Featherweight showdown slated for Saturday


Paulie Ayala, who will face Marco Antonio Barrera on Saturday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., was an interested observer when Barrera faced Manny Pacquiao last November. And like many others, Ayala was stunned at the way Barrera got thrashed by "The Pac Man."

"Yeah, I was surprised by the whole deal," he admitted, "Because I feel [Barrera] wasn't even fighting in the first place. Not discrediting Pacquiao, I just think it would've been a better fight if Barrera would have been more offensive or if he would've been the old Barrera. But yeah, I was surprised at the whole outcome."

Prior to his loss to the Filipino, Barrera had to deal with managerial and promotional changes, a camp in Big Bear, Calif., that had to be evacuated in the midst of raging forest fires, and what seemed to be the biggest burden to him was that the story of him fighting with a steel plate in his head since 1997 was made public just weeks before his bout with Pacquiao.

In many ways, Barrera looked and acted like a distracted fighter -- and of course, it didn't help that Pacquiao basically mugged him.

"Yeah," agreed Ayala, "It looked like he had carried all that stuff into the ring with him. It affected him, obviously, I could tell. Even though it was water under the bridge, it was still a bother to him."

Yet instead of an old Barrera, Ayala expects to face "the old Marco, the one that made him the 'pound-for-pound, people's champion.' I expect that he's going to be coming to try to rekindle his career and rejuvenate himself. He's done it before, so that's the kind of Barrera I train for."

What's interesting is that Barrera started his career in 1989, about three years before Ayala made his pro debut in 1992. And despite having 24 more professional outings, it's Barrera that comes in as the younger fighter by four years, at age 30.

This should be a good gauge on where both fighters stand. Is Barrera still among the elite and did he just have a bad night last November? Is Ayala better suited to fight at featherweight now than he was against Erik Morales in November of 2002?

"I think so," he says, of facing Barrera at 126 pounds. "With the maturity of my body it's adapted pretty quickly, and plus, you see Morales was a really big featherweight; that's why he moved up. And Barrera, he's an established featherweight as well but I think we'll probably be coming in at about the same weight."

Ayala has been relatively inactive since his loss to Morales, fighting just once since then -- a 10-round decision over Edel Ruiz last November on Telefutura -- but he says at this stage of his career, his body needed the time off.

"I've rested my body, I've allowed it to heal, I haven't taken as much abuse," says Ayala, whose fights are always physically taxing and long. "Even though I stay in the gym, I don't do any sparring until it comes time to something set up and get my timing and that's basically all I need, to work on some technique and stuff.

"But I think it's helped prolong my career to this stage; I mean, it's already going to be 12 years, so to be at this level and to be fighting the best, fight after fight, it's helped me."

Ayala is at an interesting stage of his career, much closer to the end of it than the beginning. We'll find out on Saturday night if he's still in his prime. But he's not anywhere close to calling it quits.

"I'm at a very vital part of my career; it's where every fight I have to put 100 percent in it. I always have but I'm not looking for the light, I'm definitely staying here, because if you start thinking about retirement, you're basically subconsciously retired and I feel I don't want to be like that. I want to stay focused on this fight and focus on Barrera," says Ayala, who turned down several lesser fights from Top Rank after his win over Ruiz. At this stage of his career, all he wants are meaningful and
lucrative bouts.

"Yeah, just big fights," he says. "If HBO or Top Rank is willing to throw it on pay-per-view, yeah, those type of fights are the kind I've wanted to make since becoming a champion; that's one of the reasons I haven't been busy."

But it's been a good, solid, productive career, no matter how things go on Saturday night and beyond. When you first saw Ayala in the mid-to-late '90s on Oscar De La Hoya's undercards, you always got the sense he was just a decent guy, nothing special, maybe at best a solid contender. But by force
of sheer will, Ayala has won a major world title, engaged in pay-per-view fights against the likes of Johnny Tapia and Morales, and has been a fairly consistent staple on HBO.

The native of Fort Worth, Texas, says that he is more than satisfied with his accomplishments, but he still has more to do in this game.

"As far as me fighting still, there's really nothing else out there that I see that I can't accomplish. I'm fighting because I love it; it's not necessarily because I need to fight financially or whatever. We've done well with what we've made, invested and put up a lot of money. So it's not because I have to fight but it's because I love the game and I feel that I still have fight left in me. That's why I'm doing it."

And in typical Ayala fashion, expect another hard-nosed, tough, grinding, exciting fight.

"Yeah, it can be and it will be, definitely," he says. "Like I said, with Barrera trying to come back off of his loss and of course I want to establish myself again, there's big opportunities after this fight so it's
definitely a win-win situation."

The venue

This HBO "Boxing After Dark" doubleheader will be taking place in a relatively new venue at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Last year, Gary Shaw put on a show there featuring Diego Corrales against Damian Fuller on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

"It's actually in the tennis pavilion; it's outdoors, it seats about 7,800, open air," is the way Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels described the facility. "There's plenty of parking. It's not to be confused with the Galaxy field [where the soccer team plays] which is in the same complex.

"We went there for the press conference, it was a single tennis court in the center, so it's an artificial turf. We'll cover that up, put the ring down. There will be seating on the floor area also. It's much like going to Flushing Meadows [New York, site of the U.S. Open in tennis], circular seating all the way around."

If things work out well, the Home Depot Center could become a regular spot
for boxing in Southern California.

"Absolutely," said Samuels. "Arum said months ago that he wanted to do an
outdoor fight in Los Angeles and we finally found the right fight. Ticket
sales are very strong."

Tyson time

Boxing fans will have an interesting decision to make on the last weekend of July, when two pay-per-view shows are scheduled on that weekend.

Mike Tyson's return has been bumped up to Friday, July 30, instead of the 31st.

"A couple of things," explained his adviser, Shelly Finkel. "First, the Friday may be better than Saturday in the summer. Two, they're looking to do that other fight with Erik Morales, so it would put it up against it."

The next day, Morales will face Carlos Hernandez from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in a 130-pound unification bout, which is being distributed by HBO Pay-Per-View.

It'll be interesting to see the numbers for both shows, which are catered to two distinct markets. First, you have the general sports fan who still thinks Tyson is entertaining. Then, you have the loyal Latin fans that want to see the best fights between their fighters.

Reports are surfacing that Tyson is in his best physical condition in years.

"He's phenomenal right now," says Finkel. "It sounds like you cry wolf so many times, but this is the best I've seen him."

So is the last push of a desperate man?

"I think it's realization rather than desperation," says Finkel.

Final flurries

The Home Depot Center is a busy place. In addition to its tennis court, the Galaxy and boxing, it's also the training camp of the San Diego Chargers..... So that's almost like having a professional football
team.....The De La Hoya-Hopkins press conference has been moved back because the promoters don't want to be buried too deep by the Lakers, who dominate the sports pages here in Los Angeles.... Also, it gives De La Hoya's bruises time to heal.....Expect the press conference to take place next week and for
tickets to go on sale shortly afterward.