- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Middleweight star Winky Wright is No. 2 on virtually everyone's pound-for-pound list of the world's best fighters.
He is coming off victories in three consecutive major fights -- back-to-back victories against Shane Mosley in junior middleweight championship bouts followed by a virtual shutout of Felix Trinidad at middleweight in May.
Yet even after those impressive triumphs and the gobs of publicity they generated, Wright is back where he started years ago: He's fighting a largely unknown opponent in a bout few care about while he hopes the big names will fight him.
Wright's opponent on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET) at the Mohegan Sun resort in Uncasville, Conn., is Sam Soliman of Australia, a top-10 contender few in this country have ever seen. Wright admitted it is a letdown fighting such an obscure opponent.
"I don't feel it's right that I am fighting Sam Soliman after beating Mosley twice and Tito," Wright said. "That is not meant as a slap at Sam Soliman. He is a skilled fighter, but after winning the last three fights against Shane and Tito and having the top pay-per-view of the year [520,000 buys for the Trinidad bout], it's a comedown in terms of excitement."
Wright would rather be facing undisputed middleweight champ Jermain Taylor. However, Taylor is just one week removed from fighting Bernard Hopkins in a contractually-promised rematch. So Wright -- whose bout will be televised along with a replay of Taylor-Hopkins II -- is essentially auditioning for a fight with Taylor that could come as soon as next summer.
Wright would prefer to be in that sort of major fight right now, be it against Taylor, Oscar De La Hoya or Floyd Mayweather Jr.
"The biggest fight for me would have been against Jermain Taylor, but it didn't happen," Wright said. "I could sit around and not fight and wait for those fights to happen. I need to fight and stay sharp."
Wright, who is one of Taylor's mandatory challengers, is at least realistic about the situation.
"I am a professional," he said. "I only get paid if I fight, and I only stay on television if I win. So even though I'm not fighting a Mosley or Trinidad-type fighter, I am motivated for Sam Soliman. He is a legitimate No. 1 contender and I know what is at stake in this fight -- being No. 1 across the board and being Jermain's mandatory challenger. I could have waited it out, but I wanted to stay sharp."
Wright said his inability to get marquee fights regularly puts him in the same category as middleweight great Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
"When my career is over I think I will be known as one of the most feared fighters of my era," Wright said. "The one no one wanted to fight, like Marvin Hagler. Hagler wasn't very well known by the general public for most of his career, but the fighters knew him and they avoided him. I understand how he must have felt. I became more famous after my fights with Shane and Tito and I had been fighting for 14 years! Hagler didn't really become famous until he got those fights against Tommy Hearns, John Mugabi and Sugar Ray Leonard."
But Wright (49-3, 25 KOs) is also aware of the struggles that Soliman has gone through in his career. Like Wright did, Soliman (31-7, 12 KOs) took fights on short notice, went around the world looking for fights and often wound up boxing in his opponent's hometown.
"I know how Sam feels about trying to get a big fight and no one would give it to him because I was in that same predicament," Wright said. "It's an honor for me to be able to give him the same chance that Shane Mosley gave me. He deserves it. You know he's going to fight me to win. He can do it with an attitude that he is going to get a world title shot and get another big fight.
"Sam and I have a lot in common. We have both fought in a lot of back road places in different countries. He's hungry just like I am," he said.
Taylor will take at least one more bout before considering Wright. Promoter Lou DiBella said that Taylor would return for an HBO fight in late April, probably in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark.
DiBella said that after that he's open to making the Wright fight.
"We're definitely interested in the fight," DiBella said. "We want to fight in April in Little Rock. And then Winky after that, maybe in the summer. That's the kind of plan we like. The kid is not ducking Winky. He hasn't fought live on HBO in a while and we'd like to do that in our next fight. But after that, we want to work something out with Winky that works for everybody because that is a big fight.
"I love Winky, he's a terrific fighter and very talented. But with Jermain coming off two emotional and difficult fights against Hopkins, it would be ridiculous to fight him next. Jermain deserves a little rest. I'm going to line up something so his fans in Arkansas can see him defend the title. After that we want to work something out with Winky that's good for everybody," he said.
DiBella said he thought it was crazy that Wright's publicity campaign for a fight with Taylor -- spearheaded by relentless PR whiz Fred Sternburg -- accused Taylor of ducking Wright.
"Hey, we had to commit to the second Hopkins fight to get the first one," DiBella said. "We didn't duck anyone. We fought Hopkins when he was considered No. 1 pound-for-pound and then we fought him again. How can anyone suggest that we are ducking anyone?"
