By Jake Donovan
Antonio Tarver made as triumphant a ring return as you can enjoy at 45 years old and having previously landed on the wrong end of a steroid scandal.
The former light heavyweight king ended a forced 17-month break from the ring with a 4th round stoppage of Mike Sheppard in their Fox Sports 1-televised main event Tuesday evening at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida.
The last time Tarver stepped foot into a boxing ring was for his eventual 12-round draw with Lateef Kayode in their cruiserweight bout last June. The fight hardly left an impression on the boxing world, except for Kayode's incoherent post-fight interview and a post-fight drug test which revealed a banned substance in Tarver's system.
To this day, Tarver insists what was found wasn't intentionally ingested. But without proper proof, he took his punishment like a man, going idle for more than a year, having celebrated his 44th and 45th birthday before stepping into the ring Tuesday evening.
That he turned in an effortless performance says something of the soft opposition he was presented in his comeback fight, considering the career-heaviest 221 lb. he lumbered into the ring. Poor physique aside, Tarver showed some of the same skills he possessed during a lengthy stay among the world's best light heavyweights.
Sheppard, a 38-year clubfighter from West Virginia, never stood a chance and - quite frankly - fought accordingly. Tarver treated the bout as a sparring session, taking the first few rounds to shake loose massive amounts of ring rust, though still making few mistakes without ever playing it safe.
The moment Tarver found his groove, the fight was essentially over. A wicked uppercut busted Sheppard's nose and put him down on the canvas early in round four. Two more knockdowns would follow before the bout was mercifully stopped, with Sheppard a battered mess while Tarver looked the same as when he walked out of the tunnel for his first fight in 17 months.
The official time was 1:53 of round four.
Tarver advances to 30-6 (21KO) with one no-decision. The win is his first since July '11, when he scored an eye-opening 9th round knockout of Danny Green on the road in Australia.
Sheppard falls to 21-16-1 (9KO), having now lost four of his last five contests. The bout marks his 12th knockout defeat, none having lasted more than four rounds, and five of which have come in the last three years.
A 1996 Olympic Bronze medalist who enjoyed three separate tours as an alphabet titlist, Tarver is a long way from his prime and perhaps stuck in no-man's land. Even assuming he can shed at least 20 lb. of flab, the cruiserweight division - while not exactly Murderer's Row - is still loaded with enough talent to where Tarver is a longshot even against the weakest titlists.
If his pre-fight promise holds true, then losing weight might not be an option. Tarver insisted prior to the fight that he would like to challenge lineal heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko in another year or so.
Unbeaten bantamweight prospect Randy Caballero showed some life in a career that was teetering on complacency, after scoring a 7th round stoppage of Miami's Jessy Cruz in the evening's televised co-feature.
The bout was entertaining in spot, monotonous in others, but featured a satisfying ending save for an overzealous member of the local commission discouraging the winner from an extended celebration. Caballero scored a body shot knockdown in round six, before teeing off on Cruz in the 7th round for another knockdown and ultimately the stoppage win.
The official time was 2:59 of round seven. Caballero rolls to 20-0 (12KO); the 23-year old Californian has now scored stoppages in each of his past four fights. Cruz falls to 10-6-1 (4KO), the loss snapping a three-fight win streak.
Unbeaten light heavyweight prospect Thomas Williams Jr. added a notable name to his resume, even if it came against a shell of the entity's former self. Badly faded former two-time challenger Yusaf Mack (31-7-2, 17KO) managed to last the full ten rounds, but suffered a bad cut and a world of punishment for his troubles in dropping a wide decision.
Scores were 99-91, 98-92 and 97-92 in a televised opener which, quite frankly, had no business being allowed to go on as long as was the case. Part of the onus falls on Williams (15-0, 10KO), who had Mack hurt on several occasions but failed to close the show due either to a lack of desire or ability.
Whatever reasons existed for the referee or for Mack's corner to allow the bout to last as long as they did are decisions they will have to live with for the time being. Fortunately, Mack made it out of the ring in one piece, but shame on anyone in his career who allows him to spend another minute in the ring.
Luis Ortiz continues to leave a lasting impression anytime he steps into the ring. The Cuban southpaw enjoyed a successful first fight under the Golden Boy Promotions banner, blasting out Alex Gonzalez in just two minutes. The bout was the final non-televised portion of the undercard, though clips were shown in between rounds during the main event.
With the win, Ortiz (20-0, 17KO) inches closer towards a shot at an alphabet title, despite only being a pro for less than four years and remaining largely untested. Given his talent and upside, it might not very much matter at all.
Dominic Breazeale remains a knockout every time out. The 28-year old heavyweight stopped Keith Barr (11-5, 3KO) inside of two rounds to run his record to 8-0 (8KO). The preliminary bout comes just 54 weeks after his pro debut, following a stint with the 2012 U.S. Olympic male boxing squad that was shut out at the medal table.
A pair of debutants made quick work of their opponents on the non-televised undercard. Dennis Galarza and Erickson Lubin both scored 1st round knockouts in their first piece of ring action since signing pro contracts with Iron Mike Productions less than two months ago.
Galarza (1-0, 1KO) managed to get in a full three minutes of work before forcing a stoppage of hapless Harold Torres (0-4-1). Lubin was brief and emphatic with his introduction to the pro ranks. The 18-year old, touted as the best amateur on the U.S. boxing scene prior to turning pro, needed just 35 seconds to take out Puerto Rico's Eric Dejesus (1-1, 1KO).
Albert Bell scored a four-round decision over Angel Hernandez (1-3, 0KO) in the evening's curtain raiser. Scores were 39-37 across the board for Bell (3-0, 1KO), whose pro debut in June coincided with the announcement of Mike Tyson joining forces with Acquinity Sports to form Iron Mike Productions.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox