- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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While Erik Morales, Manny Pacquiao and Marco Antonio Barrera star featherweights who recently jumped to junior lightweight thrive in major fights and earn top dollar, unified featherweight champ Juan Manuel Marquez remains a forgotten man, relegated lately to undercards and little attention.
Marquez punches back into business against Victor Polo (34-4-3, 21 KOs) on Saturday night (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET) at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on the undercard of the Jose Luis Castillo-Diego Corrales lightweight unification bout. However, it is not the sort of marquee fight he envisioned.
Marquez (43-2-1, 33 KOs) hoped to break into the big-time matches and money after he survived three first-round knockdowns and retained his belts in an ultra-exciting draw with Pacquiao last May. Marquez earned about $500,000 for that fight and was seeking $1.5 million for the rematch. The problem was that HBO offered promoter Top Rank $1.5 million total for both fighters. Marquez declined.
That left Pacquiao without a dance partner, so he jumped up to junior lightweight to meet Morales in March. Morales won a decision in an instant classic, and Pacquiao (despite losing) is still a bankable attraction.
Marquez, meanwhile is stuck defending his belts for $300,000 against Polo, an opponent who is the epitome of a high-risk, little-reward foe.
"I want to fight the best," says Marquez, a native of Mexico who will have the crowd on his side Saturday. "I would love to fight Marco Antonio Barrera or Eric Morales, and would be willing to move up to 130 pounds. I want a rematch with Manny Pacquiao, so we can find out who really won our fight. But I am not going to avoid anybody. I am not going to do what the other world champions did to me when I was ranked at the top and they refused to fight."
Indeed, Barrera and Morales have never embraced the idea of fighting Marquez. When Naseem Hamed was featherweight champ, he ducked Marquez for years, even when he became the mandatory challenger.
Still, Marquez remains hopeful of getting high-profile fights after turning back Polo's challenge.
"It took me such a long time to become a world champion. Winning the title was not easy," he says. "So I will never underestimate any opponent, especially Victor Polo. I took Pacquiao lightly, and it almost cost me. I learned in that fight to never take anyone lightly."
If Marquez wins, Top Rank president Todd duBoef says he will try to put together a major fight for Marquez. Top Rank also promotes Morales.
"If he looks good, I think you throw him into the mix with Morales, Barrera and Pacquiao, which are big marquee fights," he says. "If not, you look at other featherweight fights, like the Injin Chi-Rocky Juarez winner or a fight with [junior featherweight belt holder] Joan Guzman. Those types of fights can make him a bigger attraction, and they are fights the TV networks should be interested in."
Getting through Polo probably won't be an easy task. Although the Colombian is winless in four shots at a world title, he lost three of them by split decision (to Julio Pablo Chacon, Derrick Gainer and Manuel Medina). In his fourth attempt in January, he was the victim of a highly suspect draw against Scott Harrison in Harrison's native Scotland.
"As far as I am concerned, I feel ... that I am the champion without a crown," Polo says. "Against Harrison, there is no doubt that I won that fight, like a couple of others that they took away from me."
Says Marquez, "If he had been luckier, he would have been a world champion by now. I expect a tough fight, but I expect to win."
Polo, a southpaw, believes that this is his last shot, that a sixth opportunity is unlikely if he loses.
"I know this is my last chance, and I am desperate for Saturday to get here," Polo says. "I feel sure I am going to finally win a world title. I am always in championship fights. It is hard to get a decision when you always fight in the back yard of the champion."
Around the ring
Jones comeback? Roy Jones, who has been mum about a potential ring return in the wake of his back-to-back knockout losses to Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson last year, is starting to send signals that he is contemplating a comeback.
With Johnson and Tarver set to fight a rematch June 18 in Memphis, Jones approved a news release that hinted at his return.
"Their first fight was very close, so the two of them need to do it again," Jones said of Johnson and Tarver. "If I decide to return to fight again to right the wrongs this box-off may decide who my first opponent will be. So I will be watching on June 18."
Jones (49-3, 38 KOs) will be watching up close as an analyst for HBO. Johnson edged Tarver on a split decision Dec. 18 to earn recognition as the Ring magazine light heavyweight champ.
Hopkins signs with HBO: Undisputed middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins has signed a multifight contract with HBO. Completing the deal was one of the final pieces of putting together Hopkins' July 16 defense against Jermain Taylor, who is also under contract to HBO.
