Originally created 08/27/99

Forrest overlooked by bigger names



He's called Boxing's Most Avoided Fighter, spotless in record yet squeezed from championship contention.

More than one boxing analyst considers a fight with Augusta's Vernon Forrest too much of the "high risk, low reward" caliber for any of the elite welterweights to consider.

Yet so confident is Forrest in his ring acumen that he's willing to put his career on the line for a fight against Oscar De La Hoya.

Or Felix Trinidad.

Or Ike Quartey.

Or Shane Mosely.

Or anyone else in the 147-pound weight class that won't agree to challenge him.

"We'll put a big stack of money on the table and make it a winner-take-all match," Forrest said this week. "The winner gets all the millions, the loser has to retire. Then let's see then who's got what it takes.

"All that high-risk, low-return junk, that's hogwash."

The undefeated Augustan (29-0, 24 KOs), who now trains in Atlanta, makes his prodigal return with a nationally televised ESPN2 fight against Santiago Samaniego at 9 tonight. Forrest is headlining a seven-fight card at the Bell Auditorium, but he's miles away from where he'd like to be.

Forrest would like a title shot against WBC champion De La Hoya, or against IBF champion Trinidad, or against WBA champion James Page. De La Hoya faces Trinidad Sept. 17 in Las Vegas, and it seems that none of the three title holders want to answer Forrest's inquiries.

"I've been on their level for the last three or four years," said Forrest, who has knocked out his last six opponents. "It just so happens that I haven't gotten the same opportunity. My people (Main Events Inc.) offered $8.5 million to De La Hoya, and he turned us down. Sometimes I wonder if I've being blackballed in this game."

Lou Duva, Forrest's manager, will take his 28-year-old fighter to Las Vegas for the De La Hoya-Trinidad unification bout. It'll be more for show, as Duva realizes how important Forrest's mere presence will be.

"We have to get up and push these guys," Duva said. "We've got to make them see that we're not going to go away. It's not about economics with Vernon, it's about these guys don't want to get beat. They know all about Vernon. That's why they run. But he deserves the opportunity. He deserves to fight for a title."

Just take a look at the list of Forrest's no-name resume.

Of his 29 fights, none have come against anyone ranked in the division's top 10. And in eight years as a professional, he's contended for belts from the North American Boxing Federation title, which he currently holds, the International Boxing Council, and something called the Continental Americas championship.

He's dominated the fly-by-night, alphabet soup organizations without getting a chance at a battlefield promotion.

At 6-feet tall with a 34-inch reach, Forrest presents a dangerous puncher, one who'll have the physical advantage over most of the welterweight class. Thomas Hearns with a chin, his trainers say. But it's what also makes him "high risk."

It took Forrest 90 seconds to demolish Steven Martinez in April, the first time in Martinez's 40-fight career he'd been knocked out.

"He's almost too good for his class," Duva said. "That's why no one above him wants to fight."

The "low return" angle comes from not being entrenched in the public's conscience. While he's been on USA's Tuesday Night Fights and ESPN2's Friday Night Fights, he's yet to be shown on HBO's Boxing After Dark and hasn't been a pay-per-view main event.

"Vernon's problem is that not enough people know him at the gas station," said ESPN's Friday Night Fights boxing host Brian Kenny.

"You mention Oscar's name, people recognize it. They understand who you're talking about. You ask the common sports fan who Vernon Forrest is, and they'll probably give you a look. The upper-echelon guys have no reason in the world to fight him."

Forrest is caught in the classic Catch-22. His opponents claim he's too good to fight him, then use the excuse that his name's not big enough because he's yet to get a marquee draw.

Samaniego is 27-4-1 with 23 knockouts, though he can't be found among the world's top 20. His claim to fame is being Roberto Duran's nephew.

"Of all the things that have stagnated my career is that I've fought a lot of fights on big undercards, and none of my fights have been on TV," the Richmond Academy alumnus said. "I used to get very frustrated early on. But that's just negative vibes and I'm trying to stay away from negative vibes.

"I'm not as young as I used to be. Time's gone by real fast. I've been having tunnel vision for so long that I've forgot what I've passed. Seven years have gone by and I haven't had an opportunity."

His handlers are hoping the angle of getting ducked for so long can be turned into an advantage. Main Events is pushing HBO to include Forrest on a January 2000 card.

And getting ink from New York fight insider Max Kellerman helps too. Kellerman, Friday Night Fights co-host, described Forrest by saying "he'll decapitate whoever they put in front of him. Only the elite of the welterweight division can compete with this guy. Who exactly comprises the elite? Let's take names: Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Ike Quartey and ... Shane Mosley.

"James Page holds the WBA belt, but Don King knows better than to put his guy in with a killer like Forrest. (Forrest) is not too far from 30 years of age. The clock is ticking on his prime, and it would be a shame if we never got to find out just how good that prime could have been had his contemporaries not ducked him."

Forrest is contemplating a move up in weight class, to contend for the junior middleweight crowns.

"I want to win a world title in the welterweight division before I move up," he said. "I want to bring some hardware to the table so that when I do move up, I don't have to start over and have to go through the same thing of guys ducking me again."

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.