LAS VEGAS -- Oscar De La Hoya can call himself a middleweight champion of sorts if he beats Felix Sturm on Saturday for the lightly regarded WBO version of the title.
He just better not do it in front of Bernard Hopkins.
"If you want to claim you're a champion in the middleweight division you have to beat Bernard Hopkins," Hopkins said. "You can't con people by saying you're a champion unless you do that."
De La Hoya hopes to get that chance in September in a fight against Hopkins, who has reigned as a middleweight champion through 17 title defenses. The way things stand now, De La Hoya would be an underdog in a fight for the first time in his career should the two meet.
Before that happens, though, both have to win Saturday night when De La Hoya takes on the undefeated but untested Sturm and Hopkins defends his 160-pound titles against Robert Allen.
De La Hoya wants to make history by winning titles in six different weight divisions. But Hopkins said he can't claim the middleweight title until he faces the man recognized as the real champion.
"On paper he would be the WBO champion," Hopkins said. "But it's a disservice to De La Hoya to go out and get the title and claim he is a champion."
While Sturm's crown may be suspect, there is no doubt about the legitimacy of Hopkins' reign as middleweight champion. He holds the three major titles, has defended his crown 17 times and at the age of 39 may be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game.
What he has lacked is the big paydays that De La Hoya routinely gets, as well as the attention that goes with being one of the most dominant fighters around.
He'll get the payday - at least $10 million - if he and De La Hoya meet. And a win over De La Hoya to add to his 2001 stoppage of Felix Trinidad would go a long way toward cementing his legacy.
"I must show a lot of things," Hopkins said. "One is I'm 39 years old but younger than what people think an athlete should look like at my age. Second, I need to leave no doubt that Bernard Hopkins without any debate is the best pound-for-pound fighter."
But there is little doubt of something else - De La Hoya is still the star attraction.
That showed Wednesday at the final prefight press conference, where Sturm and Allen were virtually ignored and Hopkins was brought up to speak long before De La Hoya was introduced last.
Hopkins hasn't lost since 1993, while De La Hoya lost his last fight to Shane Mosley, but you might have thought the roles were reversed.
"Oscar is the story of this event," promoter Bob Arum said.
De La Hoya also gets the easier fight of the two, meeting Sturm, who is 20-0 and holds the WBO crown but has only fought twice outside of his native Germany - both times in Hungary.
Sturm fought for Germany in the 2000 Olympics, but has never fought any name fighters and has little on his resume to get a fight with De La Hoya other than the belt he holds.
"Believe me, I was surprised when Bob Arum called up and said he wanted Felix Sturm for Oscar," Sturm's promoter, Peter Kohl said. "Oscar is his idol, that's what makes it so crazy."
Sturm will get a decent payday and some attention by fighting De La Hoya, who is moving up to 160 pounds, his sixth weight class since turning pro. Allen is a more credible opponent for Hopkins, but Hopkins has fought him twice already, stopping him in the ninth round of their last fight.
"I've got the more dangerous fight, at least by the records alone," Hopkins said. "But I've been good at making tough guys look like wussies."
Both Hopkins and De La Hoya are overwhelming favorites to win, setting up a Sept. 18 fight that will likely be the biggest middleweight title fight since Sugar Ray Leonard met Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.
"No fight is a walk in the park," De La Hoya said. "The reason why I'm doing this is because of history. I know I can do it."