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At 37, Luis Collazo wants to prove that he's more than just 'the opponent'

Luis Collazo has been fighting for almost two decades and will face Samuel Vargas on Sunday. Elsa/Getty Images

As Luis Collazo approaches his second full decade as a boxer, his eyes are set on one more moment at the top. The 37-year-old will fight Samuel Vargas at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City (ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET) on Sunday with hopes of getting closer to a title shot, but really, it's even remarkable to the man himself that he's still part of the game.

"To be honest, the longevity has just been amazing," Collazo said. "Now, I have some aches and pains, but besides that, I'm able to still perform and still be passionate about the sport."

Collazo at his core is a boxer. It's all he has ever done.

"This is my purpose," he said. "To be able to go out there and perform and to be able, on this platform, to try to inspire those who are kind of down on their life and just be able to do what I love and keep spreading inspiration, I guess."

Amazingly, despite his tenure in the sport, Collazo (38-7, 20 KOs) isn't all that cynical about the boxing business. A business that, quite frankly, hasn't always been fair to him.

"There's been some ups and downs, but this is the difference between passion and purpose," Collazo told ESPN. "I'm living my purpose right now, because it's just a matter of time before you break down and you say, 'You know what? I'm not going to do this anymore. I'm going to go ahead and do something else with my career.'"

Collazo can look back on his career and be proud of his efforts. He was able to win a world title by defeating Jose Antonio Rivera in 2005 for the WBA welterweight belt, and then battled the likes of Ricky Hatton, Shane Mosley, Andre Berto, Victor Ortiz, Amir Khan and Keith Thurman in subsequent years.

Winning that title remains his shining moment as a pro.

"I was never an A-side fighter; I was always the underdog, and I appreciate that, though. It motivates me, it keeps that spark going." Luis Collazo

"Two weeks notice, a last-minute replacement. I fought Rivera in his hometown," Collazo recalled of his victory in Worcester, Massachusetts. "As a fighter, to win a world title, that's one of the proudest moments [and] greatest achievements a fighter can have."

Against Hatton, who was making his U.S. debut in 2005, Collazo was floored in the first round, but by the end of the 12 rounds, many observers believe he had done enough to defeat the popular British boxer. The judges didn't agree. Collazo came out on the short end by the scores of 114-113 115-112 and 115-112. His loss against Mosley in 2007 was much more clear and conclusive.

"I broke my thumb in the second round; it went 12. He came out with the victory, but you live and you learn," said Collazo.

"Then I fought Andre Berto," Collazo said of his 2009 matchup with the then-undefeated WBC welterweight titlist, who was thought to be among the sport's rising stars at that juncture. "I believe I beat him. I wasn't supposed to beat him, but I did and I came up short on the cards."

Adding insult to injury is that he never got a rematch with Berto.

"That Berto fight really got me. I should've come out with the victory, but again, I was the underdog -- I wasn't supposed to win. I wasn't supposed to go the 12 and I did," Collazo said. "That's the fight that really got me, and I dwelled on it for quite some time, but you've got to move forward and you've got to let go and keep moving."

For the most part, only elite names have been able to defeat the well-schooled southpaw, and even against the likes of Keith Thurman, he certainly had his moments. After getting stopped in seven rounds by "One Time" in the summer of 2015, Collazo didn't fight again until early 2017.

Despite being dormant for that long stretch, Collazo showed that he was still more than serviceable by defeating a pair of up-and-comers in Sammy Vasquez and Bryant Perella in 2017. Of course he was the "opponent" in both fights. Collazo has made a pretty good living as the B-side throughout his career.

"I believe all my fights are like that," said Collazo, who is well aware of his place in the pecking order of the business. "I was never an A-side fighter. I was always the underdog, and I appreciate that, though. It motivates me, it keeps that spark going. And I don't want to be the favorite in none of my fights. It's OK -- 19 years of it, you become accustomed to it. It doesn't matter. I know I was the underdog in those fights -- I wasn't supposed to win."

The last chapter of Collazo's career will be under the Top Rank banner, a company the traveled veteran is hoping to impress this weekend.

"Top Rank was the only promotional company I had never signed with...[and] they always take care of their fighters," he said. "They keep them busy, and I'm just grateful for this opportunity, and I can't wait for [Sunday]."

Given the ever-divided nature of the boxing business, welterweights have been in high demand for Top Rank. Collazo fit the bill as a valuable addition to their portfolio.

"It gives us a proven welterweight. He's from New York and I can see him fighting -- as long as he gets past Samuel Vargas, which isn't an easy fight -- somewhere along the line against [big names] at 147," said Carl Moretti, vice president of boxing operations for Top Rank.

"He's got a lot left in the tank, and I think that being a welterweight, he's going to be placed in a position where he ends up in a meaningful matchup, especially if he's coming off a win against Vargas. So this fight will determine a lot on what happens next."

Collazo, who is ranked 12th by the WBO, has one clear goal left: "I want to fight for a world title and win it, not just fight for it. I want to win it. And I think that would leave a good legacy for my name and my team."

Regardless if if he gets to that point -- keep in mind that Terence Crawford, Errol Spence Jr., Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter are the four titleholders -- Collazo has had a career to be respected. No matter how it ends, there will be no bitterness on his end.

"I'm just grateful for everything," Collazo said. "I don't care, even to this day, that I still don't get the respect that I deserve. But it's OK. As long as I'm enjoying what I'm doing and able to perform and give the fight fans excitement, hey, I'm OK."