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Tampa's Antonio Tarver, 43, looks to defend IBO cruiserweight title against Lateef Kayode

TAMPA

Antonio Tarver is still here. • Still fighting. • Still winning. • Hard to believe, isn't it? • Unless you consider that this is what Tarver does, what makes him special. • He gets down, then up, then down again, then back up. • When you think he has left the building, you turn around and see him standing in the doorway. • "Just when they think I'm out," he said, "I slide back in."

The 43-year-old IBO cruiserweight champ from Tampa will slide back into the ring Saturday night to defend his title against 29-year-old Lateef Kayode, an undefeated but unproven contender from Nigeria, at the Home Depot Center in Carson City, Calif. St. Petersburg's Winky Wright, 40, is fighting Peter Quillin on the undercard.

Kayode is 18-0 and has knocked out 14 of his first 15 opponents. He is strong and trained by Freddie Roach, who also trains world champion Manny Pacquiao. Kayode thinks this is his time.

Tarver, 29-6 with 20 knockouts, disagrees.

"I've been there, I know what he feels," he said. "I understand his excitement, but I'm not ready to go anywhere yet. Really, I'm not."

The self-described "Magic Man" thinks he has more tricks to pull out of his hat, which has a seemingly endless supply.

His boxing career was almost derailed as a youngster by drug problems, then in 1992 he lost during qualifying for the Olympics.

But in 1996, he made the team at age 27, and though he was expected to win gold, came home with a bronze medal.

He made his pro debut at 28 and worked his way into a fight to qualify for a shot at Roy Jones Jr.

His first chance at dethroning Jones was unsuccessful. His second? Magical.

In one of the most stunning knockouts in boxing history, Tarver put Jones away with a second-round bolt of lightning from his left fist in 2004.

He lost his next fight to Glen Johnson … but won the rematch, and his loquaciousness led to a starring role as the bad guy in the 2006 film Rocky Balboa.

Two fights later, he lost to Bernard Hopkins but reclaimed the IBF and IBO light-heavyweight titles by beating Clinton Woods at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

After two straight losses to Chad Dawson in 2008 and '09, Tarver appeared finished as a legitimate fighter and emerged as a top boxing analyst.

But then he won a heavyweight fight in 2010 and stopped Danny Green to add a cruiserweight title to his resume last summer.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride, but it's been great," Tarver said. "I've stayed relevant by, I guess you could say, reinventing myself, time and time again.

"I've gotten to being a five-time champion by having the will and the determination to bounce back when everyone else has pretty much counted you out. That's really been the story of my life and career. I take pride in that."

For his next trick, Tarver wants to fight Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko and become heavyweight champion.

While he has to weigh in under 200 pounds for Saturday's fight, he says he walks around at 210 or so. At 220, he thinks he has the power, and the skill, to write yet another chapter in one of boxing's most unlikely stories.

"I want to bring the heavyweight championship back to America," Tarver said. "I think I'm the man to do it. That's my goal."

But first he has an angry, heavy-handed opponent who took umbrage with some things Tarver said about him as a Showtime analyst during Kayode's last fight.

In an unpopular decision win over Tarpon Springs' Nick Iannuzzi, Kayode was criticized by Tarver for his youth and inexperience. Tarver said he was just doing his job; Kayode is using the criticism as motivation.

"If he thinks he's going to be the bully in this fight, then he's got another thing coming. If he thinks he's going to bring power to this fight, he's going to find out early that he's got another thing coming," Tarver said. "He'd better have an A, B, C, D plan, because it's going to take more than one game plan to beat me. …

"I've fought bullies before and I've knocked them out. I've fought the very best in the world and I've beat them. So Lateef Kayode has a chance of a lifetime to be a legend for one night, but he's going to have to bring his butt to get it."

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com

. fast facts

Tonight

What: WingHouse Fight Night

Who: Manny Woods (8-1-1) and Inka Laleye (4-1-3) will battle for the USA Florida State light-middleweight title in a rematch of their September draw.

Where: A La Carte Pavilion, Tampa. Doors open at 7

Outlook: In addition to Woods-Laleye, the Fight Night Productions card features light heavyweight Radivoje Kalajdzic (5-0, 4 KOs) and heavyweight and longtime St. Petersburg amateur Kenny Lacy, who in February won his debut at age 30 via knockout. Lacy is the young brother of former Olympian and IBF super middleweight champion Jeff Lacy.

Saturday

Who: Tampa's Antonio Tarver (29-6, 20 KOs) takes on Lateef Kayode (18-0, 14 KOs) in an IBO cruiserweight title fight, while St. Petersburg's Winky Wright (51-5, 25 KOs) meets Peter Quillin (26-0, 22 KOs) in a middleweight fight.

Outlook: Both local guys have tough challenges. While Kayode and Quillin might not have the same pedigree as the 43-year-old Tarver and 40-year-old Wright, they are at least 10 years younger and unbeaten with knockout power. Wright is fighting for the first time since 2009, and a loss would probably officially send him into retirement. Wright hopes a win over Quillin sets him up for a bigger fight, preferably one for a title. Tarver hopes to use Kayode as a springboard into the heavyweight division.

Tampa's Antonio Tarver, 43, looks to defend IBO cruiserweight title against Lateef Kayode 05/31/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 1, 2012 12:24am]
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