Vernon Forrest unplugged: Another big step Saturday night

by | Special to CBS

Vernon Forrest faces Carlos Baldomir on Saturday at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Wash., in a battle of 36-year-old ex-welterweight titlists fighting for the vacant WBC junior middleweight belt.

The fight (HBO, 10:15 ET/PT) was originally scheduled as an eliminator but became a title bout when Floyd Mayweather Jr. relinquished the title he won from Oscar De La Hoya.

For Forrest, it's an opportunity to once again be among the elite in what would surely be the Comeback of the Year in his fourth fight after a two-year layoff because of potentially career-ending injuries. It might also be his last chance to achieve his destiny.

Forrest was 225-16 as an amateur, capped off with a 1992 Olympic berth earned by beating Shane Mosley in the trials. Turning pro the same year, he remained undefeated and won some minor titles along the way through the '90s. He finally won the IBF welterweight belt in 2001 by decision over Raul Frank. And 2002 was the pinnacle of his career; he twice beat WBC titlist Shane Mosley, considered by many as the best pound for pound fighter in the world, by decision.

In his prime and on top of the world, it appeared that Vernon was destined to be a major player in the boxing world when suddenly he experienced a reversal of fortune. In a unification match in January 2003, he caught one of WBA titlist Ricardo Mayorga's wild swings and suffered a shocking third-round TKO, his first loss and only stoppage of his career.

Six months later, Vernon lost a close majority decision in a rematch that many observers though he should have won. Then came the painful two-year layoff, two surgeries for a rotator cuff injury on his left arm, and surgery on his left elbow to remove bone fragments. His left arm was practically reconstructed so he could return to boxing.

From the heights -- chosen by the Boxing Writers Association of America as the Fighter of the Year in 2002 and also winning the Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award in 2003 for his selfless work with the mentally challenged -- he plunged to the depths, two heartbreaking losses and potentially career-ending surgeries. Vernon worked and persevered for one reason.

"When I get that belt, all the pain and the rehab and the therapists will be worth it," Vernon said this week. "Winning's not everything, it's the only thing to me.

"One of the things that I decided when I had my injury was to really concentrate on my career. The window of opportunity in sports is already small, and I have a lot of things going against me, and as you get older your body and skill level changes as well as the injuries that affect the way you perform. So with all those elements you have to decide what you want to do in terms of your career."

Forrest downplays the effect of his injuries, saying, "I've never complained about injuries when I won nor did I complain when I lost. It's really a non issue. I'm fine."

Yet the experience has been a badge of courage for Forrest. He was so intent on the process that he made a documentary about it.

"I documented from the time I had surgery to the time I came back," Vernon said. "I guess it'll be finished when I win the world title and then we'll put it together and shop it to the networks. It'll be interesting. Never before has a world class athlete documented the surgery and everything from surgery room to now."

Vernon is not flamboyant or flashy in or out of the ring. He is regarded as a model citizen and a role model by virtue of his gentlemanly demeanor and charitable work. But by choice, he prefers to keep his private life private.

"Certain things I try to keep out," Forrest said. "When you're in the public eye, you give so much to the public. I don't feel that I have to share everything. I give enough of myself."

But after an initial warming up period, Forrest proves to be an enjoyable, personable and articulate interview. If you ask him a tough question, he seems pleased to have the opportunity to set the record straight.

"I tend to be selective about who I do interviews with," Vernon said. "I just use common sense in answering questions. Some people ask questions that get asked all the time. I like people to give me an opportunity to say what's on my mind. I told a guy the other day that he should put more thought into his questions because he was wasting my time."

Forrest was asked about his impressions of the controversy in his last fight last August against Ike Quartey. Vernon won a unanimous decision, 95-94 (twice) and 96-93. The crowd booed, and some boxing writers and the announcing team thought it was a bad decision.

