- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Although Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley have been two of boxing's biggest stars for nearly a decade, both recently have been absent from its biggest fights as their careers tumbled downward.
But both remain armed with big names and loyal fan followings, making their 12-round junior middleweight showdown Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET) at Mandalay Bay a major event and an opportunity for the winner to restore luster to an eroding career, even if the fight probably would have been much bigger had it occurred a few years ago.
Now that both are back in a big fight, neither can afford another loss if he wants more of these sorts of events in the future. That makes this a true crossroads fight if ever there was one in recent boxing history.
Vargas, 28, has been absent from a major fight since his September 2003 junior middleweight unification bout with rival Oscar De La Hoya, who knocked Vargas out in the 11th round.
A nine-month suspension for a positive steroid test followed along with back problems and four routine victories against less-than-stellar opposition. It's all left Vargas itching to get back into a marquee matchup.
"All my fights have been big but I needed something I could really get up for," said Vargas (26-2, 22 KOs), a 1996 U.S. Olympian who became the youngest 154-pound champion in boxing history days after turning 21. "I've been anxious to get back in a major fight. It's where I belong."
Vargas has fought tentatively in recent fights and gotten away from the pressure style that made him so dangerous earlier in his career. Trainer Danny Smith has been preaching to Vargas, who says his back is now healthy, to revert to that style.
"He is going to be extremely ferocious and he is not going to box, not one minute," Smith said. "He's coming, and this is a fight where somebody is going to get knocked out. He's going in looking for a knockout. He will not be boxing one bit. He is going in there to make this a street fight."
Mosley, 34, too, has spent time trying to reinvigorate a career that has been on a steady slide for the past few years. He spent last year fighting on undercards, notching two decision victories against secondary opposition in an attempt to rebound from back-to-back losses to Winky Wright in 2004.
"Being back in this kind of fight gets the juices flowing a little bit," said Mosley (41-4, 35 KOs), a former three-division champ. "I'm sure his juices are also going. I think it's very important to win the fight and to win in spectacular fashion. But I know I'm going to be on top. It will be important to bring my career back to the next level. For Vargas, depending on how well he does, it might translate into something good for him, too. But I trained for war. I didn't train for a boxing match. Other fights you train to move around, slip, slide and work on technical stuff. This fight, I trained for war."
John David Jackson, Mosley's trainer, echoed similar sentiments as Smith. Jackson said it was important for Mosley to go back to the fluid-punching style that made him so dynamic in his heyday.
"He's going to throw combinations, he has no choice," Jackson said. "When he was a lightweight, he beat guys with debilitating punches and body shots. So Shane is going to throw combinations like he did at 135 (pounds) and bring that speed at 147."
Around the ring
Side bet: The build-up to Vargas-Mosley was mainly a cordial affair with both fighters expressing respect for each other. However, things turned personal at this week's final press conference when an emotional Vargas lashed out at Mosley, accusing him of predicting a knockout behind his back but unable to bring himself to call a knockout to Vargas' face.
"Let's keep it real. You say behind my back that you're going to knock me out but you've never said that to my face," Vargas said, almost screaming at Mosley. "You think you can knock me out? Good. Then put your money where your mouth is. You say you're going to knock me out? Well, I know I'm going to knock you out. So how about $100,000? You knock me out, I'll give you $100,000. I knock you out, you give me $100,000."
Mosley quickly responded that he would indeed win by knockout, and after some more entertaining bickering back and forth, the fighters roughly shook on their bet.
Baldomir-Gatti: After sifting through several offers, welterweight champ Carlos Baldomir and promoter Sycuan Ringside Promotions, have decided to fight action star Arturo Gatti on July 22 (HBO).
The fight will take place on Gatti's turf at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., where he fought his last seven fights to virtually sellout crowds.
Baldomir earned just $100,000 as a mandatory challenger to Zab Judah, but pulled off the shocking upset Jan. 7 to claim the title.
With the title, Baldomir (42-9-6, 12 KOs) became a much sought-after opponent. Handlers for junior welterweight champ Ricky Hatton made an offer. Golden Boy Promotions put forth a two-fight package that could have resulted in a fall fight with De La Hoya. However, Main Events, with an offer of $1.45 million, won out.
"We've sent them a contract and their attorney is reviewing it, but all the terms are agreed to," Carl Moretti of Main Events told ESPN.com. "We believe we have a deal in place."
For Gatti (40-7, 31 KOs), a former junior lightweight and junior welterweight titlist, the third championship opportunity comes almost out of the blue. Gatti lost his 140-pound title when he was demolished by Floyd Mayweather Jr. in six brutally one-sided rounds last July.
Three weeks after Baldomir upset Judah, Gatti made his comeback as a welterweight and looked good scoring an 11th-round TKO of Thomas Damgaard.
