Joel Casamayor may not be the best 135-pound boxer in the world, but if you believe in fairness, honor and ethics, you must regard him as the lightweight champion.
The wily Cuban tough guy is 36 years old and will make his 2007 debut on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York when he takes on Jose Armando Santa Cruz in a 12-round lightweight bout on the undercard of the Miguel Cotto-Shane Mosley fight.
Had it been up to Casamayor, he'd have already had at least one, if not two, unification bouts this year.
"And isn't that what everyone in boxing is saying they want?" his trainer, Joe Goossen, asks plaintively.
Casamayor began the year holding the WBC's lightweight championship, a title he won on Oct. 7, 2006, when he decisioned the late Diego Corrales in Las Vegas.
But Casamayor suddenly was stripped by the WBC and doesn't appear in its February ratings. It lists him as unavailable to defend his belt.
His "unavailability" was simply the result of his management looking to unify titles and holding talks with representatives of then-WBO champion Acelino Freitas.
So Casamayor was stripped as champion and summarily dumped from the ratings, replaced by David Diaz, who had been its interim champion.
Casamayor's mistake was trying to fight the best competition he could find instead of seeking a bout against the washed-up favorite of WBC boss Jose Sulaiman, Erik Morales.
The once-great Morales was clearly at the end of the line when he was knocked out in January in just three rounds by Manny Pacquiao in a super featherweight bout.
But because Morales couldn't accept what was obvious to everyone else – he stil wants to fight, even after losing again in August – the ever-devious Sulaiman kept a door open for him.
By handing the title to Diaz, Sulaiman left open the possibility for Morales to return with the easiest possible shot at winning the lightweight title and becoming the first Mexican-born fighter to win world titles in four weight classes.
"They stripped (Casamayor) without ever holding a purse bid," Casamayor's manager, Luis DeCubas, Jr. said. "When have you ever heard of that? The real reason was clearly that they wanted to make an opening for Erik Morales."
In May, Casamayor, without having fought, suddenly was named the WBC's interim lightweight champion, even though the title was filled and Diaz was heading for a summer title defense against Morales.
The purpose of an interim champion is to not lock up the championship when the title-holder is unable to compete due to injury or illness. An interim belt doesn't deprive others of paydays and keeps the championship belt up for grabs.
When the regular champion is ready to return, procedure is for the champion and interim champion to meet to create one belt holder.
But the WBC, seeing the opportunity to get two champions to pay sanction fees, is rolling merrily along with two lightweight title-holders, though it's clear there's only one champion.
Not surprisingly, Casamayor, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist who defected to the U.S. after the Games in Atlanta, quickly grew tired of the drama and yearned to get back into the ring.
One reason that the sanctioning bodies are able to continually pull such stunts is because many in the sport feel that shenanigans are inevitable and it's useless to resist.
Casamayor, clearly, is one of them.
"I need to be fighting and not worrying about all the (expletive) that goes on," said Casamayor, who is 34-3-1 with 21 knockouts.
His only losses were to Freitas in a hotly disputed 2001 decision, and to Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo in 2004.
"To be honest with you, I still don't think anyone's beaten me cleanly," Casamayor said.
He'll be reunited on Saturday with Goossen, with whom he began his career, for the first time in four years. Goossen guided Casamayor to an Oct. 4, 2003, victory over Corrales in Las Vegas, then switched sides for the rematch.
But it wasn't like Goossen lost his affinity for Casamayor.
"This is the honest to God's truth, but whenever and wherever I saw Joel Casamayor after we split, there wasn't one time when we saw each other that he didn't run up to me, jump into my arms and give me a big hug," Goossen said. "We would laugh and compliment each other, even when I was working for Diego and he was fighting Diego.
"I love Joel Casamayor. There are only a handful of people in this business you meet who are truly your friends and there are even fewer who do what he did, which was be loyal, be honest and give you everything he has to give."
The pair split because Casamayor's management team had bought a new training facility in Northern California, but Goossen didn't want to abandon his gym and his family in California's San Fernando Valley.
The first fight in which they were on opposite sides came in the rematch with Corrales.
Casamayor, who has long been one of the true tough guys in the sport, said it was difficult to look across the ring and see his buddy preparing Corrales to defeat him.
"We had been through so much and I was always used to him being with me and working for me and then I would sit there and see him going the other way," Casamayor said. "That took some getting used to."
When Casamayor rehired Goossen earlier this year – and agreed to work with him in the Valley – Goossen was concerned about the changes he'd see in his protégé.
Goossen soon found his fears were misguided. Casamayor returned and was instantly at the same point he'd been when they split four years earlier.
"The guy hasn't fought in 13 months and I can honestly tell you, I haven't ever seen a guy recoup his skills quicker than Joel Casamayor has in this camp," Goossen said. "And we just picked up like we never were apart. It's been incredible. We had three young kids in the gym working with him who were in awe of him by the end of the camp."
Casamayor says the requisite things about Santa Cruz being a difficult opponent, but his thoughts clearly are to the division's bigger names. The one at the top is Juan Diaz, who got that unification bout against Freitas that the WBC prevented Casamayor from taking. Diaz stopped Freitas to become the WBA-WBO champion, then last month added the IBF belt when he stopped Julio Diaz.
"Juan Diaz does a lot of good things, but he hasn't faced a real man like me," Casamayor said defiantly. "If we fight, he'll see a real man, a real champion."
And if that fight ever occurs, even though Diaz will bring in the WBA, WBO and IBF belts, and even though he'll be regarded as one of the elite fighters in the world and the top in the division, it will be Casamayor who will enter as the legitimate lightweight champion.
Even if the WBC will choose to ignore the facts.
- More: For 24/7 boxing coverage, check out Cotto sour before bout with Sugar Shane.