By Lyle Fitzsimmons
In its computerized rankings for April, the International Boxing Organization slots Antonio Tarver – the reigning IBO champion – at No. 4 among belt-holders in the 200-pound weight class.
But not surprisingly, the 43-year-old Floridian, never one to shy away from a perfectly good microphone, has a different opinion when it comes to his true standing among the heavyweights.
And he’s not just referring to the heavyweights of the cruiserweight division.
No… he means the real heavyweights.
You know, the 250-pound Klitschko kind.
More specifically, Mssrs. Wladimir and Vitali.
“The best way for them to beat me is not to fight me,” Tarver told BoxingScene.com, showing zero trace of the modesty so rarely present in his professional aura. “I can punch hard and punch fast. In combinations. And they ain’t used to anybody like that.
“Remember, I don’t talk the talk, I walk the walk. And I’ll back it up, or die trying.”
It’s a prodigious verbal gauntlet for a fighter who, amid an uninspiring 3-3 stretch just a few years back, looked every bit the part of a guy who’d issued his last wordy challenge.
Tarver’s prolonged climb to light heavyweight eminence was abruptly ended by a 41-year-old Bernard Hopkins, who took 10 of 12 rounds on all three scorecards in a shockingly one-sided IBO title schooling along the Jersey seashore in 2006.
Wins over Elvir Muriqi, Danny Santiago and Clinton Woods made the “Magic Man’s” jewelry reappear in only 10 months, but it was just as quickly snatched by an unbeaten Chad Dawson, who won eight rounds or more on six cards across two one-sided decisions in 2008-09.
Still, rather than fading to a silent retirement, Tarver chose another path.
He weighed in nearly 50 pounds north of 175 for a 10-round defeat of fringe heavyweight Nagy Aguilera in 2010 and impressed precious few while doing so, though he looks back now and sees the experiment as vital toward concocting the perfect Klitschko antidote.
“Yeah, I rushed myself up to heavyweight,” he said. “I didn’t give myself a chance to grow into it or get in great shape. I was fighting a guy who weighed 230 and I didn’t want to go in there at 200 or 201, so I changed my strategy midway through camp and I went into the ring at 221.
“What can I say? It wasn’t great shape, but it was good enough to go 10 rounds.
“But if anyone looks at that fight as an indication of my ability to fight at heavyweight, they’re crazy. That’s not at all an example of what I can do.”
Again determined, he trimmed 23 pounds for his next fight nine months later, walked brazenly into Sydney and wrested the aforementioned cruiserweight belt from Australian hero Danny Green – who’d not lost above 168 pounds and had never been stopped in 34 fights.
The ninth-round TKO was Tarver’s eighth win in 13 championship bouts and instantly restarted the swagger that’s again got him making lists of future conquests.
Item No. 1 on the agenda is a May 26 title defense against Lateef Kayode, a 29-year-old Nigerian slugger who hasn’t lost as a pro and has beaten 14 of his 18 foes by stoppage.
Kayode is No. 7 among contenders on the IBO computer.
“I’m out here to do the unthinkable,” Tarver said. “There’s no one out here my age doing the things I’m doing, knocking out younger champions. I see other older guys winning fights by boring-ass decisions. But that’s not me. I’m showing the world what skill is all about.
“I’m teaching the young dogs new tricks.”
Assuming a win against Kayode, who’s never fought for a title, Tarver claims one more fight – against WBO champion Marco Huck or WBC claimant Krzysztof Wlodarcyzk – would prove him the “most dominant cruiserweight” and set the stage for a focused run at heavyweight, albeit with a lighter load.
He said he’d go no higher than 210 or 212 in his second tour of the big men, and believes the name cache from a 15-year pro career would negate the need for a drawn-out run through the top 10.
Instead, he expects cruiserweight laurels to warrant an immediate Klitschko shot.
“I have credentials, so I won’t have to fight every heavyweight in the world,” he said. “That should be enough. They’ve all beaten each other anyway. I’ve got nothing to prove.”
Five of the top 10 IBO contenders at heavyweight have already lost to one of the Klitschkos, while the other five – Alexander Povetkin, Robert Helenius, Alexander Dimitrenko, Kubrat Pulev and Franklin Lawrence – are largely unknown to anything behind hardcore audiences.
“I’m not gonna give away my game plan, but I’ll be able to get inside and negate their big reach,” Tarver said of the Klitschkos, who stand nearly half a head taller than his 6-foot-2. “They won’t hit me with those big right hands. I’m too elusive. And when they miss, they’ll pay.
“They’ve never fought someone with my agility. The only way they beat me is to knock me out, and it’s never been done. They sure as heck ain’t gonna do it with their alligator arms.
“Trust me, it’ll happen. I’m not dreaming. I’m making dreams come true.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBA middleweight title – Cologne, Germany
Felix Sturm (champion) vs. Sebastian Zbik (No. 4 contender)
Sturm (36-2-2, 15 KO): Twelfth title defense; Beaten once in 36 fights in Germany (33-1-2)
Zbik (30-1, 10 KO): Second title fight (0-1); Unbeaten in 25 fights in Germany (25-0)
Fitzbitz says: “The anonymous Sturm is surely no Marvin Hagler and probably no Sergio Martinez, but he is arguably the best of a too-crowded lot of belt-wearers at 160.” Sturm by decision
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
Last week's picks: 3-0
Overall picks record: 296-99 (74.9 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.