he pulled off the upset in stunning fashion. Collazo went toe-to-toe with Rivera for 12 rounds, winning 115-113 on two cards. One judge had it 115-113 for Rivera -- the judge from Worcester.

Collazo defended the title once, beating Miguel Angel Gonzalez on an eighth-round TKO, before fighting Hatton in Boston on May 13, 2006.

The loss to Mosley may have been a tougher blow to Collazo than the Hatton defeat. Collazo shook Mosley with a right counter in the second round, signaling that Mosley was going to have trouble with the southpaw for the rest of the night. But the threat ended in the third round when Collazo injured his left hand and was forced to work with a limited arsenal the rest of the way.

"It killed me," Collazo said. "It was like déjà vu, just like the fight with Hatton. I was like, 'What else could happen to me?' But it was a good learning experience. I went through all that adversity and I was still standing, still fighting. I had experienced it all. I had hit rock-bottom and fought back."

Collazo underwent surgery at New York Downtown Hospital in Manhattan to repair the damaged hand, putting him on the shelf for 11 months. Collazo returned to fight on the undercard of the Roy Jones Jr.-Felix Trinidad bout at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 19, 2008, scoring a 10-round unanimous decision over Edvan Dos Santos Barros. He followed that up with an eighth-round TKO victory over Russell Jordan at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles on Sept. 27.

With no further injuries impeding him and a full seven weeks of training at Ft. Jackson Army Base in Columbia, S.C., under his belt, Collazo is ready to take on Berto and climb to the next level.

"The way I look at this fight with Berto is, you're going to make me or break me," Collazo said. "This is it for me."

Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.