"I feel like I have been an HBO champion de facto for some time now, but this deal makes me feel like I am finally home and truly part of the real HBO family," said Hopkins, who has been fighting on HBO for several years but has never had an exclusive contract. "The security and assurance they are providing me and my family for the remainder of my career alleviates all the unnecessary worries a fighter thinks about when there is no long-term deal in place."
Don't expect the deal to last too long. Hopkins has said time and again that he plans to retire early next year when he turns 41. But this deal should take him through the end of his career. He'd like to fight three more times against Taylor, then the winner of the Johnson-Tarver rematch and a finale against Felix Trinidad in a rematch.
"I have laid out my own road map that will make the final phase of my career extremely exciting for me and my fans," Hopkins said. "This long-term deal with HBO will help make this final road trip a reality as I get closer to hanging up my gloves."
'A-Force' returns: Heavyweight Audley "A-Force" Harrison (17-0, 12 KOs) of England, the 2000 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist, will return after a long layoff because of surgery on a ligament tear in his left index finger. Harrison faces Billy Zumbrun (17-6-1, 9 KOs) on June 9 on a "Best Damn Sports Show Period" boxing special (Fox Sports Net). Zumbrun went the distance in a close fight with former heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe on April 7.
It will be Harrison's first fight since linking up with adviser Alan Haymon, who also works with Floyd Mayweather Jr., Antonio Tarver and Vernon Forrest.
"It has been a frustrating time for me, but I am very excited to be back and desperate to fight," said Harrison, who hasn't fought since last June. "By June 9th, my engine will be revved up and on full throttle as I finally get the chance to step back into the ring and continue my quest to the top."
Calzaghe-Veit rematch: The first time super middleweight champ Joe Calzaghe of Wales (38-0, 30 KOs) faced German Mario Veit (45-1, 23 KOs), he knocked out Veit in the first round in April 2001. Calzaghe is facing mandatory challenger Veit again Saturday night, but this time instead of fighting him in Wales, Calzaghe will face him in Germany.
"Obviously my going to Germany takes away the comfort factor for me," said Calzaghe, who is making his 16th title defense. "I have to make sure that I win decisively. I don't think I'll be as lucky again to knock Veit out as early as I did the first time we fought, but I do think that I'll have the chance to knock him out all the same. I think going to Germany will give me a bit more incentive, a bit more fire in me to put on the kind of performance that I have to."
A Calzaghe win is expected to lead to a fall unification bout with Jeff Lacy.
Veit has won 15 consecutive fights since his humiliating loss to Calzaghe, including a stoppage of former champ Charles Brewer last year.
"I'm a completely different person today than I was four years ago," Veit said. "I hope that our fight will run many rounds because I'm eager to display my class and my boxing skills."
Classic replays: In order to set fans up for the May 14 Felix Trinidad-Winky Wright middleweight showdown, HBO2 will re-air two important fights from their careers on May 13 (10 p.m. ET/PT). The featured bouts will be Trinidad's exciting brawl with Ricardo Mayorga from October, in which Trinidad came out of a two-year-plus retirement, and Wright's first match with Shane Mosley from March 2004, when Wright won a decision to become the undisputed junior middleweight champ.
Quick hits: Heavyweight contender David Tua (43-3-1, 38 KOs), who ended a two-year layoff with a 10th-round TKO of Talmadge Griffis on March 31 in New Zealand, will return to the United States to fight on June 10 (ESPN2) at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y. The fight is part of the International Boxing Hall of Fame's annual induction weekend in nearby Canastota. Tua's opponent has not been selected yet. Junior welterweight prospect Mike Arnaoutis and Showtime's "ShoBox: The New Generation" series go together like peanut butter and jelly these days. Arnaoutis (13-0-2, 6 KOs) is back for a fifth consecutive appearance on the prospect-oriented series May 20 against Marco Angel Perez (21-6, 14 KOs). According to attorney Jeff Fried, Sharmba Mitchell (55-4, 30 KOs) will make his welterweight debut June 11, against an opponent to be determined, on the Mike Tyson-Kevin McBride undercard (Showtime PPV). Mitchell is a former junior welterweight champion moving up in class. In November, Kostya Tszyu beat Mitchell soundly in their rematch.
Quotable: "Tito Trinidad is going to find out that it's a lot tougher fighting someone his own size. He isn't fighting a blowup welterweight [Ricardo Mayorga] this time. My only worry is that I'll beat Tito so bad, he'll retire again and I won't get that big payday I was promised for the rematch." Winky Wright, on his May 14 bout with Felix Trinidad.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
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