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This time last year, "Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather Jr. was widely acclaimed as the No. 1 fighter in the world, pound-for-pound. Carlos Baldomir was a name whose mention might elicit, at best, a blank stare from all but the most knowing of fans.
Twelve months later, Mayweather remains atop virtually every pound-for-pound ranking. But following two highly publicized fights in 2006, Baldomir has emerged from seemingly nowhere to become recognized as the true welterweight champion of the world. And it is a measure of his newfound stature that, in advance of Saturday's clash between the two men for Baldomir's WBC title at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, many fellow welterweight and junior middleweight titlists and contenders are hard-pressed to choose between the exceptionally talented Pretty Boy -- regarded by Las Vegas bookmakers as a 5-to-1 favorite -- and the gritty titlist from Argentina.
"It's really hard, I keep changing my mind back and forth on who's going to win this fight," said new IBF champ Kermit Cintron, who won his title (which Mayweather had vacated) with a fifth-round TKO victory over Mark Suarez on Saturday.
"To me, it's a toss-up," said Paul Williams, the undefeated WBO No. 1 contender, who will be fighting Mario Lucero on the undercard on Saturday, in what he hopes will be a final tune-up before challenging Antonio Margarito for that version of the title.
Margarito, however, must himself first get past a difficult defense in Atlantic City on Dec. 2 against Joshua Clottey, whose only loss was a disqualification against Baldomir in a 1999 bout he was winning on the scorecards. If Margarito prevails against Clottey, his eyes appear to be less on Williams than on the victor of Saturday's contest.
"The only two threats I see at 147 pounds are Mayweather and Baldomir," Margarito recently told ESPN.com over brunch in Las Vegas. He will have, he said, a rooting interest Saturday night.
"I hope Baldomir wins, because Mayweather won't fight me," he claimed.
As Margarito (and former Mayweather) promoter Bob Arum put it, "Mr. Pound-for-Pound ran like hell [from Margarito] even after being offered $8 million to fight him."
"I can't believe Mayweather would turn down so much money to fight me," Margarito added. "It's hard to believe. I don't want to say he's afraid of me, but it seems like he's scared."
Mayweather's seeming reluctance to face Margarito contributed to a growing chorus of criticism that Mayweather, for all his abundant skills, had been shying away from serious challenges and coasting on his earlier achievements since a tough, two-fight series with Jose Luis Castillo in 2002.
"I hope Baldomir wins, because Mayweather won't fight me."
-- WBO welterweight champion Antonio Margarito
That criticism abated when Arum announced plans late last year for Mayweather to face Zab Judah in 2006. Judah, like Mayweather, is possessed of almost unnatural skills and reflexes; but, unlike the pound-for-pound king, Judah had rarely displayed the focus or temperament to maximize his abilities. He appeared to have finally matured, however, with a dominant TKO victory over Cory Spinks in February 2005 to win the WBA, WBC and IBF welterweight titles -- and all Judah had to do to claim the reward of a clash with Mayweather was navigate a seemingly routine defense against Baldomir in New York this past January.
HBO PPV (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET)
Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas
• Welterweights: Carlos "Tata" Baldomir (43-9-6, 13 KOs) vs. "Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather Jr. (36-0-1, 24 KOs), 12 rounds, for Baldomir's title
• Featherweights: Robert Guerrero (36-3-1, 27 KOs) vs. Orlando Salido (27-9-2, 18 KOs), 12 rounds, for Guerrero's title
• Welterweights: Paul Williams (31-0, 23 KOs) vs. Mauro Lucero (42-11-1, 28 KOs), 10 rounds
• Heavyweights: Chris Arreola (17-0, 15 KOs) vs. Damian Wills (21-0-1, 15 KOs), 8 rounds
Instead, Baldomir mugged Judah, coming back from an early points deficit to rock and nearly drop and stop the defending champion, and winding up a unanimous points victor. Mayweather ignored the new titleholder to face off against Judah after all, justifying the bout by emphasizing that it was for the IBF belt -- which the sanctioning body had left around Judah's waist, despite his clear defeat by Baldomir, on the grounds that the challenger had not paid the requisite sanctioning fees.
