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Five fights to look forward to

MIKE HOUSER
Appeal Sports Writer

If Bernard Hopkins-Winky Wright, Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton-Jose Luis Castillo left boxing fans a little bit underwhelmed in 2007, at least there was Rafael Marquez-Israel Vazquez I and Kelly Pavlik-Edison Miranda to bring the excitement.

Now, with only five months remaining in the year, there are five significant fights left – each of which is a potential fight of the year candidate. Following is a brief analysis of what could possibly be the best boxing action over a five-month span – or longer – in recent memory.

And in all five, anything can happen.

RAFAEL MARQUEZ-ISRAEL VAZQUEZ II

WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 4

TV: Showtime

WHAT’S AT STAKE: Marquez’s WBC super bantamweight crown

THE SKINNY: Marquez, 37-3 with 33 knockouts, gave up his IBF bantamweight title to move up in weight to challenge his fellow Mexico City resident, Vazquez, 41-4 (30), for his WBC 122-pound championship on March 3.

After jumping right on Vazquez, the 32-year-old Marquez got dropped by a screaming left hook. One of boxing’s pound-for-pound best, Marquez proceeded to dust himself off and began to systematically mash the 29-year-old Vazquez’s nose.

Although his schnozz was bent, bloody and swollen clear up into his eyebrows, the stubborn, powerful Vazquez began to get back into the fight.

Marquez was not to be denied, however, and stayed on top of Vazquez, who retired in the corner at the end of seven rounds because of what turned out to be a metabolic blockage, which completely blocked up his left nostril and 90-percent closed his right nostril, affecting his breathing and affecting the stoppage.

This fight should be every bit -or more – exciting as the first meeting. Vazquez has already proved he has enough power to hurt Marquez, who will be making his first title defense and thus has a good chance of reversing the loss.

That said, Marquez is on a roll, winning his last 16 matches. He has carried his punch into the 122-pound division, where he should continue to integrate his boxing skills with his prodigious punch.

There has been disquieting remarks from Vazquez’s former trainer, Freddie Roach, who told the Arizona Republic that Vazquez has been taking punishment in the gym from younger fighters and is beginning to slur his words.

Marquez, on the other hand, is on top of his game. Nevermind which belt he holds, he is the real 122-pound champion and will remain so if he boxes smartly and unleashes his power intelligently. With a win he should retain his spot atop the division and set himself up for a move to featherweight.

THE PICK: Marquez via 10-round technical knockout.

JERMAIN TAYLOR-KELLY PAVLIK

WHEN: Sept. 29

TV: HBO

WHAT’S AT STAKE: Taylor’s WBC and WBO middleweight crowns

THE SKINNY: Forget the alphabet titles, the 28-year-old is the undisputed middleweight champion. But Taylor, 27-0-1 (17), hasn’t exactly shown the potential he once had after twice defeating former 160-pound champion Bernard Hopkins.

Although he could’ve been awarded a win instead of a draw against Winky Wright, the 6-foot-1 Taylor has fought down to his somewhat light competition as of late.

Taylor handily defeated but couldn’t stop junior middleweight Kassim Ouma and was lucky to escape with a split-decision victory over light-hitting former welterweight and junior middleweight champ Cory Spinks in May.

The 25-year-old Pavlik, on the other hand, made some serious noise with his exciting and comprehensive beating of slugger Edison Miranda, a seventh-round TKO, also in May.

At 6-foot-2 1/2, Pavlik, 31-0 (28), is even taller and may carry more firepower than Taylor, who took a close decision over “The Ghost” as an amateur.

Pavlik stopped Miranda because the crude Columbian was right in front of him – somewhere the counter-punching Taylor doesn’t figure to be.

Although he is considered a puncher, Pavlik can box and has a solid amateur pedigree. Taylor has also indicated this will be his last fight at 160 pounds as he will move up to fight the winner of the Nov. 3 Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler fight at 168.

This is a close call. Pavlik is bigger, stronger and more physical than anyone Taylor has fought. And Taylor isn’t a crude fighter like Miranda. It should come down to the wire.

THE PICK: Pavlik by split decision.

MANNY PACQUIAO-MARCO ANTONIO BARRERA II

WHEN: Oct. 6

TV: HBO Pay-Per-View

WHAT’S AT STAKE: The winner gets Juan Manuel Marquez in a rematch.

THE SKINNY: Throwing aside for the moment what the sanctioning bodies believe, the 28-year-old Pacquiao – who doesn’t own one of the 130-pound division’s four belts – may be the best fighter in the world at any weight.

The PacMan, 44-3-1 (35) with 1 no-contest, stopped the 33-year-old Barrera, 63-5 (42), in the 11th round of their first meeting in November 2003.

Although the pair each own two wins over Erik Morales, Pacqiao stopped “El Terrible” both times. Also, Pacquiao earned a draw with Marquez, whereas Marquez took a victory over Barrera earlier this year.

But this fight isn’t about numbers or other fights, it’s about the pride of Barrera, arguably Mexico’s most popular boxer since Julio Cesar Chavez. A win over Pacquiao and Barrera gets another crack at Marquez before probably heading off into retirement.

That said, Barrera’s not the only one with a lot of pride. A Pacquiao victory over Barrera also earns him a rematch with Marquez and a shot at boxing immortality.

Nobody has been able to slow down Pacquiao as of late and Barrera will have to fight the best fight of his estimable career to do so.

This one should be closer than the first bout, but the end result should be the same.

THE PICK: Pacquiao by unanimous decision.

JOE CALZAGHE-MIKKEL KESSLER

WHEN: Nov. 3

TV: TBA

WHAT’S AT STAKE: The undisputed super middleweight championship

THE SKINNY: At 28, the unbeaten -39-0 (29) – and still mostly unknown Kessler (the WBA and WBC beltholder, for those keeping score) is the heir apparent to the 35-year-old Calzaghe, 43-0 (32), who will be making his division record-tying 21st consecutive title defense of his WBO strap.

Because Calzaghe is British and Kessler is Danish, this fight isn’t getting the exposure in America that it should. But in Cardiff, Wales, where the fight will be held, it should draw at least 60,000 fans in Millennium Stadium.

Kessler is young, fast and can punch.

Calzaghe is a slick southpaw with speed, elusiveness and good power.

Las Vegas, America and Bernard Hopkins should be jealous: The best boxing product and the winner of this fight will remain overseas.

THE PICK: Calzaghe by unanimous decision.

RICKY HATTON-FLOYD MAYWEATHER

WHEN: Nov. 10 or Dec. 8

TV: TBA

WHAT’S AT STAKE: The undisputed welterweight and pound-for-pound championship of the world

THE SKINNY: Another undefeated Englishman, Ricky Hatton, 43-0 (31), is looking to make his case for worldwide acclaim. A smashing four-round knockout over Jose Luis Castillo in Las Vegas did nothing to hurt that goal.

Enter Mayweather, 38-0 (24), whose faux retirement after spanking Oscar De La Hoya didn’t fool anyone. “Pretty Boy Floyd” can always use some extra dough and an opponent to make him look good.

The free-swinging, tough-as-nails and surprisingly versatile Hatton should help Mayweather on both accounts.

Hatton is a bigger, faster, stronger, more skilled and more determined version of the Castillo that took Mayweather to the limit in their first fight. If “Pretty Boy” isn’t pretty careful, Hatton will beat him before the 6-foot-2 Paul Williams does.

It’s too bad Hatton bleeds, has to leave the 140-pound ranks and will be forced to wear Nevada’s 10-ounce gloves, which will rob him of some of his power.

THE PICK: Mayweather via late, bloody TKO.