'FNF' season debut to crown new featherweight champ

Did you hear the one about the Thai rice farmer and the Brazilian ice cream vendor who went to the casino? This isn't a bad joke. It's the start to a new year of ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

Undefeated contender Valdemir Pereira is taking on former world title challenger Fahprakorb Rakkiatgym at Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort Friday night (ESPN2, 8 ET). The Thai featherweight clearly isn't on Vanna White's wish list for famous names to letter turn, but he is on the list of favorite names for the head scratching decision makers of the IBF.

This week's "FNF" main event is for the vacant IBF world title.

Make no mistake, neither of these fighters is the best 126-pounder in the world. That distinction belongs to Juan Manuel Marquez. Unfortunately, Marquez was stripped by the IBF because there wasn't a promoter willing to pay a purse bid for his defense against Rakkiatgym.

I know it makes no sense. Wake me up when these sanctioning organizations start making sense. See ESPN.com senior boxing writer Dan Rafael's wonderful column penned back in August detailing this controversy if you really want to get sick. Rafael did a superb job of shredding the IBF and exposing the flawed system.

Now that the business of bashing boxing's alphabet soup is out of the way, let's get to the meat of the matter. Forget whether or not this fight determines a world champion in the eyes of the experts. The bottom line is that it does to the fighters. And when the fighters truly care, the fight usually ends up being as good as it can be.

Rakkiatgym, the son of a rice farmer, is hungry and has momentum. In 2002, Manny Pacquiao destroyed this fiery southpaw. But since then, Rakkiatgym has ripped off 14 straight victories. Ten of those victories are by knockout, including a beat down of Manny's brother Bobby Pacquiao.

Pereira is 22-0. He spent his impoverished childhood selling ice cream bars from a wooden box in Brazil. An Olympics appearance and 15 pro knockouts victories later, Pereira finds himself in Connecticut's plushest room this side of a Stepford Wife's parlor.

Wednesday night, I had the pleasure of spending time with Brazilian superstar Acelino "Popo" Freitas. The former champ is very high on Periera and it's not just pugilistic jingoism getting the best of him. Periera is skilled. He can fight.

Even at 31, Periera still seems to be getting better with every outing. If Popo Freitas flew all the in from Bahia, Brazil, to spend a January weekend in Southern New England, this must be good.

Quick takes
A lot has happened since "FNF" took a hiatus for the college football season. Here are my quick takes, reviewing what happened while we were away:

• Congrats to O'Neil Bell, the new undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world. I thought Bell's KO of Jean-Marc Mormeck was thrilling and well deserved. Bell looked sharp and focused. Mormeck is a tank and shot off some serious ammo, but Bell had more in the tank, outlasting the big man.

• Diego Corrales gave the fans what they deserved in October -- a fight. When Jose Luis Castillo came in significantly over the weight limit and tried to cheat the scales, it was a disaster in the making. There are other pampered stars of this sport who would have pulled the plug on a much anticipated pay-per-view. Instead, Corrales fought on, took one for the team and was knocked out in valiant fashion. The story advances itself to this week, when Corrales had to pull out of the third fight with Castillo, scheduled for Feb. 4, because of a rib injury. That was the best thing that could have ever happened. I was strongly opposed to "Chico" fighting Castillo for a third time in just nine months. That's too much punishment for anyone to take.

• The same can't be said for Vitali Klitschko. I am not asking fighters to fight injured and risk their careers. But Klitschko decision to retire, instead of rescheduling his heavyweight title fight with Hasim Rahman, hurt the sport. When I reflect on Klitschko's title reign, I cringe. He had done so much good by brawling and bleeding with Lennox Lewis. Then he wins the title and, in a span of 20 months, his one moment to shine is a fight with completely overmatched Danny Williams. When Klitschko comes out of this so-called "retirement," he owes us one.

• Message to Roy Jones: Stay away.

• Message to Jeff Lacy: Keep coming.

• Message to all TV networks: Get Antonio Margarito!

• Manny Pacquiao vs Erik Morales (Saturday, HBO PPV, 9 ET): "Pacman" defeats "El Terrible" and gets in with Marco Antonio Barrera for yet another pay-per-view showdown.

• Super prospect Joel Julio will be tested, and he'll pass with flying colors, emerging as the sports next star.

• Rocky Juarez will work his way back into the mix and redeem himself.

• Peter Manfredo and Scotty Pemberton will put on a surprising duel in their upcoming "Contender" match (ESPN Feb. 12, 9:30 ET).

• Ricky Hatton will come to the United States and plenty of Brits will follow him here. Hatton will continue to impress and take out either Arturo Gatti or a big name lightweight looking for a payday.

• Oscar De La Hoya will beat the free-swinging Ricardo Mayorga if the fight happens, but the Golden Boy won't look like 24K in doing so. It's one and done for DLH.

• Jeff Lacy will KO Joe Calzaghe.

• Antonio Tarver will be the Jason Sehorn of the sport, becoming a magnet to any TV camera and publicity opportunity he can find. What Tarver likely will find is a weak challenging light heavyweight class to feast on for two easy victories in 2006.

• James Toney against Hasim Rahman will attract eyeballs. But the truth is, if he comes to the U.S.A. and is promoted by mainstream media, then 7-foot, 325-pound Nikolay Valuev will attract even more eyeballs.

• Sam Peter will get himself a new trainer and be on course for the heavyweight title again.

• Winky Wright and Jermain Taylor will not fight this calendar year. I don't mind that as long as Felix Strum and Arthur Abraham are potential opponents for each of them.

• And finally, what a tremendous "FNF" card put together by Lou DiBella on Feb. 10. Emmanuel Augustus vs Emmanuel Clottey will provide loads of entertainment, followed by Donald Camarena and Paulie Malignaggi. I'm not sure I have ever seen a card with more showboaters and junk talkers in my career.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."