The boxing scene in the Augusta region is as vibrant as ever.
One world champion hails from Aiken. Another fought for a new title late Saturday night. One contender is waiting for his shot.
"A lot of these things I take for granted, but I can easily see a non-boxing person looking at the newspaper or turning on the TV and thinking, 'Man, Augusta's got it going on!'" said Tom Moraetes, owner of the Augusta Boxing Club. "It's kind of like when it rains it pours. Hopefully the rain will keep coming for awhile."
Whether the rain keeps coming to Augusta or not might depend on the events taking place at the Bell Auditorium on Wednesday night. In some ways it will be a celebration of the area's boxing. In another it might be a referendum on the area's boxing future.
NABO flyweight champion Ray Whitfield of Augusta will attract ESPN2's cameras to his hometown for the second time to see his 8-round fight at 115 pounds against Colombia's Jair Jimenez. Invited to attend and walk Whitfield into the ring for the fight is Paul "The Punisher" Williams, still fresh off his WBO welterweight title win over Antonio Margarito.
If these were the only CSRA story lines for the fight night, that might be enough. But on the undercard is perhaps the area's greatest ever boxer trying to fulfill a personal dream on his path to redemption.
Bennie Heard - considered a sure-thing boxing superstar 25 years ago before spending 20 years in jail for the shooting of his best friend - will finally step into the ring as a pro in front of an Augusta crowd. Heard is 47 and fighting another Augusta-bred boxer named Stacey Williams.
"Benny has been dreaming about this moment for 20 years," said Moraetes, who let Heard live with him when he trained him as an amateur in the 80s. "Ever since he got out of prison he's told me, 'Tom I want to come back to Augusta.' This is a homecoming for him, big time."
In the ring, nothing significant is on the line except Whitfield's undefeated pro record and the pride of Heard. It's outside the ring where this night matters. This is the night for Augusta to prove it cares enough about boxing to keep it coming back.
"If Augusta doesn't come out to support this fight, it ain't going to happen again," Moraetes said. "The fight's only here because Ray wants the fight here. But if Augusta doesn't come out, it won't come back."
Whitfield and his promoters won't be the only interested parties. Williams and his trainer George Peterson will have their eyes on the public's interest as well.
"I'm going to possibly request Paul's next outing be done in Augusta," said Peterson, adding Aiken's new arena as another venue to explore. "He needs to have a home fight. We need to let people know that we're here and we're thinking of these people who can't get away to go out to California or New York but would love to see the guys."
That's what Williams wants as well. The new world champ has been warmly received since coming home with the WBO title, and that's something he'd like to carry into the ring as well.
"Every time I fight it's been in somebody else's backyard," Williams said. "I would love to come back home with a fight and get the hometown support instead of getting booed and stuff. I want to get that feeling."
Whitfield appreciates that. He brought ESPN2 to the James Brown Arena last spring for an event that was sparsely attended. The people who mattered were there for him.
"I travel a lot and fight on the road a lot, so my family and everybody can't come," Whitfield said.
"When I'm at home fighting in front of my hometown people and fans, I get a little bit more energy. It's a real exciting time to be a boxer from Augusta and to bring my fight to Augusta and to be on ESPN is really exciting."
Whitfield's last victory in April was on the road. His unanimous decision over Carlos Tamara in what Moraetes described as "a war" was a breakthrough for him in more ways that just earning his first belt - the vacant NABO 112-pound title. It was the first time Whitfield went 12 rounds and proved he could withstand it.
Whitfield just wishes a thunderstorm hadn't forced the fight indoors at the last minute and prevented it from being broadcast on ESPN as scheduled.
"I wish the world would have seen that fight because it was a really tough fight," Whitfield said. "A fighter never knows if he can go 12 rounds until he do. I went 12 rounds full speed and the guy I was fighting came to win and gave me all I could take."
Now Whitfield comes home again, fighting to keep the rust off until the right shot for the WBO flyweight title he covets is available.
"When I get the right fight for the right money, I'll take that title fight," Whitfield said. "It could be any day now. I feel like I'm ready."
Williams is ready and waiting, too. He called out fellow welterweight title holders Miguel Cotto or Floyd Mayweather Jr. next, but the likelihood of those major matchups happening are slim. After beating Margarito, Williams now takes the mantel of being the division's most feared boxer, with stars unwilling to align against him.
"They all are going to avoid us, no doubt about that," Peterson said. "To fight one of those big elite guys, it may take one or two years."
It's not out of the question that Williams could step up one weight class and possibly take on another Augusta product, Vernon Forrest, who fought Carlos Baldomir on Saturday night for the vacant super welterweight title.
"That may be something we have to entertain because we may have to step up in weight class," Peterson said.
"If the money's right and Mr. Peterson sees there's a need for us to move up and make that decision, of course I'd love to get it on with him," Williams said of Forrest.
Imagine that clash of titans in Augusta or Aiken. Now imagine that potential gone because a couple of thousand people couldn't be bothered to spend $15 on Wednesday night.
At stake isn't the boxing scene, but the boxing seen in Augusta.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TACOMA, WASHINGTON -- Augusta native Vernon Forrest won the WBC light-middleweight title in a unanimous decision over Argentinian Carlos Baldomir at the Emerald Queen Casino on Saturday night.
- Rayonta Whitfield (17-0, 8 KOs) vs. Jair Jimenez (22-7, 15 KOs)
- Antonio Davis (23-3, 11 KOs) vs. Leon Bobo (16-0, 2 KO)
- Charles Ellis (3-0, 3 KOs) vs. Tim Grant (2-2, 2 KOs)
- Bennie Heard (4-0, 3 KOs) vs. Stacey Williams (1-12, 1 KO)
- Ira Terry (15-0, 10 KOs) vs. TBD
Where: Bell Auditorium
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: Available at the James Brown Arena box office and Ticketmaster locations or by calling (706) 828-7700. Prices are $15 to $40.