Although Wright knows he probably won't get Taylor next, he is at least appreciative that the fight could happen in mid-2006.
"The middleweight title is Taylor-made for me," he said. "I have a lot of respect for Jermain. At least he is willing to do what Oscar, Fernando [Vargas] and Bernard wouldn't, and that's fight me."
Around the ring
Next for Taylor: DiBella said he's begun to think about potential opponents for Taylor in his April homecoming fight.
He said he hoped that Taylor could fight former titlist Felix Sturm, if he is healed from a recent elbow injury. That would be a rematch of a 2000 Olympic bout that Taylor won.
DiBella also said he had been in touch with handlers for "Contender" first-season winner Sergio Mora about a possible fight, adding that while although the match might be a little gimmicky, it would certainly draw massive attention.
DiBella also said that handlers for former undisputed welterweight champ Cory Spinks have contacted him.
Other names on the radar are the winner of the Saturday bout between Kingsley Ikeke and Arthur Abraham (who are fighting for a belt Taylor was forced to vacate prior to the rematch with Hopkins), junior middleweight champ Roman Karmazin and former champ Kassim Ouma.
DiBella feels free: DiBella said this week that he finally has put his bitter four-year feud with Hopkins behind him.
DiBella, who served as Hopkins' adviser before an acrimonious breakup following Hopkins' victory against Trinidad in September 2001, got the satisfaction of seeing his newest star, Taylor, defeat Hopkins twice for the middleweight title, including in the Dec. 3 rematch.
Lost, however, during the buildup to the rematch was the fact that a few days before the fight DiBella finally received the money that a jury had awarded him on a libel verdict against Hopkins.
In an interview, Hopkins accused DiBella of soliciting a $50,000 bribe to put one of his bouts on HBO when DiBella was the chief boxing programmer for the network. DiBella denied it, sued Hopkins and won the case. Hopkins' unsuccessful appeal, however, delayed the payment.
With Hopkins' options exhausted, DiBella finally received the money last week: The $610,000 judgment plus interest, which brought the total to more than $700,000.
"It's over now. It's really over now," DiBella said.
"He'll do his thing, I will do my thing. There's no sense in carrying a lot of hate around with me. It's not healthy. I got a lot of satisfaction between what Jermain accomplished in beating him twice and me finally getting the money. My guy beat him in the ring and I beat him in court. Now, it's over," he said.
Battle for Britain: With the heavyweight division in the doldrums, at least the fans in England have something to be excited about this weekend when their most notable big men, Danny Williams and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Audley Harrison, square off Saturday in the biggest all-British heavyweight fight since Lennox Lewis retained the heavyweight title with a seventh-round TKO of Frank Bruno in Wales in 1993.
The fight, a 12-rounder for the vacant British Commonwealth title, has generated enormous publicity in England as Williams (33-4, 28 KOs) and Harrison (19-0, 14 KOs) have been assaulting each other verbally for weeks in a vicious buildup.
Williams, best known for knocking out Mike Tyson followed by an unsuccessful title shot at then-champ Vitali Klitschko last year, has apparently had enough of it.
At the final news conference Thursday, Williams refused to sit at the dais with Harrison or pose for the traditional pre-fight photograph.
"For weeks we have been slogging each other off and I am just sick of it," Williams said. "If I had sat at the table and Audley talked about me again, I don't know what might have happened. I might not be able to control myself. Something bad might have happened and it would have been ugly for boxing and ugly for [promoter] Frank Warren.
"It wasn't nervous energy -- I am just trying to prevent a terrible moment in boxing," he said. "I am just ready to fight. This is the first time I just want to get in the ring and really beat someone up. I am going to beat him up Saturday night. I'm going to put it on him and let's see if he can stand the heat. I have never fought anyone who has talked as much as Audley Harrison. Walking down the street people tell me they want me to KO him. He might get that as well about me but I think the crowd will be behind me. I used to think he was a nice guy but not now. I hate that guy."
Harrison was irritated that Williams refused to participate in the news conference.
"It's very unprofessional of him acting this way," Harrison said. "I am a professional and this is part of the process. Danny should be able to come up here, be a man and speak his mind. A lot of what he does is bizarre. But as long as he turns up on Saturday night, we have a fight and that's what we are here to do -- fight."
Harrison, 34, has been campaigning in the United States recently but returned home for this lucrative showdown. Although a physical specimen at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Harrison has moved slowly since turning pro after the 2000 Games. Williams, 32, represents a step up in competition, but Harrison believes he will handle it easily.
