Cotto knows the ropes, has home edge vs. Branco

When Miguel Cotto engaged Ricardo Torres in a blazing, all-action fight last September, he barely escaped with his junior welterweight title intact.

In the second round, Torres strafed Cotto with an assortment of hard punches, wobbled him badly and then knocked him down for the first time in his career. Cotto was hurt badly again in the fifth and in big trouble.

But Cotto showed a huge heart to survive, all while continuing to fire his own damaging blows. In the end, Cotto knocked Torres down four times and won via seventh-round knockout in one of 2005's most exhilarating fights.

As Cotto looks forward to potential super fights with the likes of Ricky Hatton and Jose Luis Castillo, he probably could do without such drama when he enters the ring Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET) for his first fight since the Torres brawl.

Cotto, 25, will be in front of an adoring home crowd in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, when he makes his fifth defense against Italy's Gianluca Branco, 35, who is best known for losing a decision to Arturo Gatti when they met for a vacant 140-pound belt in January 2004.

Branco (36-1-1, 19 KOs), winner of four in a row since the loss to Gatti, was supposed to have been Cotto's opponent in September, but a hand injury three weeks before the fight forced him to pull out, and Torres was brought in as a late replacement.

Cotto's shaky performance against Torres led some to question his chin and ability to reach the superstardom many had predicted for him coming out of the 2000 Olympics. But Cotto (25-0, 21 KOs) shrugged off those questions.

"When I go out there, I go out there to do my job, do the best I can," Cotto said through translator Ricardo Jimenez. "You go out there, you know you're going to get hit, so obviously, I've been a hit a few times the last couple of fights. But I come right back and I show them what I can do when I'm hurt. I think that's also just as [important] as being able to land some shots. I've been able to prove that I can take shots."

Part of Cotto's recent problems -- he was also badly dazed in a fifth-round TKO win against former titlist DeMarcus "Chop Chop" Corley last year -- stem from balance problems related to an eardrum injury. But Cotto said he has healed.

"Everything's fine," he said. "We had it checked out. We had everything taken care of and it's 100 percent."

To prove how dedicated he is to improving, Cotto for the first time left Puerto Rico and his family to train for the Branco fight in Deerfield Beach, Fla. He said getting away from his fans and the distractions of home would help him when be at his best, especially for the major fights that loom in his future.

Cotto said it was the longest he had ever been away from home since the one month he spent in Australia for the Olympics.

"I think the idea was to try this out, see how it works out," said Cotto, who had his uncle Evangelista Cotto, who is his trainer, with him in Florida. "We know that the big fights are coming. We're looking forward to those big fights and we know we're going to have to have some special training, some special concentration to do. So we figured this was the right time to do it and be ready for the next big fight."

If Cotto defeats Branco, his next fight already is lined up -- a June 10 bout at New York's Madison Square Garden on Puerto Rican Day parade weekend. He'll face Paulie Malignaggi, a popular Italian contender from Brooklyn, who traveled to Puerto Rico to watch Cotto's fight and start the drum beat for their spring match.

If Cotto gets past both Branco and Malignaggi, that's when he is expected to vault into major fights.

"We know there's a lot of interest in this [140-pound] division and at 147 and 135," said Cotto promoter Todd duBoef of Top Rank. "Miguel is in the center of all of it. He's given us some terrific performances the last five years and we see that 2006 is going to be incredibly exciting, and it's going be his breakout year.

"We're looking at Miguel to have a sensational performance [against Branco], then June 10th and then come back towards the end of the year and look for the big fights like Castillo or Hatton or [Floyd] Mayweather, or whatever. We're ready to go."

Around the ring

Mosley-Vargas II? The commercial success of the Shane Mosley-Fernando Vargas pay-per-view could lead to a rematch this summer.

Mosley's 10th-round TKO of Vargas last Saturday night in a junior middleweight fight generated 410,000 buys and $18.9 million in revenue, HBO PPV announced. That is an impressive figure considering it was not a championship fight, nor is either of the former champions in his prime. But they are both major stars who have been involved in several major fights, which helped their matchup draw big numbers.

