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Imposing task awaits WBC's top contender

When it came time to study Arturo Gatti, Gianluca Branco's trainers were selective in choosing the videotapes. They didn't show Gatti's hard-fought trilogy against Micky Ward, which showcased the scrappy former IBF lightweight champion at his best.

Instead, Branco prepared for tonight's 12-round title fight by studying losses to Oscar De La Hoya, Ivan Robinson and Angel Manfredy.

"I wanted," he said, "to see the way to beat him."

Whether the unbeaten 33-year-old fighter picked up any tips might determine who comes out on top in the WBC junior welterweight championship bout.

"If I didn't think that I could beat him, I wouldn't come here," Branco said. "I have a chance."

Branco (32-0-1) is the top-ranked challenger at 140 pounds. But he may have his hands full in his U.S. debut, considering the unfamiliar surroundings and the roar of some 12,000 home-state partisans.

Gatti, 31, of Jersey City, is coming off three impressive fights _ all against Ward. He won the past two, including a unanimous decision in June before a sellout crowd of 12,643 _ the largest to see a nonheavyweight fight in Atlantic City.

Branco, who hasn't fought in 14 months, will have his big brother in his corner, Silvio Branco, 37, the WBA light heavyweight champion.

But Gatti (36-6) is not impressed. He guaranteed victory, saying whatever Branco brings, he can handle it.

TONEY INJURED: Heavyweight contender James Toney's Feb. 7 fight with Jameel McCline was called off after Toney ruptured an Achilles' tendon. Toney's promoter, Dan Goossen, said he will be sidelined at least three months.

SKATING

U.S. duo dances to gold

There hasn't been an American on a world championship podium for 19 years, but Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto appear entirely capable of ending the drought. Using the West Side Story free dance that won a U.S. senior title earlier this month, Belbin and Agosto took gold in the Four Continents competition in Hamilton, Ontario. "We're very excited to have another title," Belbin said. "It's great to start building those up." In March, they will attempt to become the first U.S. entry to win world championship medals since Judy Blomberg and Michael Seibert in 1985.

CYCLING

Lance books Georgia

Lance Armstrong is set for the Tour de Georgia. Officials said the five-time Tour de France champion will compete in the Georgia road race April 20-25, giving the two-year event a publicity boost. "This is huge for the state of Georgia in terms of the national and international focus that will be in Georgia," executive director Stan Holm told the Macon Telegraph. It will be the largest multiday stage race in North America.

INELIGIBLE FOR ATHENS: French cyclists are being investigated for possible doping and will be ineligible for the Athens Olympics, prompting tougher drug measures. The steps came in response to a drug investigation centering on Cofidis, one of France's top teams.

COLLEGE TENNIS

Gators open with win

Senior Trey Johnson and sophomore Ryan Sherry defeated Citadel's Carl Hocker and Derek Jose 8-1 in just 32 minutes lifting Florida to a 7-0 victory, the Gators' 16th consecutive on opening day. Florida meets Florida State on Sunday.

USF LOSES: Marie France Lord Andrade and Gabriela Duch defeated Jacksonville's Martina Strussova and Veronika Subertova 8-4 in the Bulls' 4-3 loss. Singles proved to be the downfall for USF, as Jacksonville took four of the six matches.

COLLEGE SWIMMING

Tigers too much

The Auburn men's team, the defending national champion, defeated Florida 142-101. "We swam the best team in the country tonight and they showed why they are," Florida Coach Gregg Troy said. "We got a few breaks for the men, but we didn't completely take advantage of it. This is the closest we've been to them in a while." Florida's 400-meter medley relay (Chris Kellam, Bill Mrazek, Gabriel Mangaberia and Carlos Jayme) posted a first-place finish of 3:45.99.

_ Compiled from Times wires.

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