"The only way for Danny to win is if he catches me with a lucky punch," Harrison said. "Other than that, I will use my abilities to win on points or put my punches together and take him out.
"After Saturday night I think I will be able to stop trying to convince people that they can and should believe in me and my abilities as a future heavyweight champion. I am pretty sure this fight will be all the convincing they need," he said.
For American fans in need of their heavyweight fix, the card is available live on pay-per-view (3 p.m. ET) on satellite dish services and some cable systems. Doug Jacobs of Integrated Sports has begun distributing British fights in the U.S., and this is the latest one. The company also distributed the Nov. 26 Ricky Hatton-Carlos Maussa card from England, and it could become more common.
Also on the card -- in his first U.S.-televised bout -- is lightweight super prospect Amir Khan (3-0, 2 KOs), England's hot shot 2004 Olympic silver medalist. He'll face Daniel Thorpe in a four-rounder.
Judah at MSG: Undisputed welterweight champ Zab Judah will headline a card in his hometown of New York for the first time.
With just a month to go until his Jan. 7 Showtime card, promoter Don King finally locked in a site, the 5,000-seat Theater at Madison Square Garden. And because Judah is the hometown fighter, his bout, which was originally an undercard bout, was elevated to main-event status.
Judah will face mandatory Carlos Baldomir hoping that a victory will propel him into an April showdown with pound-for-pound king Mayweather.
The opening fight -- but certainly the more significant one -- features Jean-Marc Mormeck against O'Neil Bell to determine the undisputed cruiserweight champion.
Other fights announced for the card, but not part of the broadcast, include junior flyweight titlist Will Grigsby facing mandatory Ulises Solis and Genaro Garcia vs. Ricardo "Chapo" Vargas in a bantamweight elimination bout.
Judah has fought on an undercard at Madison Square Garden but never fought in a main event at the hallowed venue.
"This means so much to me to be fighting in my hometown and at the Garden," Judah said. "I want to celebrate a successful defense of my undisputed world welterweight championship with all my fans in Brooklyn and all of New York. I'm not overlooking or disrespecting my opponent but I have to score a knockout when I'm fighting at home."
Rocky VI: Last week, director/star Sylvester Stallone used the surroundings of the Taylor-Hopkins rematch at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas to shoot scenes for "Rocky Balboa," the sixth movie in the "Rocky" saga, including shooting the crowd and fighter ringwalks between fights on the undercard.
In addition to light heavyweight king Antonio Tarver, who plays heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon in the film, there are plenty of other boxing personalities sprinkled throughout.
Several national beat writers -- including a certain ESPN.com boxing reporter -- appeared in the news conference and weigh-in scene.
Among the other recognizable boxing folks in the movie: Promoter DiBella (in the role of Dixon-Balboa fight promoter Robert Brown); Nevada athletic commission executive director Marc Ratner; HBO announcers Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley; ESPN broadcaster Brian Kenny; boxing historian and author Bert Sugar; Bernard Fernandez, the boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News in Rocky's hometown; and Norman Horton, the ace publicist who handles Tarver and Taylor.
Stallone said he wanted to make the movie as realistic as possible, which meant using real boxing people and settings.
WBC nonsense: The sanctioning organizations are at it again. The WBC released its new rankings Dec. 2 but, as usual, they are filled with insanity that simply goes beyond the realm of legitimacy.
Here is just the latest example of their make-up-the-rules-as-they-go: The WBC ranks former light heavyweight champion Glen Johnson No. 18 among 175-pounders. The No. 8-ranked light heavyweight is George Khalid Jones, who was dominated and knocked out by Johnson in the 10th round on Sept. 30, a result that should be reflected in a set of rankings that cover October and November.
Let's not even get started on how Lou Del Valle is ranked fifth, considering he has fought only four times since 2002 and not made the light heavyweight limit in any of the fights. In three of them, he was at least 190 pounds.
And while we are it, perhaps someone from the WBC could explain how Arturo Gatti, who has not yet fought as a welterweight and is coming off a horrifically one-sided TKO loss to Mayweather in a junior welterweight title bout, is ranked third at 147 pounds?
Shameful IBF: If you think the WBC is bad, consider this callous move from the IBF -- the corrupt organization that was caught taking bribes for its rankings a few years ago, among its many other questionable deeds.