With Judah fighting Mayweather on April 8 despite losing the title, the door was open for Gatti to challenge the new champion.
"It's amazing that this odyssey that is Arturo Gatti continues," Moretti said. "He's extremely excited about the opportunity, to put it mildly. He knows it's a tough fight and he gives Baldomir all the respect in the world, but Arturo really wants to be world champion again."
Sycuan officials didn't return several phone messages.
Main Events would like to put featherweight contender Rocky Juarez in the televised undercard, perhaps against Sycuan's Joan Guzman if Guzman beats featherweight titlist Scott Harrison next month.
Chavez injured: Lightweight titlist Jesus Chavez, due to make his first defense against junior lightweight champ Marco Antonio Barrera on March 25 in Las Vegas on a major HBO show, suffered a serious arm injury and was forced to pull out of the fight Thursday.
Chavez said he suffered two minor tears in the rotator cuff in his left shoulder as well as a torn left biceps. The injuries, which will require surgery, were the result of wear and tear on the arm in training as opposed to one specific movement, Chavez said.
"I'm very, very disappointed. I'm really bummed out about it," Chavez told ESPN.com. "It was from the overall work. The pain just started developing. I hope to recover as soon as possible."
Chavez, who previously suffered a severe right rotator cuff injury in a fight with Erik Morales that forced a 15-month layoff, said he began to feel pain about a week ago. He said it got progressively worse and he visited the doctor, who gave him a cortisone shot. On Friday, Chavez underwent an MRI exam and received the results Wednesday.
Chavez (43-3, 30 KOs), who will be sidelined for at least six months, hadn't fought since winning his belt in September on an 11th-round TKO of Leavander Johnson, who died several days later as the result of a brain injury suffered in the fight.
Barrera, a unified 130-pound champ, was moving up to 135 pounds in an attempt to become the first Mexican fighter to win titles in four divisions. Barrera has also won titles at 122 and 126 pounds.
HBO's Kery Davis and Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Chavez, met Thursday and agreed to seek a suitable replacement opponent for Barrera before considering canceling the show.
One thought was to try to move junior lightweight titlist Jorge Barrios, who was to defend his belt in the televised co-feature against mandatory Janos Nagy, into the main event to face Barrera to further unify titles at 130 pounds. However, Barrios, who has been training for a southpaw, and Barrera might be reluctant to take such a high-risk fight on such short notice.
Cotto-Malignaggi update: Paulie Malignaggi's relentless campaign to land a fight with junior welterweight titlist Miguel Cotto appears to have paid dividends.
Cotto promoter Bob Arum and Lou DiBella, who handles Malignaggi, met Thursday in Las Vegas for lunch to discuss the June 10 fight at Madison Square Garden in New York, and they both said they thought they would be able to make a deal.
"It will get done," Arum told ESPN.com. "I think it's a great fight and a marketable fight."
Arum loves the idea of matching Cotto, of Puerto Rico, with Malignaggi, an Italian contender from Brooklyn, on the weekend of the annual Puerto Rican Day parade in New York.
So does DiBella.
"It's a great fight for New York and I've never seen my guy want a fight more than this one," DiBella said. "It's the kind of fight that will take you back to the neighborhood fights, an ethnocentric fight. You have the Puerto Rican star with a big following in New York against the Italian kid from Brooklyn. Good promotion, good fight."
Arum -- overlooking the fact that Cotto (25-0, 21 KOs) has a fight to win first -- said he plans to fly Malignaggi and DiBella to Puerto Rico to attend Cotto's March 4 fight against Gianluca Branco in order to start the promotion immediately afterward.
Malignaggi (21-0, 5 KOs) is stoked for the fight.
"Miguel Cotto has been getting his chin checked frequently," he said. "He's been wobbling and going down. I have the speed and skills to finish the job. I will check his chin for good. He wants to come to the Garden, but no one comes into my building, in my city, and impresses in my weight class. If you want to see the best junior welterweight in the world, it's me. If he wants a boxing lesson, I will give it to him on June 10."
Arum plans to put the bout on pay-per-view, which means it will compete head-to-head with HBO PPV's Antonio Tarver-Bernard Hopkins light heavyweight title fight.
However, Arum is also talking to Showtime, which has interest in Cotto, who is free from any obligation to HBO beyond the March 4 fight.
Arum said he planned to put on a fan-friendly undercard. Among the fights in the works for the PPV card are:
• A junior lightweight battle between former titlist Carlos Hernandez and former featherweight champ Kevin Kelley, a New Yorker coming off an impressive win this month against Juan Carlos Ramirez.
• Six-round bouts involving junior welterweight prospect Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and hot Puerto Rican junior featherweight prospect Juan Manuel Lopez.
• A title fight involving one of Arum's many champions, possibly junior flyweight titlist Brian Viloria.
