Guzman on verge of stardom in diverse division

Much has been made of the Eastern Europeans taking over the heavyweight division. But it isn't just one group clogging the ranking ladders in the boxing world. The world has caught up, and even surpassed, the United States when it comes to the skills and mind-set needed to get ahead in the savage science that is the fight game.

In the junior lightweight (130-pound) division, a Mexican (Marco Antonio Barrera), a Venezuelan (Edwin Valero) and a Guyanese (Gairy St. Clair) comprise a melting pot atop the WBC, WBA and IBF, respectively, and an Argentine (Jorge Barrios) owns the WBO belt.

Barrios, age 30, will meet a Dominican, Joan Guzman, on the undercard of the Barrera-Rocky Juarez rematch on Saturday at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. And if you are curious why Americans have been left in the dust regarding pugilistic supremacy in the last decade, you need only look at the upbringing of Guzman.

Born in the Dominican Republic in 1976, Guzman grew up in a rough-and-tumble section of Santo Domingo. In contrast to our youth, who, cynics might say, cry foul when they don't get the newest version of the Xbox come birthday time, Guzman sold bread and candles to help his mother and father make ends meet.

Guzman, 30, is one of boxing's under-the-radar gems and on the short list of potential breakout stars for 2007, and looked after three brothers and two sisters while his parents worked.

The fight for survival began early. As a 5-year-old in the Dominican, he took on peers in bare-knuckle rumbles as adults bet on their favorite fighter.

At age 8, some people at the local boxing club invited Guzman, who was no stranger to street fighting, to pop into the gym and do it with gloves on. He did, and was hooked. The alternative, he knows, likely would not have been pretty.

"It was a tough area and you had to know how to fight to get through every day," Guzman said. "My childhood was rough and I was a poor kid, so fighting was the key to survival."

Guzman (25-0, 17 KOs), who has been dubbed "Little Tyson" for his finisher's instincts and two-fisted effectiveness, was the sort of child who is more the exception than the norm here in the land of plenty.

"I was a rough kid and I remember other children's parents telling them not to go near me because I was destined to end up a criminal, a lowlife, a nothing," he said. "It was the gym that kept me out of trouble. I'd seen the street life and how it led to death, injury or jail time. All of that negative stuff kept me motivated and determined to stay out of trouble and make a success of my life."

So when you've had to negotiate the mean streets with your fists, and were forced by circumstance to help your family stay afloat financially by working as a preteen peddler, success is a strong siren.

Guzman, now a Brooklyn resident, has had his share of in-ring achievements. He won the interim WBO junior featherweight (122-pound) title with a third-round KO of Fabio Oliva in 2002. A 2004 beatdown (seventh-round TKO) on fellow Dominican Agapito Sanchez brought Guzman the real-deal WBO 122-pound title.

It appeared that Guzman might have finally stepped over management and promotional entanglements, with former fighter Merqui Sosa and promoter Frank Warren, and into the lighter-weight limelight. But adhering to the 122-pound weight limit and brittle hands have delayed his coming-out party.

The fighter now works for Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions and Sycuan Promotions, a California-based outfit known for finding rough diamonds and polishing them into showcase gems. Sycuan vice president Scott Woodworth thinks the fight with Barrios (46-2-1, 33 KOs) will clue in the fight fans who haven't seen Guzman's dazzling skills to their full effect.

"The only guy with his type of hand speed and moves is Floyd Mayweather Jr.," Woodworth said. "People who haven't seen him will be in for a treat. He's got Mayweatherish talents."

The stars, Woodworth said, are now properly aligned for Guzman to shine. The weight isn't an issue and the hands are strong. "He's just ready to break through," Woodworth says.

It is no accident Guzman has nabbed a spot on the Barrera-Juarez HBO PPV card; nothing is definite, but he'd love a go at the winner. And of course, all eyes will be trained on the Nov. 18 rubber match between Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales, a battle that could affect Guzman's next move, should he handle the rugged Barrios.

Presumably, the prospect of stepping up into higher-profile territory will not be too daunting for Guzman. He's come a long way from bare-knuckle rumbles in the Dominican. Fighting in Vegas, with a nice purse, and with gloves on, is practically child's play in comparison.

Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and the New York Observer.