According to the Herald News of New Jersey, the East Orange, N.J.-based organization kept its sanctioning fee from the late Leavander Johnson's purse for his ill-fated IBF title fight with Jesus Chavez on Sept. 22, rather than donate the $4,500 (3 percent of the $150,000 purse) to the fund established to benefit his children. Johnson, 35 and a lifelong New Jersey resident, died from a brain injury in his first title defense against Chavez.
That other belt: Taylor is the recognized middleweight champion based on his two victories this year against Hopkins, including the Dec. 3 unanimous decision in their rematch. However, Taylor was forced to vacate one of his four sanctioning organization belts in order to go through with the rematch.
That left the IBF belt vacant. The paper title will be filled Saturday in Leipzig, Germany, when highly-regarded contender Ikeke faces Abraham. Ikeke, a Nigerian based in the United States, was one of Taylor's mandatory challengers but Taylor -- for obvious reasons -- opted for the Hopkins rematch instead of facing Ikeke.
Regardless of his opponent, Ikeke is pleased to be fighting for a title.
"My time has come," said Ikeke, who is promoted by Golden Boy, of which Hopkins is a partner. "The wait was long but now I'm ready to make the most of this opportunity."
Ikeke (23-1, 13 KOs) earned his shot with a dominant 10th-round knockout of former two-time title challenger Antwun Echols. Abraham (18-0, 16 KOs), an Armenian based in Germany, also notched an impressive victory on his way to the title bout, outpointing contender Howard Eastman in July.
The Ikeke-Abraham winner is an obvious future opponent for Taylor, the true division king.
Tapia hurt: Former three-division champ Johnny Tapia, who was supposed to headline a Telefutura card in his hometown of Albuquerque on Friday night, pulled out two days before the fight because of a bad back.
Tapia's opponent, Alberto Ontiveros (21-11-5, 19 KOs), will instead face a substitute, prospect Isidro Granados (12-1-2, 8 KOs), in the featherweight bout.
Tapia showed up at the final news conference on Wednesday and said he hurt his back sparring last Saturday.
"I want to say I'm very, very sorry," Tapia said. "I went to throw a left hook and I ended up twisting my back."
Tapia (55-5-2, 28 KOs) is 38 and coming off a knockout loss, so aches and pains in training shouldn't come as a surprise. Tapia was looking to rebound from a Sept. 16 loss, the first knockout defeat of his. Journeyman Sandro Marcos knocked him out with a body shot in the second round.
"The Contender" fights: ESPN and "The Contender" are teaming up for their second live boxing special in the run-up to the second-season premier of the boxing reality series next year that was picked up by ESPN after being cancelled by NBC.
Peter Manfredo Jr., who lost decisions to Mora in the first-season finale in May and in the first ESPN "Contender" boxing special in October, will headline the card in his first bout at super middleweight.
Manfredo (24-3, 10 KOs) will fight in front of his hometown crowd Feb. 12 (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET) at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. He'll face fellow New Englander Scott Pemberton (29-4-1, 24 KOs), who was knocked out in the second round by Jeff Lacy in a super middleweight title fight in November.
"I can't express how excited I am to return to Providence to fight in front of my hometown fans," Manfredo said. "My fans deserve to see me in a fight versus a guy like Scott Pemberton and after I win, I'll deserve to be back in the top 10 where I belong."
Also on the card: "Contender" participants Miguel Espino and Jeff Fraza, who will move down to welterweight to face journeyman Chuck "Chucky T" Tschorniawsky.
Navarro gets another shot: Junior bantamweight Jose Navarro, a 2000 U.S. Olympian from Los Angeles, will get his second world-title shot following a highly controversial decision loss in a his first title fight in January.
Navarro will face champion Masamori Tokuyama on Feb. 27 in Osaka, Japan. Navarro faced then-titlist Katsushige Kawashima in Tokyo 11 months ago and appeared to dominate him, but the decision went to Kawashima. Navarro was promised another title shot but had to wait for Kawashima's rematch with Tokuyama, which Tokuyama won.
With a victory, Navarro would become the fourth member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team to win a world championship, joining Lacy, Taylor and Brian Viloria.
Hill-Brudov: The on-again, off-again cruiserweight bout between former champ Virgil Hill (49-5, 23 KOs) and Valery Brudov (30-0, 23 KOs) of Russia is on again.
They're slated to face each other for a minor title Jan. 27 at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, N.J. There ought to be plenty of fans and media in town because that is the night before Gatti plays the Boardwalk in his welterweight debut against Thomas Damgaard.
