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Caught at the crossroads
Former champ Linares and five-time title challenger Juarez in must-win situation

Story & photos by Chris Cozzone

A failed five-time world title challenger coming off two straight losses matched up against a former two-time champ proclaimed to be worth his weight in gold – that is, until he was KO’d in one last year – might not top the list of the year’s most important matches.

But it just might make a damn good fight.

That is, if one guy can break a slump and a tendency to throw away the first half of a fight; and the other pug, put behind him, a devastating kayo loss and a bad showing in his comeback.

Desperate measures have backed Venezuela’s Jorge “El Nino de Oro” Linares and Houston’s Rocky Juarez into opposing corners, creating a must-win scenario that has the potential to steal the night on July 31’s HBO PPV-televised Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz II card. Linares, 28-1, 18 KOs, and Juarez, 28-6-1, 20 KOs, will go ten rounds at lightweight.

“This isn’t my first crossroads fight,” admits Juarez – and it’s no exaggeration. After five world title attempts, great showings then lackluster follow-ups, to many, it seems like every other fight is a crossroads match for Juarez.

“Rocky Juarez is not done," says Juarez. "I’m still in the game. I’m a young, ‘old’ veteran who’s still fighting, still hungry, and still trying to achieve a lifelong goal of becoming a world champion.

“Jorge Linares is a good opponent to get me back to a world title shot.”

“Another” world title shot may emit groans from most boxing fans who remember Juarez’s losses to Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, Chris John and, most recently, his surprise upset at the hands of Jason Litzau, who was on the verge of getting KO'd. On the other hand, many will not soon forget Juarez’s best performances – his initial fight with Barrera, a TKO over Jorge Barrios, and a draw with John, the first time they tangled.

“I still have much to prove – to myself and to my critics,” says Juarez. “The one thing I’ve doubted is that I’ll be given another opportunity at a world title. I’ve been very fortunate for the opportunities I’ve been given and to fight the best out there. But I’ve never once doubted my will, or that I won’t become world champ.”

What has doubted, or haunted, Juarez, is his inability to start early.

“It’s something I have to break,” he admits, hoping to use Linares as an example on the 31st.

Having faced the likes of Barrera, Marquez and John, Juarez says he’s not worried about Linares’ style. Linares, on the other hand, has little problem admitting that Juarez is the toughest fighter he’s yet faced.

“He’s never been stopped, not even close to being stopped,” says Linares. “But that’s what we’ve prepared for in camp – to go the full distance. We expect a distance fight.”

It will be Linares’ second fight in Las Vegas. In 2007, Linares debuted in the U.S. when he stopped aging champ Oscar Larios in ten rounds. Following Larios, Linares breezed through his next three fights – until he was signed to defend his WBA super featherweight belt against Juan Carlos Salgado in Tokyo, Japan.

Having just inked a deal with Golden Boy Promotions, Linares was heralded as the next golden child – until Salgado made him look more like fool's gold, rudely crushing him in a minute, 13 seconds.

“It was definitely devastating,” says Linares. “The loss came at a moment when I did not expect it. I had a lot of problems going into the fight, but looking back, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. It forced me to improve.”

An improved fighter, however, is not how Linares looked in his comeback fight, when he struggled to beat journeyman Francisco Lorenzo by majority decision in Venezuela, five months after his loss.

“With Lorenzo, it was a combination of things,” says Linares. “He brought a different style and there was a problem with the ring. I wasn’t the only one who was slipping a lot all night – the paint hadn’t sealed on the logos on the canvas. Then, in the sixth round, the knockout presented itself and the referee did not stop the fight.

“That will not happen in Las Vegas. There will be no ring problems and there have been no obstacles in training camp.”

Lorenzo says he would take the Salgado rematch - "in a heartbeat" - but that there would have to be something at stake, like a world title.

That's what he's hoping to get a shot at, with a win over Juarez.

"This fight with Juarez will put me back in the title picture," says Linares. "It is definitely a huge a responsibility. The winner can move on to bigger, better things.”

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