With boxing titles greatly devalued these days by proliferating sanctioning bodies, aspiring to become the United States Boxing Association junior-middleweight champion might seem a trivial pursuit.
But don't try selling that notion to Baltimore's Vincent Pettway, who battles Gilbert Baptist, of San Diego, for the vacant USBA crown at the Pikesville Armory tonight.
"To me, this belt means everything," said Pettway, ranked fourth in the world by the International Boxing Federation. "If I win it, the door is wide-open for a world title fight with Gianfranco Rosi.
"I don't even think about losing. All I'm envisioning is putting the championship belt around my waist, then flying to Italy to challenge Rosi."
It is no pipe dream. Rosi has a mandatory defense in April against top-ranked Gilbert Dele, of France. But according to IBF rating chairman Doug Beavers, Pettway (34-4, 27 KOs) could be next on Rosi's dance card. The Italian champion has beaten Baptist, ranked No. 5, and Glenn Wolfe, of Miami, who is rated second. Wolfe has elected to move up to the middleweight class to challenge IBF champion James Toney.
This is not the first time Pettway, 25, has flirted with a championship, and another wasted opportunity could be his last.
He was in perfect position to challenge for the welterweight crown three years ago after out-pointing Luis Santana in Baltimore. Three months later, however, Pettway was stopped in four rounds by Augustine Caballero, an obscure left-hander who had fought under several aliases. That loss was ultimately wiped from the record book when Caballero tested positive in a post-fight drug test.
Pettway, who doubles as a model and recreation supervisor for a local clothing chain, was back in the rankings in April 1990 when he was stopped in the 10th round by Victor Davis in Philadelphia. It was an even match going into the ninth round when Pettway suffered a severe eye gash that prompted the ring physician to end the match.
He stumbled again in Nov. 1990 when he was knocked out in six rounds by Stephan Johnson, of New York, in a nationally televised bout.
"I've heard it all before," Pettway said. " 'You'll get your chance if you beat this or that guy.' But I should have had my title shot after beating Santana. The Caballero fight really wasn't necessary."
Having trouble making the 147-pound welterweight limit, Pettway graduated last year to the junior-middleweight class and has won three straight bouts over unranked rivals, including a fifth-round knockout of Baltimore rival Eddie Van Kirk last April.
"I feel a lot stronger fighting at 154," said Pettway. "I don't have to worry so much now about what I eat.
"I watch tapes of my recent fights, and I can see that my hand speed has increased, even with the added weight, and I have to believe I'm punching harder."
Pettway has also studied Baptist (23-12) on film and did not see anything of a frightening nature. In fact, he stopped watching Baptist's 1990 match against Collins after only two rounds of the 10-rounder in which Baptist earned the decision.
"I don't think Vincent wanted to get overconfident," said Mack Lewis, his veteran manager-trainer.
"No, that's not it," said Pettway. "Collins is a southpaw, and Baptist probably had to make a lot of adjustments. You don't get a true picture of how he normally fights. But Baptist's style reminds me of Van Kirk. He's awkward, tries to bull his way inside and tempt you in a slugfest."
Almost all of Baptist's 35 pro fights have been in his adopted state of California. He must fight Pettway before what promises to be a highly partisan crowd.
"I don't see it that way," Pettway said. "Fighting before friends and family puts more pressure on me. I can't try to please anyone. I just have to keep cool, take care of business and win the belt."
NOTES: Van Kirk (23-6), who meets Jose Torres (11-5) of Hartford, Conn., in an eight-round semifinal, is in line for a WBO welterweight title shot against Donovan Boucher of Canada. No date has been set.
Facts and figures
Who: Vincent Pettway (34-4, 27 KOs), Baltimore, vs. Gilbert Baptist (23-12, 8 KOs), San Diego
What: For vacant USBA junior-middleweight title, 12 rounds
Where: Pikesville Armory
When: First preliminary bout starts at 7:30 p.m.
Radio: WITH (1230 AM), 9 p.m.
Promoter: Stuart Satosky
Semifinal: Les Johnson (14-1), Rockville, vs. William Galliwango (15-1), Richmond, Va., middleweights, eight rounds
Tickets: $40 ringside, $30 reserved, $25 general admission