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Stephen A. Smith | Boxing and these boxers need a battle for the ages

The marquee attraction is nicknamed "The Golden Boy." He was marketed as boxing's next biggest thing in 1992, and has done little to disappoint fans in 15 years.

"I'm the best fighter in the history of boxing," Floyd Mayweather Jr. has said.
"I'm the best fighter in the history of boxing," Floyd Mayweather Jr. has said.Read more

The marquee attraction is nicknamed "The Golden Boy." He was marketed as boxing's next biggest thing in 1992, and has done little to disappoint fans in 15 years.

His opponent is a self-proclaimed villain and proud of it, with enough drama in his life to rival the Jerry Springer Show, yet still recognized as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

If tonight's fight for the junior- middleweight title lives up to the hype, if it turns into one of those epic encounters talked about for years, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will have learned something Oscar De La Hoya has known for quite some time:

Great fights define great fighters. Not the hype that surrounds it, lacking any exhilaration in the end.

In pursuit of De La Hoya's crown, Mayweather clearly wants the acclaim, too. It isn't enough that he's 37-0 (24 knockouts) with unrivaled quick hands, feet and anything else that comes with a fighter considered superior to all. It isn't enough that he's "filthy rich," as he likes to say, living the posh life most others can only dream about.

"I'm the best fighter in the history of boxing," Mayweather told me a few months ago. "I'm better than Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard. I'm not trying to disrespect any fighter. I know how hard it is to do what we do, let alone be great at it. But no one can touch me. I'll retire when I prove that. I'm not leaving until I do."

That's good to hear from Mayweather, because he can't stake such a claim if he doesn't beat De La Hoya tonight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

A win, depending on how it happens, inches Mayweather closer toward boxing immortality.

A loss? By knockout? The self-proclaimed baddest man in the world - who has done everything from cursing De La Hoya to bringing a chicken with a gold medallion to a prefight news conference to mock the six-time world champion - would become nothing more than a new version of Roy Jones Jr.

"I don't have a problem [with Mayweather's mouth]," De La Hoya told reporters weeks ago. "Obviously, [Mayweather] is the one who's making a fool of himself. He'll talk too much . . . but my fists will speak, and they will speak a lot."

I'm not betting on that happening because I can't see De La Hoya catching Mayweather with one of his left hooks, which is what I think it will take for Mayweather to fall. But considering all the trash Mayweather has talked, along with De La Hoya's penchant for responding to such challenges (see: Fernando Vargas and Ricardo Mayorga), the Golden Boy can't be dismissed. And the reality is, that's great for boxing.

Boxing needs this so badly. It needs another Ray Leonard vs. Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns, another Leonard vs. Roberto Duran, another Hearns vs. Marvin Hagler, as opposed to headlines about which fighter promoters Don King and Bob Arum have denied us the opportunity to see.

In the age of Ultimate Fighting, a growing sport that should be credited for its willingness to pit the best against each other in quick fashion, boxing has diminished in value because promoters have robbed us of marquee fights until years after we stopped caring.

Still wondering why you don't see boxing on network television?

Stop wondering!

The fact that this fight is taking place provides a sliver a hope. Now Mayweather and De La Hoya, the promoter as well as the fighter, need to come through by giving us the gladiator encounter we envision.

De La Hoya (38-4, 31 KOs) is bigger, stronger and more experienced, with more big fights. Mayweather is faster, more brash, and so good that experience really shouldn't matter if he's on his game. And while everyone suspects a left hook from De La Hoya could end matters, no one expects "Pretty Boy" Floyd to get tagged with it.

What nobody knows is whether Mayweather has the power to take out De La Hoya. Despite the assault he committed against Arturo Gatti in Atlantic City nearly two years ago, he's never faced anyone like De La Hoya.

"In a hundred fights, I'd beat De La Hoya 100 times," Mayweather said. "I know what I'm up against, but does he? I've said this many times: Anybody who's lost to someone else damn sure ain't beating me."

If boxing is ever going to return to the radar in America's sports landscape, tonight would be the perfect opportunity to spearhead its resurrection.

De La Hoya wants to be a promoter and Mayweather wants to promote himself, cementing his legacy as one of the all-time greats.

Only a legitimate fight validates their respective agendas.

Fasten your seat belts!