At the Mandalay Bay in April, Mayweather handed Judah another defeat by unanimous decision in a fight that was marred by a brawl between the two corner teams after Judah hit Mayweather below the belt and in the back of the head in the 10th round. Three months later, on July 22, Baldomir knocked out fan favorite Arturo Gatti to cement his place as a legitimate champion rather than a one-fight aberration. Promoter Dan Goossen then stepped in to table a deal that contained enough money to make both sides happy (reportedly matching the $8 million Mayweather had been offered by Arum to fight Margarito), paving the way for Saturday's fight.
Despite an apparent gulf in skill between the two men, and despite the fact the celebrated Mayweather is unbeaten while the unheralded Baldomir has suffered nine defeats (albeit none since 1998), few are criticizing Mayweather for his choice of opponent this time -- including his fellow fighters.
"Fighting Baldomir, I would just box him. ... Against Mayweather, I would just rough him up. Push him around the ring and just rough him up, because I'm the bigger guy."
-- Kermit Cintron, who won the vacant IBF welterweight title Oct. 28
"Floyd obviously has more talent, but a lot of people thought Gatti was going to walk right through Baldomir, and with Zab, people thought, 'Oh, it's just a tune-up for Zab,' but neither was the case," observed welterweight and junior middleweight contender Ishe Smith, whose promoters, Golden Boy Promotions, earlier this year offered him as a challenger to both Baldomir and Margarito.
"Baldomir comes down from 180-something pounds, and he can take a punch," Smith continued. "He's proven that he can fight elite fighters. He's going to be on Floyd. This fight, we're going to see if Floyd's going to be a welterweight. Floyd's not a big guy, he's not big at all, and that's the problem. Floyd could beat on this guy all night. But Baldomir's not known as a big puncher, and look what he did to Gatti. Gatti doesn't get knocked out easily. He just manhandled Gatti. He almost stopped Zab Judah. And Zab Judah doesn't get stopped many times. He doesn't have a great chin, but he doesn't get stopped."
In theory, the game plan for both fighters should be pretty clear, say their peers.
"If I was in [Baldomir's] corner, of course I'd tell him to use his size," said Williams. "Mayweather has to just box him."
"Both of them, to me, are small, especially Mayweather," said the 5-foot-11 Cintron. "Fighting Baldomir, I would just box him. [Trainer Emanuel Steward] has me boxing now, so I would just stay on my toes and just box him. Doesn't matter if I knock him out or not. I know he has a hard chin and I know it's not worth hurting your hands on his head, so I would just box and if it goes 12 rounds, it goes 12 rounds. It's a fight I'd take in a heartbeat.
"Against Mayweather, I would just rough him up. Push him around the ring and just rough him up, because I'm the bigger guy."
Smith believes that there are two, out-of-the-ring factors that could conspire to distract Mayweather and motivate Baldomir.
"You don't get Cinderella stories in boxing that often, and you can honestly say Baldomir is a Cinderella story," said the former first-season "Contender" contestant. "And when that Cinderella story does happen, they tend to not want to go back to living the way they were before. So I think he's going to be tough to beat right now, he'd be tough for anyone. Floyd's been on top, he's been on top for a while. But Baldomir's struggled, he's got nine losses, he probably didn't make too much money coming up, and I don't think he wants to go back to the way he was living before."
"As the fight gets gritty, toward the later rounds, the championship rounds, I'd have to lean toward the bigger guy [Baldomir]."
-- Welterweight and junior middleweight contender Ishe Smith
Perhaps more serious for Mayweather, Smith suggested, is his unsettled training situation. His uncle and trainer, Roger Mayweather, who had already been suspended from working his nephew's corner for instigating the in-ring melee in the Judah fight, has been in jail since Sept. 19 on a six-month sentence for an assault conviction. That has left Mayweather under the charge of Leonard Ellerbe, his adviser and strength coach, and Rafael Garcia, who wraps his hands