Hill-Brudov will be offered on pay-per-view. The co-feature is Muhammad Rachman (50-7-4, 22 KOs) defending his strawweight belt against mandatory Omar Soto (14-2-1, 10 KOs). Also slated to appear on the card: Former lightweight champ Stevie Johnston and junior welterweight prospect "Mighty" Mike Arnaoutis.
Hill-Brudov has been on the schedule before: It was supposed to take place last summer on the Caribbean island of St. Martin and then was rescheduled for September on a Don King card in St. Louis, but both shows were canceled for lack of interest.
Hill, 41, hasn't fought since May 2004, when he was stopped by champion Mormeck in a rematch.
Quick hits: While De La Hoya was in Las Vegas last week co-promoting the Taylor-Hopkins rematch, he addressed his own boxing career. De La Hoya, who was in town only briefly because his wife, Millie, is expecting their first child together any day, reiterated that he plans to fight junior middleweight titlist Ricardo Mayorga on May 6 on HBO PPV at the MGM Grand. "It's signed. I can't wait," said De La Hoya, who has not fought since Hopkins knocked him out with a ninth-round body shot in September 2004.
• Promoter Top Rank is expected to give middleweight contender Kelly Pavlik (27-0, 24 KOs) a big push in 2006, beginning with his appearance on the Jan. 21 Erik Morales-Manny Pacquiao II HBO PPV undercard. Pavlik will get prime-time exposure against rugged former Olympian Jose Luis Zertuche (17-2-2, 13 KOs) of Mexico in a battle of big punchers.
• Artie Pelullo's Banner Promotions has signed James McGirt Jr. (10-0, 6 KOs) to a promotional contract. McGirt, 23, is the son of former world champion James "Buddy" McGirt, who is now one of the leading trainers in the world. McGirt, a southpaw, turned pro in January 2004 and is trained by his father. "When I heard we were going to sign with Art Pelullo, I was real excited," McGirt Sr. said in a statement. "Art's a great guy, I've known him a long time. I feel that this is something that my son needs. It's a great opportunity." McGirt Jr.'s first fight with Pelullo will be Jan. 20 at the Foxwoods resort in Connecticut. The six-round bout will lead off the 2006 premier of ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."
• Exciting junior welterweight prospect Juan Urango (16-0-1, 13 KOs) injured his left hand, forcing him to withdraw from a Dec. 15 appearance on a Warrior's Boxing pay-per-view card. Urango is done for the year and might need surgery. "Juan was very disappointed at having to pull himself off this show, but we believe it's in his best interest to have him heal up and be ready for a championship run in 2006," said Leon Margules, executive director of Warrior's Boxing. Heavyweight Samuel Peter faces Robert Hawkins in the main and heavyweight Lance Whitaker faces Sultan Ibragimov in the co-feature.
• Middleweight contender Raymond Joval, who knocked out Shannan Taylor in Australia on Nov. 27, was rewarded with a promotional contract from Walt Lambert's Northeast Promotions. "We are extremely pleased to be involved in the career of Raymond," Northeast matchmaker Ron Katz said. "He is a throwback fighter who is willing to take on all comers regardless of where the bout may be held."
• Give middleweight Edison Miranda credit for being the first one to call out undisputed champ Taylor following his rematch victory against Hopkins last week. Miranda's handlers at Warrior's Boxing on Wednesday issued a release on their fighter's behalf in which Miranda (24-0, 21 KOs) insisted he would defeat Taylor if just given the chance. "I'll fight him anywhere, including in his hometown," Miranda said. "He will be no problem for me." That's what they all say, but give Miranda credit for being first.
• Golden Boy Promotions' newest signee, welterweight Walter Dario Matthysse, 27, of Argentina, made his U.S. debut on Thursday night in San Diego. Matthysse (24-0, 23 KOs) blew out Xavier Toliver (20-5) in the first round in the final main event of the now-cancelled HBO Latino monthly boxing series "Oscar De La Hoya Presents Boxeo de Oro." Junior middleweight Marco Antonio Rubio's bout against Aslanbek Kodzoev was supposed to be the main event but the fight was canceled by the California commission because of an undisclosed issue with Rubio's pre-fight medical tests.
Quotable: "Some of the best pound-for-pound fighters are in my division and I am looking forward to more fantastic wins and fantastic nights. The thought of fighting the best is what keeps me going in the sport. I said from Day 1 I wanted to fight the best and I look forward to coming to America to fight them, too. I will go anywhere to fight. I would definitely fight Floyd Mayweather in the States. No problem."-- Junior welterweight champ Ricky Hatton of England on his desire to come to the United States for marquee fights.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne