Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's put-up or shut-up time for Antonio Tarver.
The loquacious southpaw, never at a loss for words when recorders are in range, finds himself in a watershed situation for whatever's left of his career on Showtime this Saturday night.
On home turf in Tampa, Florida, and entering the ring as a reigning -- even if it is just the IBO -- champion at 175 pounds, the man intermittently known as "Magic" has everything going for him in his quest to maintain viability in the suddenly big-money strata at light heavyweight.
Should he have enough left in the tank to defeat longtime contender and belt- holder Clinton Woods, Tarver would become a worthwhile topic of next-fight conversation alongside fellow title claimant Chad Dawson, three-time nemesis Roy Jones Jr. and whomever survives next week's Las Vegas showdown between Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe.
If he loses, however, he's just another excuse-laden 39-year-old on the outside looking in.
"The bottom line is I'm a headache for anybody," he said during a recent media conference call.
"The bottom line is I'm a headache for anybody," Antonio Tarver said during a recent media conference call.
"When I'm ready to fight, and focused mentally and physically and in great shape, I'm undefeated. That's my record. When given the opportunity to fight again, I've come back and avenged my loss. It might have been a political loss or I just didn't show up that night for whatever reason, but I learned from all my mistakes. The bottom line is I know I'm the best and I'm going to prove that."
Of course, while forgetting the irony of Tarver -- best known for a "Got any excuses tonight, Roy?" jab at Jones followed minutes later by a consciousness- sapping left hand -- casually reciting a litany of reasons why things haven't gone his way, it's hard to fault him for playing the blame game given his recent string of uninspiring performances.
His last win to even border on impressive came against Glen Johnson in their rematch almost three years ago, though it was followed by a more significant -- for the record books, anyway -- triumph over a maddeningly reticent-to- engage Jones in their rubber match four months later.
Hopkins, a novice at 175 pounds, took him apart over 12 rounds in Atlantic City in June 2006, and subsequent victories over the likes of Elvir Muriqi and Danny Santiago have done precious little to prove the Orlando native/Tampa resident has much left physically to augment his provocative words.
Though, naturally, it doesn't stop them from coming.
"I have ruined a lot of fighters, just look at my record," he said. "A lot of fighters can say Antonio Tarver was their last fight. So looking past me is dumbfounding to me. It's totally asinine. It's incredible that somebody can say they're looking past me, coming into a big fight like this. Making plans to fight this guy, that guy, you know. There may not be a tomorrow after April 12."
Meanwhile, Woods, who's split three decisions with Johnson -- a win, a loss and a draw -- and was dusted in six rounds by a vintage Jones, is venturing away from his European comfort zone for the first time since that decisive defeat at Portland's Rose Garden in June 2002. And it's a trip, he admitted, that's prompted at least a mild case of stage fright for the IBF champion.
"Yeah, there's obviously nerves there," said Woods, who defeated Rico Hoye for the vacant belt in 2005 and has since defended it three times. "There's a fear. A fear I'm fighting a great puncher, a great fighter in Antonio Tarver. But that's what I relish. I relish fighting with fear. I think that fear's going to reward me at the end of the night. When I fight, I've got fear in me. I feel I fight better.
"This is the biggest fight of my career. When I fought Jones, I didn't come with a title. This time I'm defending my own title. I keep telling people, 'I'm in the best shape of my career.'"
FitzHitz says: Woods by decision.
Elsewhere on the card, the other half of what amounts to a 175-pound semifinal takes place when WBC champion Dawson faces another 39-year-old, albeit a recently more dominant one, in Johnson.
Unbeaten in 25 fights overall and a two-defense title-holder since a defeat of Tomasz Adamek last February in nearby Kissimmee, Florida; the soft-spoken Dawson is seen by many as the youthful future of the division amid a gaggle of unwilling-to-let-go 30- and 40-somethings.
And though he's already on the record wanting matches with Tarver, Woods, Jones, Hopkins and/or Calzaghe down the road, he maintained the requisite amount of respect for Johnson -- who's recorded three straight stoppages since a razor-thin, split-decision loss to Woods in September 2006 -- and the rest of his veteran colleagues.
"I'm just fortunate enough to be a young guy in the top 10 with these guys," Dawson said. "Antonio Tarver has had a great career. Glen Johnson's had a great career. Roy Jones Jr. has had a great career.
"I'm just honored to be mentioned among those names. I'm going to show everybody I'm not just the future of the division, I am the division, and I am the best light heavyweight in the world."
FitzHitz says: Dawson by decision.
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Some 1,100 road miles north, alongside New Jersey's springtime ocean froth, the more publicized of the night's dual-title cards is set for Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Consensus welterweight second banana Miguel Cotto has what most consider a tune-up in HBO's main event for the WBA belt, meeting fringe contender Alfonso Gomez in a bout that amounts to Gomez's reward for retiring Arturo Gatti in the action hero's violent seaside swan song last July.
Though he's likely to have at least a moment of difficulty with the rough-and- tumble Gomez, Cotto should nonetheless triumph and leave himself free for an eventually lucrative match with the survivor of the show's true undercard gem -- the rematch between Kermit Cintron and Antonio Margarito.
FitzHitz says: Cotto in 9.
The two men clashed memorably nearly three years ago in Las Vegas, with the previously unbeaten Cintron crumbling both mentally and physically to the perpetually punishing will of Margarito, while challenging the then-incumbent Mexican for his WBO belt.
Much has changed since then, however, with Cintron enlisting the services of corner guru/emotional security blanket Emanuel Steward and picking up both a boost of needed confidence and the IBF title, which he's subsequently defended twice by knockout.
Also, Margarito enters this time as a challenger, having dropped his crown by decision to Paul Williams last summer in California, on the same night Gomez defeated Gatti and Cintron defended his new bauble with a two-round wipeout of Walter Dario Matthysse in Atlantic City.
And predictably, Cintron is sounding as if past problems will be mere prologue to future success.
"(I will) be victorious next time, plain and simple," he said. "I know what I have and I know what I can do. It wasn't me that night. I was coming off two hand surgeries and had four weeks of training, which wasn't enough. As soon as I got cut, I knew it wasn't my night. Next time it will be."
FitzHitz says: Margarito in 11.
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Rounding out a busy weekend in Mafikeng, South Africa, is the weekend's lone remaining title fight, in which 34-year-old native Mzonke Fana will defend his IBF junior lightweight title against No. 1 contender and countryman Cassius Baloyi at the North-West University Sports Complex.
Fana, now 27-3 with 10 knockouts, won his crown with a split 12-round decision over Malcolm Klassen in April 2007 and defended it with a ninth-round stoppage of Javier Osvaldo Alvarez in October.
He'd challenged then-champion Marco Antonio Barrera for the division's WBC title in his only previous championship effort, losing via second-round KO in April 2005.
Baloyi, who held the IBF's 130-pound title briefly in 2006, is a former fringe champion at 122, 126 and 130 pounds and a once-beaten challenger for the IBO's top spot at 135.
His signature win was an 11th-round stoppage of Manuel Medina for what is now Fana's title in May 2006, a claim he relinquished when he lost a unanimous decision to Garry St. Clair two months later.
Baloyi had a technical draw with Medina in an IBF title eliminator rematch in July 2007, and then downed St. Clair by unanimous nod in another eliminator in November to earn the shot at Fana.
He is 34-3-1 with 18 knockouts.
Lyle Fitzsimmons is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He is a periodic contributor to the Dave Smith Show on Sporting News Radio (radio.sportingnews.com), provides 'In The Ring' boxing commentary for Speeding Bullet Network (speedingbulletnetwork.com) and can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.