Boxing
Tarver fighting for recognition
Lyle Fitzsimmons

By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Boxing Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A troubled beginning. A prolonged period of success.

And now, an unspectacular present that's left many to wonder if the future is even worthwhile.

As it turns out, that's not just a critique of the increasingly ignored IBO version of the light heavyweight championship, but also its current claimant -- Antonio Tarver.

The 39-year-old Floridian, who shook off a late career start and a disappointing loss to Eric Harding en route to universal recognition as the world?s best at 175 pounds, has spent much of the last 18 months trying to convince people he's still a relevant commodity in the division he once ruled. Tarver will make defense No. 1 of his newly reclaimed IBO strap Saturday night, when he faces journeyman Danny Santiago in the main event of a three- tiered Showtime card from Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut that will also feature Vernon Forrest and Nonito Donaire.

Santiago, a KO loser in three of his last 11 fights -- including an eight- round stoppage by Zsolt Erdei in July -- was a late-stage replacement for Danny Green, who opted out of a Tarver match to take a fight with WBA champion Stipe Drews on Dec. 16.

Antonio Tarver
Antonio Tarver will make defense No. 1 of his newly reclaimed IBO strap Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the "Magic Man" continues to lag behind other perceived powerhouses at 175, including Bernard Hopkins -- who battered Tarver on the way to a wide decision win in June 2006 -- and unbeaten WBC champion Chad Dawson, who won his crown and has already defended it twice this year.

British veteran Clinton Woods holds the IBF title at 175.

"When the boxing media twists things to fit the bill, it upsets me," said Gary Shaw, who's promoting Saturday's card. "If they like a belt, or a fighter, they mention it. If they don't, then they ignore it. I am talking about Antonio Tarver and the IBO title. Lennox Lewis wore the IBO belt, and if it's good enough for Lennox Lewis and Roy Jones Jr., then it?s good enough for Antonio Tarver."

Illinois native Lenny LaPaglia was the IBO's first title-holder at 175, defeating Darryl Fromm for the vacant belt in 1993. He never defended it, however, and the claim lay dormant until Drake Thadzi defeated James Toney four years later.

Thadzi defended just once, stopping John Scully in seven rounds, and the belt again went into limbo until a claim by Jones in 2000. Jones made five successful defenses -- including a decision over Tarver -- before losing in their May 2004 rematch.

Tarver lost and regained the title over two fights with Glen Johnson, then defeated Jones one more time prior to the loss to Hopkins in Atlantic City. Hopkins never defended the title, leaving Tarver to again recapture it with a majority decision over Elvir Muriqi in June.

"The IBO title is very significant," Tarver said. "A lot of great champions who have come before me have won it with pride. I am proud to be light heavyweight champion. I don't think the boxing world has seen the best of Tarver. I'm in shape, I'm ready to go, and Santiago is in for a rude awakening.

"I still have will and passion left. I am going to continue to be on top. I am motivated by my will to win and to be recognized. I'm 39 years old and feel very young and youthful. I have a great team behind me. I believe the next guy who beats me will have to beat me at my best."

Seems the principals aren't the only ones with a lot to say about next weekend?s showdown for the WBC welterweight championship at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

The two-pronged training team of Billy Graham and Kerry Kayes -- working with challenger Ricky Hatton -- and Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s championship tandem of Roger Mayweather and Leonard Ellerbe were nothing if not outspoken about their chances during a recent media conference call.

"I think Floyd Mayweather is an absolutely fantastic fighter," Graham said. "Defensively, he's breathtaking. His hands are unbelievably fast. He's a great fighter. I've got no argument to say that he's not (or) he shouldn't be regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.

"I'd make myself look stupid. You know, he's extremely gifted. He's a great fighter. You know, but that's why we want to fight. My fighter will beat him. Ricky Hatton will beat him."

Hatton, a natural 140-pounder, has fought at welterweight just once -- winning a narrow and largely unimpressive decision over then-champion Luis Collazo for the WBA's 147-pound title in 2006.

He relinquished the belt without defending it and headed back down to light welterweight, where he?s since captured and defended the IBO's title with wins over Juan Urango (UD 12) and Jose Luis Castillo (KO 4).

This time, Kayes said, better nutrition will make a difference.

"Ricky's always had what we in England call a fried breakfast. And we've always been against it, but he's always had it," Kayes said. "Now, because he weighed in at 147 instead of 140, and then he (ate) fried breakfast, (we had) to give him clean carbs to give him energy for the fight.

