In the hallowed tradition of boxing for ignoring the light heavyweights, one of the truly big fights of the year has been allowed to sneak up on us.
Junior welterweight matchups, from Ricky Hatton making Kostya Tszyu quit June 4, to the much-anticipated Arturo Gatti- Floyd Mayweather Jr. bout June 25 plus the annual sighting of Mike Tyson, have virtually left Glencoffe Johnson and Antonio Tarver scuffling for recognition.
Last Dec. 18, in a considerable upset, Johnson outpointed Tarver — officially at least — and, because of his winning the IBF title earlier in the year by beating Clinton Woods in England and then knocking out Roy Jones Jr., earned general recognition as fighter of the year.
Tarver, who had knocked out Jones earlier in 2004, may have come up short on the scorecards. Like most of my trusted colleagues at Staples Center ringside, of which there are not legions, I scored it 115-113 for Tarver (seven rounds to five) from television. But there was no great outcry of him being robbed. The perception was that he just didn’t do his best and got out-hustled by one of boxing’s bona fide good guys.
Besides, there was some kind of strange justice in Johnson winning a close decision after all that went against him in what had been mostly a journeyman’s career.
Johnson, who prefers his nickname of "Gentleman Glen" to "Road Warrior," was forever journeying to the other guy’s hometown to get robbed. The harder-hitting Tarver, simply refused to lose, pressuring the counter-punching southpaw throughout in being able to keep the classier boxer against the ropes.
Tarver was a 7-2 favorite last December, and he’s the chalk again, though generally less than 2-1 — a much more reasonable assessment of the two best 175-pounders in the world. Each refused to fight mandatory challengers in order fight each other. It is perhaps enlightening to realize in both cases — the IBF trying to make Johnson take on Rico Hoye and the WBC wanting Tarver to face Paul Briggs — that after the asinine strippings, each "mandatory" was beaten in battles for the vacant titles.
So without an alphabet belt on the line, they will do it again. This time the site is Memphis, which in addition to Beale Street and barbecue, has become somewhat of a fight capital in recent years. And if Beale Street could talk, a lot of married men would have to get up and walk — excuse me, every time I say "Beale Street" W.C. Handy’s lyric pops up in my alleged brain.
Beale Street knows that Tarver has the edge on both ring generalship and punching power. He had those same edges last December. But in an all-action battle, Johnson successfully made Tarver look uncomfortable under constant pressure. Johnny Bos, my New York guru, warned me last time that Johnson had a terrific chance at the upset with the usual admonition of "styles make fights."
I don’t expect either 36-year-old man to change tricks at this stage of the game. Tarver has lots more room to improve on December’s performance, but that is not going to make Johnson’s swarming attack any easier to handle.
There seemed to be a reluctance on Tarver’s part to dig deep and leave no doubts as to his supremacy in December. So he lost the split decision and, while many disagreed, we still applauded the ring fates that gave Johnson a long overdue break.
There is a lot at stake here, and we’re not talking about light-heavyweight supremacy, which has always been a dubious distinction. The winner will not only be the "real’’ (and only) 175-pound champion, he will be in line for bigger paydays.
Roy Jones Jr. has talked about fighting again, mentioning Clinton Woods — whom he has already beaten, but who easily handled Hoye to win the IBF belt — but obviously pointing toward the Johnson-Tarver winner.
Bernard Hopkins, on his last lap, has talked about moving up to Johnson-Tarver if he gets by a dangerous middleweight challenger next month in Jermain Taylor. Each light-heavyweight stalwart is 36 and not thinking about trinkets. This is the last chance for the big score for two guys who have been around for a while.
Tarver-Johnson should be even better than the first. Tarver had predicted that the first meeting with Johnson would challenge the third Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales scrape for 2004 fight of the year. Not quite, and no one expects the rematch to give the incredible Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo battle much competition.
I’m thinking the line is probably right on (Tarver —185) for me to be able to sit this one out and just watch a terrific rematch. Yes, I picked Tarver last time and when push comes to shove, I’ll pick him again, but without great confidence. It’s going to be too close to bet for me. Johnson has had a couple of draws in his last six starts. Another one here would be no shock.
PICK: TARVER in a close decision. A draw is possible.