"We are very pleased with the public's support of the Vargas-Mosley pay-per-view event, and are even happier that these two great stars provided such an exciting fight for their fans," HBO PPV's Mark Taffet said.

The fight will be replayed Saturday night prior to HBO's live coverage of the Cotto-Branco fight.

With the success of the Mosley-Vargas bout and the exciting action, a rematch is very possible. Vargas promoter Main Events and Mosley promoter Golden Boy have had preliminary talks about it and are targeting mid or late July, although both promoters must talk more seriously about it with the fighters.

"I will be discussing it with Shane and [his wife] Jin," Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer said. "We'll sit down and see what would be the framework of a potential rematch, but I talked to Taffet and [Vargas co-manager] Shelly Finkel and I think this is the natural fight. The fight did excellent numbers and it was a great fight, so a rematch probably makes sense. But it will be up to Shane."

HBO PPV is certainly on board if they are able to make a deal.

"It was a close, exciting fight with plenty of action and drama," Taffet said. "Boxing fans love Mosley and Vargas, and love to see their stars in big fights. If the promoters and fighters are interested in a rematch, we would be, too."

Diaz lines up defense: Lightweight titlist Juan Diaz, out of the spotlight for most of last year, finally is going to fight again and on one of the year's biggest cards.

Diaz (28-0, 14 KOs) will defend his 135-pound crown against Puerto Rico's Jose Cotto (27-0, 19 KOs) -- the older brother of junior welterweight titlist Miguel Cotto -- in Las Vegas on the April 8 HBO PPV undercard of the Mayweather-Zab Judah fight, organizers told ESPN.com.

Diaz promoter Main Events and Cotto promoter Top Rank have agreed to terms and are finalizing the contracts.

Getting in the ring should be a big relief to Diaz, a 22-year-old from Houston who emerged as one of the most exciting young champions in the sport in 2004 and early 2005.

However, his career came to a grinding halt after a cut on his eyelid forced him to pull out of a defense against Ebo Elder last April.

Diaz had made an easy January 2005 defense against Billy Irwin, but then fought just once the rest of the year -- an untelevised, non-title bout against journeyman Art Cruz, whom Diaz had beaten in 2002.

Besides the training injury and a lack of TV dates, there were ongoing issues between Diaz's manager, Willie Savannah, and Main Events, as well as a twice-postponed mandatory defense against Lakva Sim.

But with the Sim bout being postponed twice -- once because of a Sim injury and a second time because of problems with Sim promoter Dan Goossen -- the WBA is going to give Diaz an exception so he can take the Cotto fight before Sim gets another crack at the belt.

Carl Moretti of Main Events is happy to get Diaz back in the ring and believes the fight with Cotto will be a terrific action fight.

"If it happens, its going to steal the show," Moretti said.

It will be competing with the Mayweather-Judah main event, Jorge Arce's interim flyweight title defense against former two-division champ Rosendo Alvarez and an appearance by Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

Before accepting the Cotto fight for $160,000, Diaz heard talk about defending against junior lightweight champ Marco Antonio Barrera for as much as $500,000.

Diaz would have been a late replacement for fellow lightweight titlist Jesus Chavez, who suffered a left arm injury and had to pull out of a March 25 HBO fight against Barrera.

However, the offer was not solid. Even if Diaz had accepted the Barrera fight, there was no guarantee it would happen because Barrera has been reluctant to take Diaz on short notice and has no deal in place for the fight with his own promoter, Golden Boy.

Schedule shuffle: HBO has canceled the March 25 card due to Chavez's injury but could move Barrera to April 15 against an opponent to be named after the date became available because of another injury.

Junior middleweight contender Ike Quartey was supposed to face Vernon Forrest in a battle of former welterweight champs at Madison Square Garden's Theater on April 15. However, the fight was postponed because Forrest severely strained a ligament in his right elbow.

With Barrera said to be unwilling to fight Diaz or junior lightweight titlist Jorge Barrios on such short notice, he probably will sit out and wait for another HBO date in July.

Soliman to rescue: Forrest's injury not only scuttled his fight with Quartey but a tune-up fight slated for Friday night's "Best Damn Sports Show Period" headliner (Fox Sports Net) at the Pechanga Resort in Temecula, Calif.

