- George Kimball
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MONTREAL -- They were born just a year apart on different continents, neither the one on which either currently practices his trade, and their meeting could turn out to be like a mid-ocean collision of two vagabond ships wandering adrift: It might make a lot of noise, but will the rest of the world be paying attention?
Friday's title fight between Herman Ngoudjo (17-2) and Juan Urango (20-1-1) at Montreal's Bell Centre should by rights be one of the more glamorous encounters of the new year: Two boxers more or less at the top of their respective games, so evenly matched that not even the people who handicap these things for a living can find much to separate them. (The 11/10 cosmetic edge the oddsmakers accord Ngoudjo is largely predicated on home-field advantage.)
While the winner will emerge with a world championship, it isn't entirely clear that he will immediately be regarded a major player in a division that looms as one of the hottest in boxing in 2009.
More than three months away, the May 2 Ricky Hatton-Manny Pacquiao mega-bout already looms as boxing's next big fight. Even though Pacquiao will be making his junior welterweight debut, the winner will be widely regarded as "the man" at 140 pounds and the centerpiece of an unofficial mini-tournament to determine supremacy at the weight.
The April 4 unification bout between titlists Timothy Bradley and Kendall Holt is expected to produce a credible opponent for the Pacquiao-Hatton winner, and it is by no means inconceivable that the 140-pound sweepstakes will by then have attracted enough attention to bring Floyd Mayweather back into the ring.
Even if Pretty Boy Floyd elects to remain on the voluntarily retired list, there is no shortage of name opponents down the line, beginning -- though by no means limited to -- former champions Vivian Harris, Junior Witter and Ricardo Torres. Demetrius Hopkins, who fought Holt to a split decision in December, is also regarded a potential future player, as is Andreas Kotelnik, the Germany-based Ukrainian who owns yet another portion of the title.
But in these long-term analyses of the junior welterweight picture, the names of Ngoudjo and Urango rarely rate so much as a mention. It is partly because the IBF belt they will contest in Montreal is a castoff, a trinket that became available only because Paulie Malignaggi voluntarily relinquished it prior to his November meeting with Hatton, and partly due to the perception that Ngoudjo and Urango represent damaged goods, having each come up short in the biggest fights of their lives.
When Urango and Ngoudjo (vs. Hatton and Jose Luis Castillo, respectively) appeared on the same bill two years ago, many questioned their credentials. Although both were undefeated at the time, the entire arrangement had the appearance of a prearranged setup for a couple of easy wins designed to grease the skids for a Hatton title and a lucrative Hatton-Castillo fight.
But the performances of both men that night, and in subsequent outings, demonstrated that neither is out of place in the worldwide pantheon of 140-pound contenders, and indeed, the stock of both may have risen since -- Ngoudjo on the strength of his showing in two losing causes, Urango's on a chilling one-punch knockout in his last fight that labels him as dangerous as any fighter in the division.
If the combatants are in unanimity about anything, it is that the man emerging victorious from Friday's showdown should be considered a force to be reckoned with in the lucrative junior welterweight sweepstakes.
"Definitely," says Urango. "Especially if it's me. Right now, the networks all have their favorites, but I would like to get the opportunity to fight any of those guys -- most of all, Manny Pacquiao."
They have lost only three fights between them. That Urango, a former titlist, was outpointed in his 2007 Las Vegas title fight with Hatton is hardly a disgrace; the only other semblance of a blemish on his record is his 2004 draw with Mike Arnaoutis.
Ngoudjo's only losses have been a close but unanimous decision against Malignaggi last year and the controversial split decision he dropped to Castillo on the Hatton-Urango undercard. There is no shortage of people who think Ngoudjo merited the nod in both of those fights.
"I thought I won both of those fights," says Ngoudjo. "But I can't box and judge at the same time."
The opinions of each man on his foe's performances in those losses is instructive. Urango recalls Malignaggi-Ngoudjo as being a close fight that should have gone Ngoudjo's way, while he feels Castillo-Ngoudjo was just plain disappointing.
"I thought it [Castillo-Ngoudjo] was going to be a more aggressive fight, but it wasn't," says Urango.
Ngoudjo watched Urango's only career loss with some interest. His observation that Hatton was more active than Urango won't get much argument -- not even from Urango himself.
Among his previous foes, Urango believes Ngoudjo's style is most comparable to that of Nasser Athumani, the Kenyan he stopped in four rounds on an ESPN card in Atlantic City in his first outing after the Hatton loss.
Ngoudjo likens Urango to the hard-hitting Randall Bailey, whom he fought in his first bout after the Castillo loss. (Ngoudjo's win in that one, a split decision in Montreal, was Bailey's lone defeat in 11 fights since losing his title to Miguel Cotto in 2004.)
Evenly matched on paper, they represent the age-old contrast of boxer vs. banger.
Ngoudjo is a nonstop dynamo, and while he lacks a big punch, he figures to be as slick in Round 12 as he is in Round 1. And while neither man has ever been stopped, Urango's mandate will be to see that there is no 12th round. The Colombian southpaw's most imposing weapon is the big right hook he used to flatten Carlos Wilfredo Vilches, a punch that became an instant contender for 2008's Knockout of the Year.
Ngoudjo, unsurprisingly, says the key to fighting Urango will be to be active, while Urango distills his game plan down to one word: "Pressure."
Their differing stylistic backgrounds notwithstanding, Ngoudjo and Urango have traveled parallel paths in professional careers that find each man rooted far from the land of his birth.
Raised in the West African Republic of Cameroon, Ngoudjo boxed for his native country in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He came to Canada as a participant in the 2001 Francophile Games in Ottawa, where he, apparently spontaneously, jumped ship and asked for refugee status. Since turning pro in 2003 he has boxed out of Montreal, where he has amassed a devoted following among the boxing-mad Quebecois, who have yet to see him lose.
His defection "wasn't planned," reveals Ngoudjo, who for several years wasn't able to return to Cameroon. ("Now I can," he says, although there are still family members there he hasn't been able to see since.)
Born and reared in Colombia, Urango hasn't fought in his homeland for seven years. In 2003 and '04 he was based in Spain, where he won four fights over an international array of European opponents.
In the summer of 2004, he hooked up with Seminole Warriors Promotions, and beginning with the Arnaoutis fight has been a fixture of that Florida stable. And although he left his homeland on good terms, right now, due to immigration rules, it's even harder for Urango to go home than it is for Ngoudjo.
"I haven't been to Colombia for two years," says Juan. "I'm working on becoming a U.S. resident and must establish that before I travel to Colombia again."
Can he establish himself as the superior fighter on Friday -- in his opponent's adopted hometown?
"Of course, they'll be cheering their home guy, but I respect the Canadian people and I know they'll be fair," says Urango. "I'm just there to do my job, and that's what I will do."
George Kimball, who writes for the Irish Times and Boxing Digest as well as ESPN.com, won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1985. He is the author of the widely acclaimed new book "Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing."
Juan Urango wants in on the Manny Pacquiao sweepstakes. First, he'll have to carve a name for himself in the stacked 140-pound division. His chance to do that comes in a junior welterweight title tilt against Herman Ngoudjo in Montreal on Friday.