- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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The name of the fight says it all: "Now or Never."
One man is 36 and has been out of the ring of his own volition. Former welterweight champion Ike Quartey lost back-to-back fights to Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas and then retired to his native Ghana for five years. He returned to the ring in January 2005, won three fights in a row, and then went idle for an additional eight months.
One man is 35 and has been out of the ring because of debilitating injuries to his left arm. Former welterweight champion Vernon Forrest lost back-to-back fights to Ricardo Mayorga in 2003 and then didn't fight until winning a pair of bouts in the second half of last year before his bum arm forced him into another 10-month layoff.
Time is not on the side of either man, which is why the outcome of their junior middleweight showdown is so critical to the survival of their careers.
Quartey (37-2-1, 31 KOs) and Forrest (37-2, 28 KOs) will meet Saturday night (10 ET, HBO) in a 10-rounder at the Madison Square Garden Theater in New York in a crossroads fight, if ever there was one. Instead of "Now or Never," the match could easily be called "Loser Go Home."
The co-feature, also in the junior middleweight division, showcases a pair of younger fighters still on the rise when former titlist Kassim Ouma (24-2-1, 15 KOs) faces New Yorker Sechew Powell (20-12, KOs), who will be making his HBO debut.
But the brightest spotlight will be on the veterans, Quartey and Forrest, who figure to land a marquee, money fight with a victory while the loser probably will be relegated to the scrap heap.
"It's a former world champion fighting another former world champion and the winner of the fight will absolutely get a huge fight either at 154 or 160," said Quartey promoter Lou DiBella, who is putting on the card. "The winner is in line for a huge fight. The loser will have to evaluate where they are going with their career."
While many fighters come back after long layoffs for financial reasons, Quartey isn't one of them. After losing a close decision to De La Hoya in a 1999 welterweight title fight followed by a decision loss to Vargas in a 2000 junior middleweight championship fight, Quartey walked away from boxing a wealthy man.
He increased his wealth in Ghana, where he invested in property, built a hotel, an office building and a hospital in the bustling capital of Accra.
"Oscar is not the only entrepreneur who is a top-level fighter right now," DiBella said.
The way Quartey left boxing bothered him, however, and eventually he yearned for a return.
He had one fight in January 2005 in Accra that attracted thousands of fans rooting for their hero. Quartey stopped Clint McNeil in the eighth round.
Then came an exciting, HBO-televised 10-round decision victory against former titlist Verno Phillips last June on the Antonio Tarver-Glen Johnson II undercard. Quartey had to pick himself up from a ninth-round knockdown to hang on and win the fight. In December, Quartey pounded out a 10th-round TKO of Carlos Bojorquez on the HBO PPV-televised undercard of the Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins rematch.
A layoff followed, caused in part when Forrest reinjured his arm and had to postpone their fight, which was originally scheduled for the spring.
"Ike did not have to come back for economic reasons," DiBella said. "He wants to be a world champion and engage in the biggest fights on the biggest platform. This fight can propel him into a mega fight. He will show how much he has left and that he can still be world champion. I don't think the time off hurt him at all. I think he came back with a true desire to fight and not for economic reasons."
Said Godwin Asifo, Quartey's manager: "Ike has done well with his businesses in Ghana. This fight is to solidify his legacy as one of the extraordinary fighters to grace the sport."
The Quartey camp, which has shown extreme confidence, bordering on cockiness, believes in the "Now or Never" theme. If Quartey wins, the team believes he can land a fight with one of the big names, including as possible rematch with De La Hoya.
"Yes, it is now or never," Quartey conceded. "After this fight, one of us will have to sit down. Forrest is the one who is going sit down. He can't beat Quartey. I'm going to win the fight. I am ready. I am ready mentally, physically and spiritually. There is no way I can lose the fight."
Asifo added, "Without question, it's a must win. This is our position: Ike will come out and perform and we will continue our career. We are not even thinking about losing the fight. It's never been in our thoughts. We chose this fight on purpose and we will win the fight. We are not looking for anything other than winning and going beyond."
Forrest doesn't hold the same view as Quartey when it comes to the fight's implications.
"No disrespect to Lou DiBella or the promotion, but 'Now or Never' is a play on words," Forrest said. "There is no sense of urgency in my career. This is a fight I am going to win, but it is no different than my last fight to me. That fight was important to get to this fight and this fight is important to get to the next fight, but there is no sense of urgency."
The mere fact that Forrest can even get into the ring can already be seen by some as a victory in itself.
After he twice beat Shane Mosley to win and defend the welterweight title in 2002, including the first stunning victory in the same ring where he will meet Quartey, Forrest lost his next two fights in upset fashion to Mayorga in 2003.
The losses combined with chronic injuries to his left shoulder and elbow -- the one responsible for his money jab -- put him on the shelf for two years. He returned to score a second-round knockout of Sergio Rios on the Taylor-Hopkins I HBO PPV undercard last July. Forrest's arm was well enough for him to come back quickly in October to score a 10th-round TKO of Elco Garcia.
But after the fight with Forrest was put together, the arm flared up again and Forrest needed more time off. How his arm truly feels heading into the Quartey match is anyone's guess, and Forrest isn't saying anything other than what you would expect him to say on a topic he is tired of discussing.
"Health-wise, I am fine," said Forrest, who has had four surgeries on his arm. "Everyone keeps asking about my health. Let me correct something. In my career, I never lost a fight and complained about my health and I never won a fight and complained about my health. I was injured. I took the time to try to get my body the time it needed to rest and heal, and now I am moving forward in my career. If I wasn't healthy enough to fight this fight, I wouldn't fight the fight."
Forrest believes his layoff wasn't all bad because even though he couldn't fight he was still staying in shape.
"The flip side of being forced to sit down is the fact that you are not getting beat on," he said. "I was training and preparing for fights, but I was not healthy enough to go through with the fight. [Quartey] was hanging out in Africa and having fun when he wasn't fighting. I was training, but I wasn't able to fight. I had to sit down and get my body healthy enough to give 100 percent effort.
"I never fought just for the money or the accolades. I fought for the pride because I felt I was the best or one of the best in the game. And if I can't bring my 'A' game, what's the point of the fight? It's a disservice to you guys [in the media], to the promotion and to the fans who pay to watch me fight."
Forrest perhaps doesn't have the same cocky edge or confidence that Quartey exudes, but he's also a confident man, bum arm or not.
"I've watched those fights [Quartey's comeback fight] and I thought Verno beat him," Forrest said. "He got a gift. I don't want to give out no trade secrets, but I watched those fights and the mistakes he made I'm definitely going to exploit to the maximum. When I beat him, I will give him a rematch because I know before he goes back home to Africa, he will want a rematch. Then I will beat him again."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
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