"I'm glad you asked that questions," Vernon said enthusiastically. "For some reason people keep bringing up the fact that it was controversial. Ike Quartey fought in New York, his home city. Lou DiBella is the biggest promoter in New York. They brought me in as an opponent, and he's the house fighter. Now I go to his home town and beat him with judges who did their job fairly and they're criticized for doing their job fairly. Why is that? I won on every scorecard, even with a point deduction. How is that controversial? I can see if it was a split decision.

"If I didn't win that fight, I wouldn't have gotten the decision, trust me. And remember, I'm an independent. They can take my fight and no one will say anything. I was told months before the fight not to take the fight in New York. But you know the problem with that? You still got to beat me."

On the other side of the coin, did he feel that he was robbed in the second Mayorga fight?

"I swallowed it and moved on," Forrest said. "I had to live with it because I had surgeries, but I've had that taste in my mouth for over three years.

"In the first fight I wanted to show people that I can brawl, that I can bring it when I want to. But when you do that, you're not fighting your fight, you're fighting someone else's fight."

True to his independent nature, and having experienced dissatisfaction in the past with a promotional company, Vernon started his own, Fight Nite Promotions, in 1999.

"After (Baldomir), I'm going to do my own stuff," he said. "I've never tried to sign any fighters. I just use it for myself and friends of mine who have trouble getting fights so they can earn a living. But now we're in a position to start signing guys. So, I take the risk, and I'll take all the rewards that come with it."

In addition to promoting, Vernon includes broadcasting among his long-term goals after boxing, saying, "I truly believe boxing is missing an analyst who can convey to the public what is going on in the fight. Most of the (analysts) never experienced it, never been 12 rounds, don't know what it's like when you're on the last leg of ability and this guy's still coming at you. They can say it's a great fight, but anyone can do that. Even the guys who are supposed to be experts, after the cameras come on, they side with the guys who aren't experts. And just because you watch a lot of fights don't make you an expert.

"I think I'm the man to do it, or please, if I'm not the man, please bring in some other fighters in there to explain it to the public. If you look at other sports, they all have former athletes as commentators to give a better idea of what's going on in a particular situation. I want to be in a position to show the other side, to give a blow-by-blow analysis of what's going on in the fight from a fighter's perspective."

Though Forrest is an independent in terms of promotion, he is well represented by the premier adviser in boxing today, the ubiquitous Al Haymon.

"I was the first one he was with and I got him in the fight game," Vernon said. "The reason I chose him was that he's not a typical boxing person, he's from a different field. I wanted someone who was not part of the good old boy network, and not be a part of the system that boxing's been under for the past 50-60 years. He's had amazing success in a short period of time, and I'm blessed to be with him. I call him my adviser, but he's really my friend because I don't trust anybody in the fight game, and I've got someone around I can really trust."

Vernon has a great deal of respect for his opponent this week, Carlos Baldomir:

"I think he's a really good fighter. One thing I admire about him is his heart and determination. You've got a guy who has always gone on the other guy's home turf and upset the guy. I respect the fact that he went into a hostile situation with Zab Judah in New York and came out with a win, then turned around and went into a hostile situation with (Arturo) Gatti in Atlantic City and got a win. Then he went to Las Vegas and put up a very gallant effort with Floyd Mayweather. You have to respect that he went 12 rounds with arguably the best fighter in the world. You can't play this guy cheap; you have to bring your 'A' game. He's going to be well prepared and hungry and coming to win."

Vernon has a game plan, utilizing his physical advantages, including a five-inch height advantage over his 5-foot-7 foe.

"It no secret that I'm a boxer, not a fighter," Forrest began. "I'm going to do what I do best. I understand what he brings to the table and I'm sure he understands what I bring. I'll take advantage of anything I have. One of the things I haven't been doing and I'm going back to is using my God-given advantages like my height. I'm going back to using all the things I've been able to do over the years."

Any last words?

"I'm definitely going to get the win and it's definitely going to be sweet because I've had three major surgeries in the past four years. It will be a testament to my desire and will and the fact that I had great doctors and therapists along the way."

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