However, promoter Goossen lined up middleweight contender Sam Soliman (31-8, 12 KOs) on a few days' notice to replace Forrest against Raul Munoz (17-7, 14 KOs) in the 10-rounder.

"This is Sam standing behind his claim that he will fight anyone, anywhere at anytime," Goossen said of Soliman, an Australian who unexpectedly pushed Winky Wright to the brink of defeat when they met in December. "Sam Soliman is exactly what boxing should be about. What other top world contender would agree to take this bout on five days notice, then jump on a plane, flying halfway around the world to do it? Believe me, there is absolutely no one, zilch."

Soliman arrived in the U.S. Tuesday morning after a 16-hour flight from Australia, just one day after Goossen offered him the fight.

"He keeps himself in fighting condition 365 days a year and didn't hesitate when we asked him if he was willing to fly the friendly skies at the chance to replace Vernon," Goossen said.

A win would keep Soliman alive for a potential fight with the winner of the June 17 middleweight title fight between Wright and Jermain Taylor.

Also on the card Friday: former heavyweight title challenger Kirk Johnson (36-2-1, 26 KOs) faces Javier Mora (19-2-1, 17 KOs).

Punching in Memphis: Taylor's middleweight title defense against mandatory challenger Wright (June 17 on HBO) has been set for a couple of weeks after an arduous negotiation. However, the venue -- Las Vegas or Memphis -- was still up in the air. But the fight is headed for Memphis, organizers announced Friday.

"Memphis has illustrated clearly that it is a boxing town and the FedEx Forum is one of the finest arenas in the country," said Taylor promoter Lou DiBella. "We look forward to the southern hospitality in June."

MGM Grand was offering organizers their choice of a $2 million site fee or a four-wall deal but backers in Memphis offered about $700,000 more in guaranteed money to hold the fight at the Fed Ex Forum, which has been host to two previous major fights (Glen Johnson-Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver-Johnson II).

Taylor will be the overwhelming crowd favorite in Memphis, which is just a couple of hours by car from his hometown of Little Rock, Ark. He also trained in Memphis last year for his rematch with Bernard Hopkins.

"Having held my last training camp there, and it being just two hours from Little Rock, Memphis is like a second home to me," Taylor said. "I can't wait to perform in front of my fans from Arkansas and my adopted hometown fans in Memphis."

Timing is everything: In order to allow Showtime -- which is footing much of the bill -- to televise Saturday's much-anticipated Jeff Lacy-Joe Calzaghe super middleweight unification fight live at 9 p.m. on the East Coast of the U.S., it will begin at 2 a.m. Manchester time.

That's the same scenario used for last summer's Ricky Hatton-Kostya Tszyu junior welterweight title fight that Showtime also bankrolled.

Lacy, who is from St. Petersburg, Fla., said he won't change a thing as far as his schedule goes. He said he will just prepare as though he was going to fight at the normal time he would fight in the U.S.

"So, it is not me who has to adjust. It is Calzaghe because he is fighting at 2 a.m.," Lacy said. "Best of luck to him. I do not want to get on the U.K. time zone. I am going to stay on United States time."

Calzaghe began to change his routine a few weeks in order to adapt to the odd start time.

"It is a pain," Calzaghe said, laughing. "It is winter time and it gets dark at 5 o'clock, but it's one of those things. I just have to train later and adjust."

Brewster fight set: Heavyweight titlist Lamon Brewster's April 1 (Showtime, 11 p.m. ET/PT) defense against Sergei Liakhovich was made official Friday. The holdup
in announcing the fight was promoter Don King's lack of a venue, a problem that finally was solved. The fight will take place at the Wolstein Center on the campus of Cleveland State University in Cleveland.

Brewster (33-2, 29 KOs), who will be making his fourth defense, is coming off a dramatic ninth-round TKO against mandatory challenger Luan Krasniqi in Germany on Sept. 28, 2005.

Liakhovich (22-1, 14 KOs), originally from Belarus and based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has won six in a row, including a unanimous decision over Dominick Guinn in his last fight on Dec. 3, 2004. Injuries and fights falling through kept him on the shelf all of last year.

