By Steve Kim


WBO jr. featherweight titlist Daniel Ponce de Leon defends his crown this Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City against talented young Puerto Rican prospect Juan Manuel Lopez.

And his adviser, Joe Hernandez, swears up and down that this is the fight where his boxer puts it all together.

Of course in the past, Hernandez has never been shy to boast about the improvement he sees in his fighter, only to be let down overwhelmingly as Ponce de Leon struggles mightily. In many respects he's like that hopeless romantic who always has his heart broken. Or Charlie Brown, who always has the football pulled away at the last second by Lucy. More than once, he has threatened to walk away from the whole situation in disgust, only to return and go through the excruciating process all over again.

But this time he's absolutely convinced. He just knows it. This is the fight where Ponce - who seems to have two-and-a-half left feet and at times looks more awkward than an Amish guy in a strip joint - will shine and steal the show in what is HBO's most competitive fight of the evening.

"I've said the same thing for four years, 'His next fight you're going to see improvement.' I've said that all along, it's hard to say," says Hernandez, one of the game's best characters. "Here's a young man, so dedicated, he's learned so much after his last fight and he tries so much in the gym. It's a mental game. Hopefully June 7th, I am hoping this is the fight that will let the boxing world know that this kid is for real. A tremendous executioner, a tremendous youngster, he's a freak for conditioning. It's a mental game. I don't know what he's going to bring out. I'm hoping for the best."

In the past, Ponce's work in the gym has had Hernandez believing his fighter had turned the corner. Last week Hernandez proudly showed this reporter one of his recent sparring sessions (which can be viewed on Max-TV) with Julio Gamboa. And Ponce de Leon does look better (relatively speaking, of course). He steps with his jab, his punches seems a bit more compact and tight and he utilizes his right hook. No, he's no Ponce Whitaker or anything, but he does look better.

But as Barry Switzer used to say, "Can you do it while the band's still playing?" In other words, when it really counts?

"I think he's lacking self-confidence," Hernandez would surmise, of his fighter’s inability to transfer what he does in the gym to live competition. "He's got ability, not God-given talent, but he's got boxing ability that comes from experience. He's defended his title six times. So he's gained that experience in the gym by hard work, but it's a mental game. If he goes into the fight and he thinks and he executes well, he sets up his punches within range and he doesn't slap his punches and he uses the jab and he uses his right hand, I can't see ‘Juanma’ surviving X-amount of rounds. It would be impossible. But we will have to see how he performs in the ring."

Ponce de Leon believes he's new and improved.

"I've improved a great deal," he says through Hernandez. "I'm a champion with six title defenses. The only thing I was lacking was my technique and I feel it coming, it's there."

Ponce de Leon, despite being a 2000 Olympian who represented Mexico, was a work-in-progress, and in many ways, will always be so. Which is fine with the fighter.

"God gives you time for the ability to come. And I think it's the right time, he has given me that opportunity now."

One thing that has been maddening to the handlers of Ponce de Leon is that he can never seem to put consecutive strong performances together. For every devastating knockout of Sod Looknongyangtoy and Rey Bautista, it has been followed by clunkers against the likes of Gerry Penalosa and Eduardo Escobedo. You could almost call him Daniel Ponce de la Dow Jones.

"It was a bad fight, being that the opponent did not put himself in to give me a good performance," he admits of his last outing, a 12-round decision over Escobedo in December. "I think that's what made the difference in the fight. I want to thank him for that particular fight. That was a fight that taught me a lot and gave me terrific experience for this particular fight coming up."

Even in his victories, the manner in which he has won has left observers questioning just how he became a fighter with a major world title belt around his waist. And because of his less-than-stylish technique, he's a guy that has been largely shunned by the networks and sometimes even his own promotional outfit.

It's not just enough to win nowadays; in many respects, it is a beauty contest.

But Hernandez disagrees. "I wouldn't call it a beauty contest; I call it an improvement of boxing skills. The technique, you gotta go in there and think. If he can show me just a little for this particular fight, I think we'll win over the press, the media, the networks, Golden Boy, which has been backing him up for X-amount of time and invested a lot of money in this youngster. I think it's time for Ponce to pay, to reward these people. HBO or Showtime, that's what we need, where we're headlining, maybe a contract with the networks. We need that kind of performance to advance, to make good money."

In the 122-pound hierarchy, it’s Israel Vazquez, Rafael Marquez and everybody else. But if he can defeat Lopez impressively, perhaps he starts to put himself in the mix of the division’s most lucrative fights.

"Golden Boy's got some great plans," says Hernandez, "I think that the Philippines, Penalosa, if not Rey Bautista, there's another kid, Bernabe Concepion. We don't mind going out there. We get paid well, we don't mind going to any country in the world. Then you have Jhonny Gonzalez moving up to 122-pounds. Then you have the winner of Vazquez-Marquez. There's nobody else out there. He's got to fight the best, the marquee fighters, in order to expose himself as a great fighter.

"He's got all the potential of being a great fighter. But he hasn't developed yet and he's got to do it in this particular fight."

Win - and look good. That could be a tall order, but Ponce de Leon says it’s time.

"This is the fight that's going to show my ability and capability, not my defects. This is the fight that I know that it's going to show."

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