In the past few years, boxing has produced plenty of nearly unknown, and improbable, world titlists. Case in point -- 10 months ago, Eric Aiken became a featherweight world champion. Yes, Eric Aiken!
This time last March, you could have convinced me it was more likely that Clay Aiken was going to be a world champion. Then again, Aiken's fans can be so obsessive I wouldn't put it past them to buy off some alphabet-soup organization in order to grab a belt for the Raleigh choirboy.
While Clay Aiken was releasing his album "Measure of a Man," Eric Aiken was measuring his career choices. It was 2003, and the smaller (at least in terms of record sales) Aiken was hardly about to become America's boxing idol. It was either be a fledgling boxer or continue working as a paralegal.
"At first, most of the other paralegals were shocked because I am not a big guy and my face isn't all marked up," said Aiken, 26. "They would say, 'You are a boxer? As little as you are?' "
This 126-pounder, nicknamed "Mighty Mouse," made up his mind. He was fully committed to making the move from handling secondary matters in the courts to handling second-tier opponents in the ring.
It didn't exactly go as planned. By the time he stepped through the ropes on St. Patrick's Day weekend 2006, he was no more remarkable than any other prospect/fringe contender. Aiken would lose a six-round decision to completely inexperienced Johnnie Edwards. By the time St. Patrick's Day weekend was over, Aiken's career was in a stickier situation than a pub floor that day.
"At first, most of the other paralegals were shocked because I am not a big guy and my face isn't all marked up. They would say, 'You are a boxer? As little as you are?'"
Featherweight contender Eric Aiken
"After losing to Johnnie Edwards, I never thought I would be here," Aiken said.
Where is here? Aiken (16-5, 12 KOs) is ready to star in this week's "Friday Night Fights" (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) main event. It's a rematch against fellow former champ Valdemir Pereira (24-1, 15 KOs).
"That loss to Edwards was a steppingstone, even though everyone thought I didn't lose the fight," Aiken said. "But by losing, it got me a fight with Tim Austin. I didn't hold my head down."
In fact, he held it up high in victory just two weeks later. Austin, a former pound-for-pound ranked world champion, was coming back after legal troubles. Aiken was perceived as the perfect comeback opponent. Austin didn't make it through six rounds.
The TKO upset win put Aiken on everyone's radar. Still, he wasn't regarded as a really dangerous threat but rather as a fighter an opposing promoter can now justify as a challenge. The thought was that Aiken probably wasn't much yet had a signature win to boost his limited résumé.
How limited was the résumé? Try 15 wins, 4 losses. And very little momentum with three losses in his past seven fights.
"Boxing has been the hardest thing I have had to deal with in life. I have had so many ups and downs," Aiken told me.
The next "up" would be a shocker. Superstar world champion Ricky Hatton was set to make his splash stateside in Boston against Luis Collazo. Undefeated IBF featherweight champ Pereira was going to defend his title on the undercard. When his original challenger fell out, Aiken got the call.
In a seven-week stretch, Aiken went from losing an eight-rounder to a no-name to beating a former big name to this week's chance to make a name for himself.
"I took the title shot on nine days' notice. When they called me, I had to jump on it. I wasn't going to go in there doubting if I am in great shape. I had to pace myself."
He hardly paced himself. Aiken floored the champ with a left hook in the fourth round. In the fifth, he scored another knockdown with a left hook to the body. Pereira would come back at him, but Aiken stood his ground while absorbing numerous low blows along the way.
"We counted 13 low blows on the tape. He was the world champion, so I thought it would be hard for the ref, Charlie Dwyer, to DQ him," Aiken said
"This is more important than the first fight I fought with him because it gets me back to fight for the title again.'"
Aiken, on Friday's rematch with Valdemir Pereira, an elimination bout
Not as hard as you think. By the eighth round, it was one low blow too many. The veteran referee had no choice but to disqualify Pereira. Aiken was the new IBF featherweight champ.
"It was absolutely the most unexpected thing that ever happened in my life. I knew something would be on the horizon from beating Tim Austin, but that was surreal. It didn't hit me until a few weeks later."
What ended up hitting him four months later were plenty of Robert Guerrero punches. In his first title defense, Aiken was flat. He couldn't continue after the eighth round. The improbable run was over.
He blamed it on his former conditioning coach forcing him to lift weights rather than sticking to a boxing regimen. There will be no one to blame Friday night.
Aiken and Pereira will meet up again. Mighty Mouse versus the Brazilian Brawler.
"This is more important than the first fight I fought with him because it gets me back to fight for the title again. My training camp has shown that it means a lot to me."
The original Mighty Mouse was always good at delivering on that one line in his cartoon theme song, "Here I come to save the day!"
Aiken needs to do one better. He needs to save his career. He is on the brink of being known as just a one-hit wonder. Make that a low-blow wonder.
Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."