The fight will be available to all cable subscribers because it is part of Showtime's free preview weekend.

Brock, Julio on HBO: Heavyweight contender Calvin Brock and red-hot welterweight Joel "Love Child" Julio, the 2005 ESPN.com prospect of the year, will co-headline "Boxing After Dark" in their HBO debuts June 24 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Brock is tentatively slated to face Timor Ibragimov (20-0-1, 12 KOs), a Florida-based prospect originally from Uzbekistan.

Julio will face southpaw contender Carlos Quintana (22-0, 18 KOs) in a title eliminator with the winner to become the mandatory challenger for titlist Luis Collazo. Julio may take a stay-busy fight prior to the Quintana bout, according to promoter Main Events.

Brock and Julio both appeared on last week's Mosley-Vargas undercard and impressed. Brock (28-0, 22 KOs) scored a massive one-punch, sixth-round knockout of Zuri Lawrence. Julio (27-0, 24 KOs) scored two knockdowns en route to a second-round TKO of Wilmer Mejia.

New trainer for Peter: Heavyweight contender Samuel Peter is now working with veteran trainer Jesse Reid, according to manager Ivaylo Gotzev.

Reid and Peter's longtime trainer, Pops Anderson, are working as co-trainers, Gotzev said.

Peter (25-1, 21 KOs), who lost a decision to Wladimir Klitschko in a title eliminator in September despite knocking Klitschko down, outpointed Robert Hawkins in September. After that fight, Gotzev and promoter Dino Duva decided Peter needed another voice in the gym to teach him the finer points of boxing.

Reid, who has worked with former world champions Paul Spadafora, Johnny Tapia and Orlando Canizales among others, has been working with Peter and Anderson in Las Vegas for about three weeks.

"It's going great, better than expected," Gotzev said. "I've been in the gym and I can see a tremendous change in Samuel's punching output. One thing Jesse is big on is making guys throw more punches, so to hear that is amusing to my ears because Samuel's punching power being delivered in quantity is going to make him a force. Jesse is really doing a lot of teaching and Pops is right along side. They're partners and it is going very well."

Before Reid was hired, Gotzev said another trainer they talked to was Teddy Atlas, who is also the ringside analyst on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

"Teddy spent two days working with Samuel in Las Vegas but his commitments with ESPN were standing in the way of them working together," Gotzev said. ""That was where that deal died, but Teddy is a great trainer also and he and Samuel had a great two days together in the gym."

Gotzev said he hopes Peter will be back in the ring in late April, possibly on ESPN2.

Duvas split: Dino Duva and his sister, Donna Duva-Brooks, who co-founded the Duva Boxing promotional company, announced that they have ended their partnership and agreed to an amicable split.

Dino Duva becomes the sole owner of Duva Boxing and will continue to promote Samuel Peter, Kendall Holt, Brian Minto and Kirk Johnson, among others.

Donna Duva-Brooks, married to top trainer Tommy Brooks, will start her own company -- Hall of Fame Promotions -- and continue promoting former Duva Boxing fighters Oscar Diaz, Damien Fuller and Shaun George (her son-in-law). Tommy Brooks trains all three.

"We both want to pursue our own separate interests," Duva and Brooks said in a joint statement. "This is completely amicable and we sincerely wish each other the best."

Duva family patriarch Lou Duva, the noted trainer and manager, said he would continue working with both of his children.

"Both of them have my 100 percent blessing," he said. "I am extremely happy for Dino and Donna. I will be there to support both of them to help them achieve continued success in whatever they do."

This is not the first Duva family breakup, although this one happened on better terms than the last one.

The brother-and-sister team founded Duva Boxing in 2000 following an acrimonious split from promotional powerhouse Main Events, another New Jersey-based company founded in 1978 by their late brother Dan, who died of a brain tumor.

When Dan Duva died, his widow, Kathy Duva, assumed control of the company, which led to an eventual falling out.

Showtime tabs Dinkins: David Dinkins Jr., who has been producing Showtime's boxing telecasts since the sport debuted on the network in 1986, has been promoted to executive producer, Showtime sports and event programming general manager Ken Hershman announced.

