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Lacy, Corrales, common foe Joppy predict outcome

Jeff Lacy doesn't have anything in particular against Bernard Hopkins.

But the IBF super middleweight titlist admits that he will "absolutely" root for Hopkins' opponent, Jermain Taylor, to prevail at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas Saturday night (9 ET, HBO PPV). After all, the 40-year-old Hopkins, who lost his undisputed world middleweight championship on a close and controversial split decision to Taylor across the street at the MGM Grand on July 16, repeatedly has insisted he will honor a promise he made to his late mother, that he would retire from the ring before his 41st birthday in January.

Should Taylor prevail in the rematch, however, and should Lacy win his unification bout with Joe Calzaghe in Great Britain on March 4, then a clash between the two 2000 Olympians would be worth a lot of money and prestige to both men.

There is a school of thought that the rematch is unnecessary. Many contend dubious judging cost Hopkins his titles and position as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

A cautious Hopkins seemed to dictate the tempo of the July fight, keeping a conservative pace early before dominating the final four rounds. More than once, he seemed close to flooring Taylor.

But the scoring of the bout stunned many. Judges Paul Smith and Duane Ford each awarded the bout to Taylor 115-113, trumping Jerry Roth's 116-112 verdict for Hopkins, a tally that mirrored many press row scorecards. Ford's award of the decisive final round to Taylor -- a stanza Hopkins dominated -- was especially baffling.

Several pro fighters polled by ESPN.com agree that the key to the rematch is whether Hopkins can come out of the gate faster and more effectively than he did in July.

Junior middleweight Ishe Smith (from the first season of "The Contender") said: "The judge [Ford] definitely messed up in the last round, [but] it's hard to press the case for Bernard because he didn't fight so much in the early rounds. He didn't lay it on the line the way we thought he would. Everyone says Jermain didn't fight that well early, but at least he was making the fight."

Former WBC bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough -- who lost a challenge to WBC super bantamweight champ Oscar Larios in the co-main event of the first Hopkins-Taylor battle -- said if Hopkins "starts quicker this time, he could win it pretty easily.

"I think Taylor punches pretty hard, which is why Hopkins stood off a little at first, but I think maybe Hopkins actually punches harder. He doesn't really like to be a puncher, he likes to be a boxer, but he's a strong puncher. I honestly think Hopkins might stop him, somewhere between rounds seven and 10."

World lightweight champion Diego Corrales concurs.

"Bernard, in all honesty, just has to start much faster. Bernard had the right game plan [in the first fight]; the only mistake he made was that he turned it up maybe one or two rounds too late," said Corrales, who has had his own epic rivalry with Jose Luis Castillo. "When he got going, Jermain had no answer."

The onus, insists Corrales, is on Taylor to change things up and bring a different plan of attack to the ring.

"If I'm Jermain," Corrales said, "I'm going to bring more feints, throw more lead rights, try and take away Hopkins' right hand, and fight more from the outside."

The problem?

"Hopkins is such a master at knowing what to expect and how to prepare for it," Corrales said. "Everything that Jermain is thinking and planning, Bernard already knows about and has planned for."

And what would Lacy do, if he were Hopkins?

"If I were fighting Jermain Taylor, I'd just take away the jab. Counter the jab with right hands," Lacy said. "Take away his jab and he's like a fish out of water."

Lacy isn't convinced that Hopkins is the man to do it.

"People say Bernard should come out faster, but if he does that, he'll just expose himself more to the younger, faster fighter. Bernard knows. That's why he didn't come out fast last time," Lacy said.

Corrales disagrees, and predicts the Philadelphian will exact his revenge against the young man from Little Rock, Ark.: "Bernard Hopkins is a physical specimen. He is a machine. And he has something to prove. He is not going to let his legacy be ruined by losing twice to this kid."

The only pro fighter to face both men in the ring -- former two-time WBA middleweight titlist William Joppy, who lost to Hopkins in December 2003 and to Taylor one year later -- doesn't equivocate when asked which of his conquerors he favors in the rematch.

"If Bernard Hopkins comes out full blast, he might knock him out," Joppy said.

"Jermain Taylor is still very inexperienced, still makes mistakes. When I fought him, I just wasn't into that fight. I wasn't even in shape. I only sparred about 10 rounds. He thumbed me in the eye in the second round and I thought, 'To hell with it.' He throws shots wide, you can see them coming. He doesn't have a slick bone in his body. He's a strong guy, but he doesn't impress me. I'm taking Bernard, simple as that."

Only Smith seems reluctant to anoint a favorite, seeing a closer and more competitive fight than some of his peers.

"It isn't a fight I'd bet on even if I was a betting man," Smith said.

"If I had to make a prediction, I'd have to say Bernard. I don't think he'll let the kid beat him twice. But it's a real slim prediction. The kid is hungry, he has the titles now and he doesn't want to lose them."

Lacy agrees with Smith's final point.

Indeed, not only is he quietly rooting for Taylor to win and begin laying the foundations for a 2006 showdown between the middleweight and super middleweight champions, he -- alone among the fighters ESPN.com polled -- considers it the most likely scenario.

Taylor, he reasons, has been through the fire, took everything Hopkins could throw at him in the first fight, and still emerged with the belts. Hopkins might fight better than in July, he reasons, but so will Taylor. And that, Lacy insists, will be the difference.

"Jermain, last time, he was tight, he was nervous. But this time, he's going to be so much more confident. He's been there with Bernard Hopkins now," Lacy said.

"I'm not saying it's going to be easy. It's never going to be easy against a guy like Bernard Hopkins, but it's going to be a more convincing win for Jermain."

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.