• Arum hopes to do a fifth fight on the broadcast matching middleweight Jose Luis Zertuche against rising prospect John Duddy, an immensely popular Ireland native based in New York. However, Arum does not promote Duddy, so he'd have to make a deal with Duddy's handlers.
Pacquiao picks Larios: Junior lightweight star Manny Pacquiao and former junior featherweight champ Oscar Larios will meet May 20 on HBO, probably in Manila, the managers for both fighters told ESPN.com.
Pacquiao co-manager Shelly Finkel said the deal was made quickly and relatively easily. Pacquiao is coming off a knockout win against Erik Morales last month in their rematch. The Larios fight comes with Pacquiao (41-3-2, 33 KOs) already scheduled to face Morales in a Sept. 16 rubber match.
However, Pacquiao has balked at Morales' request for the third fight to take place at 132 pounds instead of the junior lightweight limit of 130 pounds.
Finkel and Morales promoter Arum met Thursday to talk about the issue.
Larios (56-4-1, 36 KOs), who will jump two weight classes -- from 122 pounds to 130 -- for the fight and an almost $500,000 payday, lost his title in a December unification bout when Israel Vazquez stopped him on a cut in the third round.
Larios' manager, Rafael Mendoza, said the weight increase won't be an issue.
"Larios is a very big junior featherweight and could have been fighting at featherweight for the past few years, and Pacquiao is not a big 130-pounder," Mendoza said. "I think Larios will perform better at the bigger weight. He might even be the bigger man than Pacquiao when they get in the ring."
Pacquiao is the national hero in the Philippines and the fight is expected to take place there, although HBO is still working out the logistics.
Diaz plans: With Juan Diaz's mandatory lightweight title defense against Lakva Sim postponed for the second time -- the first coming in December due to an injury to Sim followed by the collapse of a March 3 date because of problems between Sim promoter Dan Goossen and Diaz manager Willie Savannah -- Diaz promoter Main Events is exploring other options for Diaz.
Main Events is confident it can get the WBA to grant an exception to the mandatory fight because of all the problems surrounding the Sim fight.
A $400,000 offer for Diaz (28-0, 14 KOs) to face junior welterweight champ Hatton on May 13 was rejected quickly this week because the feeling was that it was not enough money for such a risky fight, especially since Diaz has fought only once in 13 months, and that was a fifth-round TKO of journeyman Art Cruz in a non-title, stay-busy fight last July.
Now, Main Events is talking to Top Rank about a potentially explosive fight pitting Diaz in a title defense against Jose Cotto (27-0, 19 KOs) -- the older brother of junior welterweight titlist Miguel Cotto -- on the April 8 HBO PPV undercard headlined by Mayweather-Judah.
The Diaz camp has requested a video tape of Jose Cotto and is looking at it before proceeding with discussions.
Arce-Alvarez official: One fight that is set for the April 8 Mayweather-Judah card matches interim flyweight titlist Jorge Arce (43-3-1, 32 KOs) of Mexico against former two-division champ Rosendo "El Buffalo" Alvarez (32-2-2, 24 KOs) of Nicaragua.
Like the main event, the fight matches rival promoters Arum, who promotes Mayweather and Arce, against Don King, who has Judah and Alvarez.
The Arce-Alvarez bout will be a continuation of their scuffle in the ring following Arce's Jan. 28 victory against Adonis Rivas. Trash talk between Arce and Alvarez boiled over, with Alvarez throwing a punch at Arce and Arce, still with his gloves on, responding with a blow of his own.
"We are not friendly rivals, we are just rivals," Arce said. "He thinks he's going to knock me out, but I doubt it very much. His time has come and gone. Now is my time. I don't dance. I come to fight when I'm inside that ring. Mark my words, on April 8, 'El Buffalo' will be an endangered species."
Alvarez was equally as confident of victory. "I want to shut his big mouth," Alvarez said. "He will not be talking so much and will be wearing dentures when I'm through with him. I want to crush his star. I will not sleep until I defeat this clown."
Bell-Cunningham: O'Neil Bell, who joined Evander Holyfield as the second undisputed cruiserweight champ in division history when he knocked out Jean-Marc Mormeck to unify the titles Jan. 7, will defend against highly regarded contender Steve Cunningham.
Cunningham promoter King submitted a purse bid of $401,000 to win the right to promote the mandatory fight, beating out the other bidder, Bell promoter Warriors Boxing, which bid $201,000. As champion, Bell is entitled to 75 percent of the winning bid ($300,750) while Cunningham receives the remainder.
The fight is ticketed as the headliner for Showtime's May 6 card in Worcester, Mass. The second bout on the card will feature junior middleweight titlist Alejandro "Terra" Garcia defending against Worcester's Jose Antonio Rivera.