Dinkins, who has had the title for the past few months on interim basis, replaces Jay Larkin, who was fired in November. Unlike Larkin, however, Dinkins won't have the added responsibility of buying the network's fights. Hershman handles those duties.

In addition to boxing, Dinkins, a two-time Emmy award winner, has covered the Olympics and other major events.

Quick hits: The Hasim Rahman-James Toney heavyweight title bout on March 18 in Atlantic City, N.J., could have one of the widest audiences in years for a big fight. The bout, which airs on HBO to its roughly 35 million subscribers, also can be seen by those who don't have HBO as the fight is on during the network's free preview weekend.

• Welterweight Ishe Smith, who was a cast member in the first season of "The Contender" reality series last year on NBC, has signed with Golden Boy Promotions. His first fight with Golden Boy is slated to come May 6 on the undercard of company boss Oscar De La Hoya's junior middleweight title challenge against Ricardo Mayorga at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Smith's hometown. Smith (16-1, 7 KOs) was unhappy with "The Contender" promoters, whostill had him under contract even after the show's first season ended, and filed arbitration with California boxing officials to get out of the contract. Smith hasn't fought in nearly a year, his last bout a five-round decision win against Anthony Bonsante on May 24 in "The Contender" first season finale.

• Chris Byrd's heavyweight title defense against Wladimir Klitschko (45-3, 40 KOs), scheduled for April 22, sold out the 14,000-seat SAP Arena in Mannheim, Germany, in less than 48 hours, organizers said. "This goes to show the magnitude of this fight and how both Chris and I are well-known not only in the United States but the world over," said Klitschko, who defeated Byrd (39-2-1, 20 KOs) on a decision in their first meeting in October 2000, also in Germany. In a fan-friendly move, HBO will televise the fight live at 5 p.m. ET and again on same-day tape at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

• Former light heavyweight champ Montell Griffin (47-6, 30 KOs) faces Norman Jones (28-14-3, 9 KOs) in a 12-rounder on ESPN2's March 31 edition of "Friday Night Fights" at the Mohegan Sun resort in Uncasville, Conn. The fight will be Griffin's first since signing with promoter Joe DeGuardia. Griffin originally was supposed to fight Orlando Rivera but Rivera pulled out and the new fight was made.

• Northeast Promotions and Cappiello Promotions are celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a "Night of The Irish" card March 17 in Boston. Headlining ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" show is Ireland's Neil Sinclair (28-4, 23 KOs) in his American debut against former junior welterweight champ Vince Phillips (48-9-1, 34 KOs) in a 10-rounder. Sinclair fell short in his only world-title challenge in 2000, when then-titlist Daniel Santos stopped him in the second round. Both men were down in the first round. Sinclair then won his next nine bouts before losing via a cut-induced first-round TKO in March 2005. Phillips, who knocked out Kostya Tszyu to win the title in 1997, is past his prime but has won four of five, including an upset victory in his last bout against rising contender Kelson Pinto in October .

• Micky Ward and Pat Lynch were on opposite sides when Ward slugged it out three times with Arturo Gatti, whom Lynch manages. But now, Ward, the retired junior welterweight action star, and Lynch are on the same side as they will be among six honorees for the Distinguished Irish American Hero Award on March 13 in New York. The awards luncheon is to benefit the Irish Arts Center.

• British super middleweight contender Carl Froch, 28, suffered a deep biceps bruise on his right arm while defeating Dale Westerman earlier this month. The injury will need three weeks to heal, which means Froch's March 31 showdown with Brian Magee will be postponed. "I have to give it complete rest," Froch said. "I can't hit a pad, bag or even do a press-up. Anything that extends the arm fully may open up the hematoma again and cause further bleeding under the skin. I have already given it a week off, but it needs at least another three to ensure it heals properly, so there is no way I can be ready for next month."

Quotable: "You see his eye? I'm going to detach his retina." -- junior middleweight titlist Ricardo Mayorga, one of boxing's most notorious trash talkers, speaking at a news conference this week on what he plans to do to challenger Oscar De La Hoya when they meet May 6 in Las Vegas.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.