Tarver says he's underrated on pound-for-pound list

When jokingly asked if he's aware that some cities have laws against elder abuse, 37-year old Antonio Tarver laughs, knowing that many see his June 10 bout with 41-year old Bernard Hopkins as simply a rude way of kicking "The Executioner" into retirement.

But "The Magic Man" still laughs and I'm actually being remiss by describing it as just a laugh. It's more like a bellow, a joyous reprieve from whatever is going on in his life at the time, and in a serious game such as this, it's good to hear someone lighten the gravity a bit.

"I just hope there ain't a law in Atlantic City," he finally blurts out before finally getting down to business, and business is interesting these days for the top 175-pound boxer in the game today. He's settled his scores with Glen Johnson and Roy Jones Jr., jumped up to heavyweight to fight Sylvester Stallone in the forthcoming "Rocky Balboa" movie, and started the climb back down to light heavyweight to face the former undisputed middleweight champion, Hopkins, in a big-money pay-per-view bout.

In many ways, it should be the best of times for the Floridian, but behind the laughter, there's still something missing, a desire to not only reap the financial benefits of his labors -- which he's doing now -- but to also get the respect that comes with being a fighter of his stature. That's something that's been hit or miss over the years.

"You mention Jermain Taylor, and when you look at the pound-for-pound list -- as mythical as it may be -- nobody has me ranked as high as 10," bristles Tarver, though The Ring magazine does have him at No. 8 on their current pound-for-pound list.

"I think it's a slap in my face that people do not recognize my talents and my ability. And now I'm fighting a guy like Bernard Hopkins, and it's supposed to be a mismatch. I'm gonna prove to everybody that I'm not Jermain Taylor. But at the same time, Jermain Taylor is ranked at four, five, or six in most people's pound-for-pound list.

"People know my ability, they know my talents, and they know my capabilities -- why are they being so naïve and blind when they know I'm one of the most talented fighters in the world today? Winky Wright is [number] one or two pound-for-pound, coming off what some people think was a questionable decision against a no-name fighter [Sam Soliman] in his last outing.

"I don't understand it. I beat every guy that I ever faced. I knocked out the great Roy Jones Jr. I defeated handily the fighter of the year in 2004 [Glen Johnson], and I get no credit for those victories. So my thing is this -- I won't be appreciated until I step away from the game.

"And this happened to a lot of fighters -- Marvelous Marvin Hagler, for one. It's not a big deal, but I'll go on and prove that I may not be the pound for pound best, but there hasn't been a smarter fighter, a more intelligent fighter, and in the years to come, I'll be the highest-paid fighter. That's all that matters."

He's lying. Just listen to Tarver explain his frustration for a minute or two -- or 10 -- and it is made abundantly clear that while the money's nice, his real motivation comes from being seen as one of the best fighters in the world today. He just can't hide it, and when Tarver gets rolling, he's like a mix of fiery preacher and street-corner hustler, the type of guy who can scare you into believing what he's talking about while still being smooth enough to make you feel like you came to that conclusion by your own volition.

"I want to build my legacy and I want to be remembered forever," he admitted. "And no matter how old I get, I want 'champion' to be attached to my name, forever and a day. That's something that no one can take away from me. And I want to be in Canastota, [N.Y., home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame] and I want to be recognized among the greats. I think I deserve that.

"If you look at the 1996 Olympic team, it's only Floyd Mayweather and I. They didn't even have any plans for Antonio Tarver. I wasn't supposed to be here. I've had to overcome a lot of obstacles, I had to beat politics with both of my hands, and it worked for me. So I'm really thankful for everything that I have, and I know that God has blessed me and has kept me in his prayers. He who starts first doesn't always finish first."

No one knows that better than Tarver, and frankly, this is a topic he thought he would be done talking about by now. He's probably thought that more than once over the course of his almost 10 years in the pro game, a decade-long run that began after the disappointment of the 1996 Atlanta Games, where the most likely fighter to succeed finished the Olympics with a bronze medal thanks to a close loss to future world champion Vassiliy Jirov.

It was a hard pill to swallow, especially since leading up to the Games, Tarver made sure to stay on the straight and narrow, putting a less than stellar past behind him as he geared up for his closeup as the new Sugar Ray Leonard or Oscar De La Hoya. You can still hear the hurt in his voice as he revisits those days. He calls it "the downfall."

"Just being on top of that mountain and going into the Olympics as the guy for the USA and for the world, for that matter," Tarver muses. "One bad decision, one bad fight that don't go your way -- even though I felt I won that fight -- and everybody turns their back on you."

Tarver talks of million-dollar offers on the table that rapidly were snatched away, and he sat idly by while his peers got promotional deals that included high-profile TV dates and all the acclaim that came with it.

