He's 6-feet tall now, with a 72 1/2 -inch reach, but when Vernon Forrest steps into the HBO spotlight Saturday night, all his first boxing coach will see is "Shorty."
"He was the tiniest little thing," Tom Moraetes says of the first time the 8-year-old Forrest drifted into the Chafee Park Gym on Broad Street and beat on the heavy bag. "But Vernon was a winner from day one."
"Shorty" is all grown up now, fighting for a more significant portion of the world welterweight boxing title against the "pound-for-pound" champion "Sugar" Shane Mosley. The fight will headline HBO's boxing show at 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
"This is a legit super fight, along the lines of Hearns and Leonard," says Moraetes, the longtime director of the Augusta Boxing Club who has been estranged from his former student for more than a decade. "It's two unbeaten world champions in their prime."
Forrest and Mosley enter the ring undefeated as pros. But Mosley has been beaten before - by Forrest - in the 1992 Olympic Trials. Hence the marquee billing of "Sugar" seeking "REVENGE!"
Mosley swears his motivation is personal.
"I usually don't make a prediction, but I am going for a KO against Vernon," Mosley said in a recent Internet chat, adding that he thinks Forrest's talents were better in 1992 than now. "If I fight my fight, I'm going to knock Vernon out."
Though nobody considers Forrest, with his sizable reach advantage and slugger's might, to be a pushover, most boxing experts believe the 2002 version of "Sugar Shane" will prove too sweet for Vernon to handle.
Not Moraetes. He might not talk to Forrest, but he still talks him up.
"I think Vernon will 'shock the world,"' Moraetes says in his best Ali fashion. "My take is Vernon always rises to the level of his competition. He's done it his whole career. He's not real flashy, but he just gets the job done when he needs to."
That was evident the first time Forrest stepped into the ring as a hyperactive toughie from Augusta. Moraetes matched him up with a state champion three years older.
"Vernon beat him up," he says.
Moraetes was always overmatching Forrest, and the young talent never backed down. "More often than not, he won," Moraetes said.
Forrest won in the 1992 Olympic Trials when he outpointed Mosley 24-15 despite being the underdog even then. It's a blemish that Mosley hopes to rectify.
But that revenge quest gives Forrest his best chance to become one of boxing's featured attractions. He grudgingly vacated his IBF title so he could pursue this matchup.
"Vernon is not well known outside boxing circles," Moraetes said. "This will change that. This is a career-making fight."
The funny thing is, Mosley is looking for the same boost. Even beating Oscar de la Hoya didn't give Mosley the same de la Hoya star shine. This title defense didn't warrant pay-per-view or even the main arena at Madison Square Garden.
"It will be completely thrown to the wayside when he loses to Vernon - again," Moraetes said.
Just as in 1992, when professional disagreement had already torn Moraetes and Forrest apart, the old coach will be watching. This time, from his own living room instead of the Olympic ring.
"I remember him walking into the Olympic arena, and I was teary-eyed because I still saw him as 'Shorty,"' Moraetes said. "I can see that being the same this time. I'm not going to see him as an Olympian or world champion. I'll always see him as 'Shorty."'
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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