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The Long Odyssey of Antwun Echols.

Who was born in Tokyo, raised in Germany and is now residing in Las Vegas? If you said Antwun Echols, you'd be wrong, but the far ranging traveler was born in Memphis, Tennessee and bounced around a number of places including Davenport, Iowa before settling down to his current Antwun Echols The Long Odyssey of Antwun Echols.

residence of sunny Dade City in the equatorial expanse of South Florida. What a long, strange trip it's been and we haven't even gotten to Echol's up and down career yet! Nonetheless, Echols, 31-5-1 (27), who faces the string bean-like African expatriate with a world-class nickname, Kingsley "Sharp Knuckle" Ikeke, on Friday night on ESPN 2's Friday Night Fights series, is a seriously good fighter. The thirty-three-year-old self-managed middleweight started his career by getting ingloriously KO'd in his debut by twenty-four bout veteran Anthony Ivory in 1993. Getting right back on the horse within two months, the heavy-handed youngster began belting out hapless Midwestern novices and journeymen in the boxing hotbed of the previously mentioned Davenport, with a successful sidebar into Ecuador and Florida before heading home again.

The first indication given that Echols wasn't your average middle American fighter came in 1996 when he traveled to Toronto and lost a close majority decision to fellow hot prospect Chris Johnson, who went on to win the NABF and WBF belts at light heavyweight before being retired by future world titlist Antonio Tarver in 2001. Further proof came when Echols again traveled to Canada, this time Montreal, where he drew with future WBC super middleweight champion Eric Lucas.

The knockouts just kept coming as Echols banged out Earl Monroe to take the USBA interim title eight months later before doing the same to Brian Barbossa to win the full USBA and NABF crowns. Three more stoppage victories occurred as the once prospect but now contender cut a wide swath through more journeymen before coming upon his first truly big fight. At 22-2-1, with every single victory coming early, Antwun Echols had arrived.

Unfortunately, the much hoped for opportunity to compete for a world title came against one of the truly all time greats of the middleweight division, the Philadelphian who will simply not be denied, Bernard Hopkins. The still current forty-year-old champion, who now holds all the serious title belts at the weight, was at the time only thirty-four, and on his tenth defense of the IBF crown when he met up with Echols. Like many before and after him, Antwun wasn't up to the task as Hopkins out-pointed the challenger by wide margins on all three judge's scorecards. Still, it was a learning loss and not a complete one-sided blowout.

Three months later, Echols got revenge, but not against Hopkins. Way back in 1993, Anthony Ivory had wrecked the start of the debutante's pro career, but now over seven years later it was Echols who was in the winner's circle as he decisioned the experienced old war-horse. Next, it was Lionel Ortiz's turn to lose as Echols stopped him in seven to defend the USBA and regain the vacant NABF belt.

Once again a showdown with Bernard Hopkins was drawn up, a year after the first fight. The rematch was a reckless, foul filled affair with transgressions and retribution coming from both men. It was as close to a street fight as you're going to see in a ring as Echols finally lost it and body slammed the champion to the canvas in round six. Hopkins dislocated a shoulder and the challenger had points taken away, but the fun wasn't over yet. An enraged Hopkins chose to continue and largely through the use of one hand, managed to drop Echols in the seventh before visiting a frightful beating on his younger opponent before the action was called to a halt in the tenth round.

Unlike the first loss to Hopkins, this was definitely a career setback, but six months later in May of 2001, Echols was back in a high-profile contest, this time facing former IBF 168-pound champion and another Philadelphian, Charles Brewer. The first round was easily the worst of Echol's career, with Brewer stunning the former middleweight, canvassing him three times. It was amazing that the fight was allowed to continue. Somehow, Echols pulled through and by round three, he had Brewer in trouble, landing huge shots of his own. After a particularly nasty blow that snapped the former champion's head back in an alarming fashion the fight was stopped. Brewer was horrified and felt that he had not been given the same opportunities, as had his opponent when Echols was on thin ice in the first.

Regardless, the decision stood and Echols moved through such opposition as Kabary Salem and Richard "The Alien" Grant to take the NABF and NABA super middleweight belts along the way. More importantly, the Grant victory was an IBF title eliminator for that organization's vacant belt and soon Echols was in his third world title fight. But it wasn't to be for the IBF belt.

Traveling to Australia for the opportunity to contend for the vacant WBA trophy, Echols had to wait out a rescheduling of the bout due to an illness that befell fellow combatant Anthony Mundine. The contest did finally go on with the American tourist being heavily favored by most members of the media. Possibly, it was the delay, maybe it was being halfway around the world or it could have just been that Mundine was a far better boxer than most people gave him credit for being. Regardless of the reasons, the high-powered punches of Echols never found the less than iron chin of the former Australian Rules Football star in the fight. Mundine won a clear-cut decision and with it, the WBA super middleweight title.

Dejected, Echols returned to the states and it was to be eight months before he climbed back through the ropes. But return he did, squaring off against wily veteran Ross Thompson in May of last year and emerging with a solidly unanimous decision victory. Most recently, Echols was in against yet another Philadelphian, this time Jameel "Black Gold" Wilson, who was stopped in the seventh with no noted controversy last December.

Which brings us finally to Friday night's clash with Kingsley Ikeke. Should the Ulysses-like Echols prevail, he'll acquire the IBF's number two ranking in the middleweight division. That outcome would raise the specter of a third fight against none other than Echol's arch-nemesis, the one and only Bernard Hopkins. Given the bad feelings that may still simmer below the surface between the two, one can only imagine the bad theatre that would result from such a pairing. Hopkins may very well consider a long rumored jump up to either super middleweight or light heavyweight rather than to enter into a third go round with the hard-hitting and unpredictable Antwun Echols.

Richard Eberline can be reached at richardeberline@fastmail.fm

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