"The money wasn't there, and I'm looking at guys like Floyd [Mayweather], Fernando [Vargas], David Reid, they're on HBO and predicted to be the next big things in boxing and my name is not even mentioned," he said. "I was the leader of that team. What are they not seeing? That hurt. That hurt me to my heart. I had to rebuild my character, my determination, my will, and I had to tell these people that they're not going to be right about me. I'm gonna prove them wrong and make all of them liars.

"They really did me wrong coming out of the Olympics. I didn't deserve that. I played the game fair, and I walked that line straight. There were guys out there doing stupid [stuff] before the Olympics. I was a mature guy and I wanted that gold -- that was my only ambition. I didn't sign no letter of intent, I didn't get no money under the table -- I played it straight, and I got kicked in the ass for it."

Russell Peltz finally stepped into the picture and signed Tarver, but there was no hype, no million-dollar contracts or signing bonuses.

"I'll never forget my first fight," said Tarver of his second round TKO of Joaquin Garcia on February 18, 1997. "The Blue Horizon and I'm on the undercard. No fanfare. It was really, really hard, and I didn't know how I was gonna get from under that situation. It built character, but it was hard."

Tarver would spend the early part of his career in obscurity, and his performances warranted as much, with the Tampa resident almost sleepwalking through his early bouts. In a lot of ways, Tarver didn't wake up until he lost to Eric Harding in June of 2000 and subsequently brought in trainer Buddy McGirt to guide him and show him what it took to be a world champion at this level.

The end product would remain in Tarver's hands though, and he had to put in the work. So he just looked to his past for inspiration and remembered what people had told him about his prospects for greatness.

"You're not worthy."

"You don't belong."

"That made me stronger," he said. "I've always looked into my crystal ball and I told people what I see, and they still can't see it through my eyes. So I'll still go on and continue to forecast and broadcast the future, and wonder when these people will finally get on the same page. It's not up to me, but hopefully these guys can start recognizing it."

Once Tarver made his way back to the No. 1 contender's spot he had before losing to Harding, he had to just sit and wait for a shot at the light heavyweight crown. He instead made plenty of fans for life when he decided to face Harding again. He won in the fifth round, and since then, he has operated among the elite at 175 pounds, winning two out of three against Jones and splitting a pair of fights with Glen Johnson. It's should all be gravy now for Tarver, but it isn't. He still feels disrespected.

"To put it plainly, they can't recognize that they don't understand, and that's basically the point," Tarver explains. "They don't understand me, they can't get inside my head, they don't know how I'm comin' at them or how I think; they can't relate because they didn't see it comin' and it would prove all the critics wrong if they did give me my credit.

"It would make them look like amateurs -- that they don't know a thing about boxing, and I'm here to tell you that I'm one of the most underrated fighters in the history of the game, and it will be proven once I step away. I don't plan on losing any more fights -- that's it. So they're gonna be able to say that this guy beat every man he ever faced, and that's my goal."

Obviously, Tarver takes this stuff pretty seriously, punctuating most sentences at his most fierce with the phrase "Do you understand me?" But at more serene moments, he just chuckles, "I'm the type of fighter where if I say it, I mean it. I'm not gonna tell you anything that I don't believe in my heart."

That's why his fans are loyal to him, because good or bad, Tarver tells it like he sees it, whether that viewpoint is a hundred times removed from what everyone else sees.

"I'm the people's champion," he said. "The people know. Everywhere I go, the people recognize it. I'm not trying to win these critics over because that's their job. They go with the mainstream. I've been slighted in a lot of ways, but it hasn't stopped anything. I'll continue to move on and do things that make me unique."

And given Tarver's history, you get the feeling that he needs to be "disrespected" and needs to feel like the world is against him, much like his June 10 counterpart does. Hopkins once told me that when things were getting too smooth, someone had to break a glass or flatten a tire just to give him some adversity. Tarver -- who lost his first fight after the second round knockout of Jones, lost his title eliminator against the underdog Harding, and was lackadaisical in the rubber match against Jones -- is in a similar situation, and if you think he's overlooking "The Executioner", think again. Tarver knows this is a must-win situation.

"In a lot of ways, it's a setup for a letdown," he explains. "But through my experiences, I understand the responsibility of being a professional, and I have to take care of those responsibilities. We gotta approach this fight as if it's our last fight or as if it's our first fight, and that's how we're going into this. Buddy McGirt and I have already come up with the game plan.

"Everybody knows that I'm coming down from a significant amount of weight, so we're going to disprove -- or prove -- the excuse that Roy Jones made. And I'm here to tell you that I'm coming down from a lot more weight than Roy Jones had claimed to have come down from. I think the training camp in itself will be a real testament to my dedication, my will, and my commitment to continue to be the best."

With that, Tarver gets ready for battle -- against Hopkins, the critics, and a boxing world that still hasn't given him his just due. But that's okay, because sometimes the sweetest rewards come at the end of the most arduous journeys.

Then he'll have all the time in the world to laugh.