Bojado surfaces: Francisco "Panchito" Bojado (16-2, 11 KOs), the onetime mega-prospect who hasn't fought since dropping a close decision to junior welterweight James Leija in July 2004, is planning to fight again.
"I'm coming back," Bojado told ESPN.com. "I needed some time off to deal with some things, some personal things, and also to mature."
Bojado, 22, is in Las Vegas for Vargas-Mosley and to meet with Main Events, which has promoted all of his fights. Although Bojado said he became a promotional free agent when his contract with Main Events expired at the end of 2005, he said he appreciated what Main Events did for him and wanted to give the company first crack at being his promoter.
Bojado, who represented Mexico in the 2000 Olympics, turned pro at age 17 and became an immediate sensation with a series of impressive performances on Showtime.
However, a decision loss to Juan Carlos Rubio in 2002 derailed him, but Bojado appeared back on track after returning slowly and then defeating Rubio in a 2003 rematch. Three fights later, however, Bojado lost to Leija and hasn't fought since.
Bojado struggled with his weight throughout his career and after the Leija loss disappeared from the scene and eventually was released by manager Shelly Finkel. However, Bojado appeared in good spirits and in decent shape as he mingled with boxing folks at Thursday's Juan Lazcano-Ben Tackie weigh-in.
Bojado, who said he weighed about 160 pounds, said he planned to make his comeback as a 140-pounder.
Johnston seeks spotlight: Former two-time lightweight champ Stevie Johnston (38-3-1, 17 KOs), with three victories in row since ending a long layoff caused in part by a serious car accident, believes he deserves another meaningful fight.
"When I was world champion, I was young and didn't take training seriously," said Johnston, who had two reigns from 1997-2000. "I won on skill. I have a second chance now and I'm a better fighter today. I want any of the 140-pound champions. I deserve another world title shot after all I've been through -- out almost 2½ years after my car accident, with three good wins since I came back trained by Buddy [McGirt]. I've been doing all of the right things and now all I want is one more shot."
In his last outing in January, Johnston, 33, easily outpointed Steve Quinonez in a junior welterweight fight.
Quick hits: Colombian welterweight Joel "Love Child" Julio (26-0, 23 KOs), the 2005 ESPN.com prospect of the year and the most dynamic young fighter around, faces Wilmer Mejia (11-10-1, 2 KOs) on the undercard of Vargas-Mosley. The reason Mejia is the opponent is because Main Events matchmaker Moretti wants to get Julio, 21, some experience against a southpaw. Viewers of the pay-per-view, however, will not be able to see the bout because HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg refused to allow a fourth bout on the broadcast despite a fairly weak undercard and a $44.95 price tag. His explanation? He wants to assure that the main event is in the ring by 11:15 p.m. ET. Of course, that could be accomplished by having his announcers talk less at the top of the show and between fights rather than depriving fans of the sport's top prospect.
• Negotiations for junior welterweight champ Hatton's American TV rights are ongoing as co-promoter Artie Pelullo continues negotiating with HBO and Showtime. However, talks with HBO have hit bumps because the network is insisting on a substantial percentage of the foreign revenue generated from Hatton's fights, something Pelullo deems a dealbreaker. Hatton is planning a May 13 title defense.
• Top Rank promoter Arum said last week's Antonio Margarito-Manuel Gomez pay-per-view fight generated more than 70,000 purchases, a number Arum said was surprisingly high. He said he only needed to sell 20,000 homes to break even on the $39.95 card on which Margarito scored a spectacular first-round knockout to retain his welterweight title.
• Junior flyweight titlist Viloria, who made a successful first defense of his title on the Margarito-Gomez PPV undercard when he outpointed Jose Antonio Aguirre, injured his hand early in the bout. Viloria broke a bone in his right hand, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, although the injury is not expected to force Viloria to miss substantial time away from the gym.
• All-time great Pernell Whitaker, the former pound-for-pound king who won titles in four divisions, is on hand for Vargas-Mosley but not as a fighter on the card. Whitaker hasn't fought since 2001 and has dealt with various legal and drug problems. But the former champ appears to have his life together now. Still close to the staff at Main Events, which promoted him during his career, Whitaker is working as a trainer and has a fighter on Saturday night's card, which Main Events is co-promoting. Whitaker trains junior welterweight Dorin Spivey (32-3, 23 KOs), who faces Wilfredo Negron (25-9, 19 KOs).
• Middleweight Andre Ward (8-0), the only boxing gold medalist for the United States at the 2004 Athens Olympics, won a unanimous decision against Kendall Gould (7-8-1) Thursday night in Lemoore, Calif.
Quotable: "I feel in my heart that if I put the pressure on him from round one like I say I am going to do, that he cannot take it. I know he can't." -- Fernando Vargas on how he intends to fight Shane Mosley on Saturday night.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.