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Title fight will ring in the new year

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

BY MIKE HOUSER

Championship boxing begins early this year, as WBA-WBO 130-pound champion Acelino “Popo” Freitas moves up in weight to challenge WBO lightweight titleholder “King” Artur Grigorian in a 12-round contest tonight at Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Conn.

The fight, featuring two undefeated boxers with a combined record of 70-0, with 53 knockouts, will be televised at 11 p.m. on Showtime.

Grigorian, born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is boxing’s second-longest reigning titlist behind undisputed middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins. He stopped former IBF featherweight beltholder Antonio Rivera in the 12th round on April 13, 1996, for the vacant title. But in spite of Grigorian’s 17 successful title defenses – a division record – the 5-7 southpaw remains a relative unknown outside of his adopted home country of Germany.

Freitas, on the other hand, is nothing less than a national hero in his native Brazil, and has 10 title defenses of his WBO belt, many of which have been televised on Showtime. The 5-foot-5 Freitas, 34-0 (31), knocked out Anatoly Alexandrov in August, 1999, for the WBO junior lightweight title, and defeated WBA 130-pound kingpin Joel Casamayor in a January, 2002 unification bout.

As is usually the case when a fighter moves up in weight to challenge what appears to be a naturally bigger man, Freitas was inundated with questions in a Monday conference call about whether he’d be able to bring up his much-vaunted punching power against Grigorian.

“People forget. I’m not moving up in weight,” the 28-year-old Freitas said through his interpreter and trainer, Oscar Suarez. “I started my career as a lightweight. I was 21-0 (all by knockout), with 15 first-round knockouts (as a lightweight). It was difficult moving down from 135 (to win his titles at 130). I’m going back to my natural weight.”

The questions Grigorian was most asked were centered on how he’d respond to his first fight out of Europe.

“I think about my opponent, not the public,” Grigorian said through an interpreter. “It’s not important where you fight. I’ve fought in Hungary in front of 25,000 people and won. Europe, the United States, there is no difference.”

But there are several factors involved that can make a difference in how Grigorian will fare in the fight: They are Grigorian’s edge in experience, his age, and more important, his quality of opposition and how he has fared in his last two fights.

Grigorian, 36-0 (22), holds a big edge in experience because of his extensive amateur background. While Freitas went 84-4, Grigorian had an amateur record of 361-23, took a gold medal in the 1992 Goodwill Games, and reportedly defeated Shane Mosley and Leonard Dorin. But at 36, some are questioning whether he is over the hill.

Grigorian has fought only three times in the last two years. He was unimpressive against lightly regarded former WBA lightweight titlist Stefano Zoff in the pair’s September 2002 bout, and many fight experts thought Grigorian got a gift against unheralded Polish challenger Matt Zegan, pulling out a majority decision on Jan. 18, 2003. Grigorian has not fought since.

“After (Zegan), I had a shoulder operation,” said Grigorian, whose most significant victory as a pro was an 11th-round stoppage of former WBA lightweight beltholder Raul Balbi in 1997. “It took me a little while to recuperate, but it feels good for this fight.”

After opening up his career with 29 consecutive knockouts, Freitas went the distance in three fights. He has stopped his last two opponents, including a wild free-for-all with Argentine challenger Jorge Barrios in his last bout in August. Freitas was down twice (although one knockdown was disputed) and came back to knock down then stop Barrios in the 11th round.

“I learned a lot from (the Barrios fight),” Freitas said. “I showed I can knock out people in the first and second round or the 11th round.”

Freitas also showed he can fight through adversity. Shortly after his father died, Freitas stopped Juan Carlos Ramirez in the fourth round last March. He followed that with the TKO of Barrios while he was going through a divorce (the pair recently reconciled).

But Freitas has his detractors as well. A group of reporters questioned him about a possible rematch with Casamayor, a fight several members of the media thought he may have lost in spite of taking a unanimous decision (all three judges scored it 114-112).

“A fighter as dirty as Casamayor, would you give him another fight?” Freitas asked. “He uses his head and elbows (as weapons) – you saw that with (Diego) Corrales. Casamayor butted him and said, ‘Did I cut you?’ He’s talking nonsense and he disrespects my family.”

In spite of his dislike of Casamayor, Freitas did not rule out a rematch or a return to 130 should he defeat Grigorian. When asked for a prediction, Freitas said the fight would end “before the distance.”

When the issue of respect came up, Grigorian was vague, saying it wasn’t up to him how he should be viewed and that he might box for “two or three more years,” but would have to evaluate that after his fight with Freitas.

Suarez, however, had plenty to say about the matter.

“You people in the media have no respect for Freitas,” Suarez said. “He’s a pound-for-pound fighter. He has 10 title defenses. He faces the best. He deserves your respect.”

Contact Mike Houser at editor@nevadaappeal.com.