Thursday November 29th, 2007

DENVER -- Sitting in my hotel room, I can't help but be impressed by the tape I'm watching of Antonio Tarver.

He is fast. He is elusive. His punches come in bunches and they pack a wallop. Judging by the powerful shots being delivered by his opponent, Tarver appears to still have a granite chin.

Who is that opponent anyway? that Sylvester Stallone?

No, the tape I'm watching is not a replay of one of Tarver's recent fights but rather a scene from Rocky Balboa, where Tarver played the role of the insecure Mason "The Line" Dixon, a tantalizing fighter trying to gain respect by pounding on a man who is eligible for senior citizen's discounts. (Hey, I didn't say it was a good plot.)

While Tarver is impressive in the ring in the film, he hasn't been impressive in real life in quite some time. Beginning with his loss to Bernard Hopkins in 2006 -- when Tarver (25-4) was battered by the 41-year old Hopkins -- and continuing with an unimpressive victory over Elvir Muriqi in June, Tarver has been a fraction of the fighter who ended Roy Jones Jr.'s run at the top in 2004, when he KO'd the reigning pound-for-pound champion in the second round. Tarver, 39, has appeared more concerned with his imdb profile than his boxrec profile.

But Tarver, like so many others before him, doesn't accept that. He blames the media, the critics for lampooning his career. "I don't listen to the naysayers," said Tarver. "I want to accomplish [what] I did before. I want them to choke on their words. I want them to suffer and come up for air when it's all said and done."

But Antonio, what did the media do?

It didn't tell you to take the Hopkins fight months after wrapping up filming for Rocky Balboa. It didn't have you so mentally unraveled that you let Hopkins, who moved up two weight classes for the fight and doesn't knock anyone out anyway, send you careening to the canvas.

"Everybody knew I was a shell of myself [in that fight], for whatever reason," said Tarver.

I can think of a reason -- you didn't train for it. You thought Hopkins was an over-the-hill fighter who you could beat with your reputation alone. You were wrong.

The media didn't advise you to take the Muriqi bout, a dull majority decision in which you reclaimed the IBO light heavyweight title that you had lost to Hopkins. It didn't tell you to take more time out of your boxing schedule to film your role in the kid comedy Scouts Honor.

Tarver has to stop blaming the media for his reluctance to make boxing his number one priority. He has to hold himself accountable, beginning Saturday night in Connecticut when he defends his title against Danny Santiago (Showtime, 9 p.m.). Beating Santiago (29-3) won't do much to raise Tarver's profile, but a convincing win could propel him toward another potential big-money fight against Hopkins or Joe Calzaghe. But a loss, in all likelihood, would spell the end of his career.

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