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Featherweight champ Gamboa looks to kick off banner year

At 5-foot-5 and a muscular 126 pounds, Gamboa (19-0, 15 KOs) is a fearsome-looking featherweight. He puts punches together with blinding speed and delivers them with concussive power. Just ask Rogers Mtagwa, who went 12 grueling rounds with Juan Manuel Lopez -- Gamboa's chief rival in the division -- but lasted fewer than two with Gamboa.

"When you see him fight, you see incredible natural ability that is very Roy Jones-esque," said Gamboa's promoter, Todd DuBoef. "He has speed and power in both hands that are not seen too often in this sport."

Now, meet Yuri Gamboa. The talent is there but the focus sometimes is not. Just ask Jonathan Victor Barros, a lightly regarded title challenger who took a few rounds from Gamboa before losing a decision last March. Or Orlando Salido, a journeyman who put Gamboa on the canvas in the eighth round before fading down the stretch last September.

Indeed, Gamboa's career has been highlighted by excitement and stained with inconsistency. There's no question the 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist has the skills to be an elite fighter, one worthy of an elevated ranking on the pound-for-pound list. The mental toughness? That's not as certain.

We'll know more about Gamboa on Saturday (9:45 p.m. ET, HBO), when he defends his alphabet titles against Jorge Solis at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. Solis (40-2-2, 29 KOs) is no pushover. He's a former super featherweight title-holder who traded shots with Manny Pacquiao for eight rounds in 2007 before getting knocked out. Solis is taller (5-8) than Gamboa and has considerable pop behind his punches.

He's an opponent who needs to be taken seriously. Though it's hard to tell if Gamboa is.

"I know he will be tough, but I can't say that he will be the toughest I have faced," Gamboa said. "Right now, pre-fight, I would have to say no. But we'll see how the fight progresses and I may have a better answer for you at the end. My toughest opponent to date was Marcos Ramirez [in 2008] and the toughest fight I have been in was my last one, against Orlando Salido."

Top Rank, for one, is hoping Gamboa is right. It has big plans for him. A win on Saturday could kick off a banner year, one rich with top-tier opponents. There is Chris John, the undefeated featherweight king who shares the WBA title with Gamboa. There is Hozumi Hasegawa, who claimed the WBC version of the title last year.

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"Both [John and Hasegawa] are well-known in Asia," DuBoef said. "We have reached out to Chris John's people numerous times to see about his availability. I know there is momentum building for him to stay home with his popularity in Indonesia -- very Klitschko-esque -- where we see them fighting out of Germany and Eastern Europe. I see that and the difficulty of bringing those guys over here to fight. I know they have a robust TV market. They are all opportunities, but you never know how the timing is and the market is that they are in. Right now, Chris John has no reason to come over here to fight any of the featherweights."

Said Gamboa: "I would never back down from anyone and would look forward to fighting either John or Hasegawa."

Then there is Lopez, who is charting an interminably slow intersecting course. Both Lopez, 27, and Gamboa, 29, are promoted by Top Rank, which has been patiently trying to build up both fighters in advance of a showdown. Bob Arum has said repeatedly that he would like to see Gamboa and Lopez clean out the featherweight division before facing each other, but the politics of boxing make that less and less likely.

"I wouldn't say that [Gamboa vs. Lopez] is not on the radar," DuBoef said. "I would say that the business models around the two of them are separate, and I think there is time to build the fight into a really big fight and the time both fighters will benefit from how the fight happens so that we maximize the interest. We saw a recent fight between [Devon] Alexander and [Tim] Bradley that was a little early for it to happen. We all talk about when [Oscar] De La Hoya fought [Felix] Trinidad, that captivated everybody. I think there is something in between to build up the marketability of both fighters, fighting good fights along the way and building up demand.

"I don't think we do well with time lines. I think we do well building businesses around both fighters, and when it's ready to go, it's ready to go. We have seen them both progress substantially over the past 12 months. Their ratings have grown over both premium networks, and we have seen interest grow from people in the community. Yuri got a late start and has moved rather quickly to a high level of fighting, and he delivered. We have to take into consideration his marketability as he moves up."

As much as Top Rank would like to build momentum for Gamboa-Lopez, it may have reached its peak. Lopez is popular with a strong, primarily Puerto Rican fan base in New York. Gamboa, however, has never been a big draw and, at this stage of his career, may never be. Perhaps the only way to increase Gamboa's popularity is to pit him against Lopez and hope he delivers a spectacular performance.

He sounds like a man eager for the chance.

"They [Top Rank] have created this expectation about a fight that has not happened after a year of talking about it," Gamboa said. "What I want to do is tend to my business and keep collecting belts, hope that it happens and if it doesn't, I just move on."