"He weighed too heavy in the fight. He's also admitted that he had food during the day that was fatty. So Ricky learned a massive lesson there. And so with the empty calories that he ate, it was giving him weight on this body but with nutritional value which did him no good in the fight."

Not surprisingly, Mayweather's people thought little of the food-related reasoning.

"You know, when it comes down to it, it's always skill that's going to win the fight," Ellerbe said. "Floyd's the better fighter. Floyd's the better- conditioned fighter. And Floyd's the smarter fighter. So all of that, what (they're) talking about -- him putting on all this additional weight, Ricky Hatton being strong -- is a bunch of bullshit because at the end of the day, skill is what pays the bills."

When in doubt about Manny Pacquiao, believe the Filipino press.

Several island-based outlets began reporting Tuesday that Pacquiao, the tiny nation's biggest sports star, will return to the ring March 15 against former foe Juan Manuel Marquez -- now the WBC champion at 130 pounds.

The two locked up in a memorable match for the WBA and IBF featherweight belts three years ago in Las Vegas, where Pacquiao scored three first-round knockdowns before the Mexican rallied and eventually retained his title with a split-decision draw.

Each man earned a 115-110 victory on one scorecard, while the third card -- belonging to judge Burt Clements -- scored it even at 113 apiece. Clements later admitted he'd made a mistake in his first-round scoring and should have awarded Pacquiao a 113-112 victory.

FitzHitz scored the initial bout for Marquez, 113-112.

A story posted to the Manila Standard Today Web site said final details on the springtime rematch were being worked out between Pacquiao, Marquez and Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, which works with Marquez.

Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum, told the Standard Today that Marquez and Schaefer had been very reasonable and had made concessions, which meant that the Mexican was prepared to accept a purse lower than he initially wanted just so the fight could be made.

Schaefer, in an e-mail to the newspaper, confirmed a meeting with Arum this week and disclosed that Pacquiao "is the only one who knows" who his opponent will be.

Pacquiao's friend and confidant, Rex "Wakee" Salud, said the Marquez rematch was at least 80 percent solidified and that Pacquiao "seems very happy" with the progress of the negotiations.

Panamanian stringbean Celestino Caballero defends his WBA 122-pound championship for the third time this year Saturday night against Miami-based Colombian export Mauricio Pastrana at Gimnasio Roberto Duran in Panama City.

The 5-foot-11 Caballero claimed the WBA's interim title in 2005, then earned the full-fledged crown with a third-round stoppage of incumbent Somsak Sithchatchawal a year later in Thailand.

He's beaten Ricardo Castillo and Jorge Lacierva in subsequent defenses, winning by ninth-round disqualification and 12-round unanimous decision to improve his pro mark to 27-2.

Pastrana, who was 15-0 when he upset Michael Carbajal for the IBF light flyweight title in 1997, has lost seven times since -- including unsuccessful tries for the IBF super flyweight belt in 2001 and the same organization's bantamweight championship in both 2003 and 2004.

He defeated Antonio Escalante in his most recent outing in January, winning by eighth-round TKO to move to 34-7-2 in 43 fights.

Elsewhere on Saturday, unbeaten Puerto Rican southpaw Ivan Calderon makes defense No. 1 of his newly captured WBO light flyweight title when he meets Mexican youngster Juan Esquer at the Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, N.M.

Calderon wore the WBO minimumweight crown for four years and made 11 defenses before moving from 105 to 108 pounds and taking the belt from Hugo Fidel Cazares via split decision in late August.

Now 32 years old, Calderon is 29-0 with six KOs.

Esquer, just 21, won his first 18 bouts before going 1-2-1 over a five-month stretch between December 2006 and May of this year.

He's since won three straight to reach 22-2-1 overall, including a majority decision over Kermin Guardia for the WBC/WBO Latino belts last month in Miami.

Lyle Fitzsimmons can be reached at fitzbitz@msn.com. He is a periodic contributor to the Dave Smith Show -- broadcast weekdays from 6 to 9 a.m. on Sporting News Radio (radio.sportingnews.com) -- and provides "In the Ring" boxing commentary for Speeding Bullet Network (speedingbulletnetwork.com).

Jabs, hooks or knockouts, Lyle Fitzsimmons can be reached at fitzbitz@msn.com.