Friday January 18th, 2008

NEW YORK -- In the sport of boxing, we are obsessed with who's next.

Crash a boxing press conference (it's easy, try) or eavesdrop on a conference call and you will discover that very rarely will more than a few questions pass before someone asks the fighter some variation of "if you win, who will you fight next."

Generally the responses are purposefully vague; fighters will either mention no names or throw out every name they can think of. But those stock answers don't dissuade the press from asking. Again. And again.

In that respect, Saturday night's clash between Roy Jones Jr. and Felix Trinidad is unique. Because for the loser, those questions will likely be irrelevant.

For Jones and Trinidad, Madison Square Garden is their Little Big Horn. It is where two boxing legends will make their last stand to try to prove their relevance in a sport that has long passed them by. Seven years ago, when Jones was set to face Trinidad before Trinidad was crushed by Bernard Hopkins, a Trinidad-Jones fight would have had the same cache as an Oscar De la Hoya-Floyd Mayweather. In their primes, Trinidad was a nose-breaking, jaw-shattering welterweight while Jones was an electrifying light heavyweight who was as elusive as he was powerful.

But neither are in their primes. Not even close. Trinidad, 35, hasn't fought since being embarrassed by Winky Wright 32 months ago. And while Jones, 39, has been more active, his recent opponents (Prince Badi Ajamu, Anthony Hanshaw) have posed as much of a threat as some of his sparring partners.

Still, both fighters have chosen to soldier on. Trinidad, a hero in his native Puerto Rico, says he is returning because "everywhere I went people were screaming for me to come back." Jones, who blames his decision to gain 20 pounds and fight for the heavyweight title in 2003 as the reason for his career derailing, says he is finally 100 percent and will only be satisfied if he knocks Trinidad out.

"A win doesn't mean much," said Jones. "He's got to go. He's got to go in fo'."

The thing is, this fight could be entertaining.

Why? For starter, both fighters wreak of desperation. Saturday night looms as a last chance for Jones to reclaim the spotlight that has successfully run away from him. There was a time when Jones, a champion in four weight classes, was a fixture at venues in New York and Las Vegas but in recent years he has shuttled between Boise and Biloxi. Networks that once embraced him treated him like a pariah. For Jones, a man who fancies himself an actor, rapper and professional basketball player as well as a boxer, the cold shoulder was devastating. A convincing win over Trinidad, coupled with his previous two victories, would, at least temporarily, elevate Jones back to contender status in the light heavyweight division. (Though I'll be the first to say that any fight against Joe Calzaghe would be an outright disaster for Jones).

For Trinidad, who will be fighting 10 pounds heavier than his previous high, a win would mean reincarnation as a light heavyweight. If Trinidad can prove he has enough power to compete in the light heavyweight division, he could extend his career by three or four fights. Light heavyweight is not a glamour division: current champions include Danny Green (WBA) and Clinton Woods (IBF). With his strong fan base and box office appeal, Trinidad could compete for a title within two years.

Desperate men take chances. Trinidad has always preferred a fight, and with his promise to deliver a knockout (in the fourth round), Jones has indicated that he will go toe-to-toe with the Puerto Rican legend. If that happens, this price will be worth the price of admission. Or at least the $50 to pay to see it.

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