Even with a sparkling record in 2002, Kali Meehan still felt as if he was going nowhere as a professional boxer.
"That was the fall of 2002. I wasn't getting any breaks in boxing. I was working two jobs -- security at night and a [garbage man] in the daytime -- and I've got three kids," said the 6-foot-5, 236-pound fighter from Australia. "People were offering everything, but I was getting nothing. I was sick of all the rubbish. So I walked away."
The former rugby player spent the next year or so as a hired hand. He sparred with World Boxing Association champion John Ruiz during Ruiz's preparation for his December 2003 victory over Baltimore native Hasim Rahman.
Meehan, 34, later sparred with contender Lamon Brewster before Brewster's April 10 upset of World Boxing Organization champ Wladimir Klitschko.
But in doing so, Meehan, nicknamed "Checkmate" for his boxing ability, unknowingly set himself up for two of the biggest nights of his career.
Meehan (29-2, 23 knockouts) will meet ex-champ Rahman (39-5-1, 32 KOs) on Saturday night at New York's Madison Square Garden in a 10-rounder. The winner could earn a title shot against Brewster, who defeated Klitschko by fifth-round knockout, or Saturday night's Ruiz-Andrew Golota winner.
Meehan's "chance of a lifetime" comes after Ruiz's manager, Norman Stone, asked promoter Don King to sign Meehan, which he did. In Meehan's second comeback fight after an 18-month ring absence, Meehan lost a disputed 12-round decision to Brewster on Sept. 4.
Meehan's showing against Brewster earned him a chance to face Rahman, 31.
"This will be my hardest fight: He's the former undisputed heavyweight champion, and I'm the underdog," said Meehan, who returned to the ring with a sixth-round knockout of Damon Reed on the Brewster-Klitschko undercard. "I've not fought the guys Rahman's fought. I've not knocked out Lennox Lewis. But I've studied Rahman's style. I'm planning on winning."
Meehan's wife, Rowena, and three sons, Louis, 10, Willis, 9, and Isaac, 4, watched from ringside as he stood toe-to-toe with Brewster. On occasion, Meehan was wobbled by the champ's left hook. But it was Meehan who had Brewster sagging on the ropes in the eighth round. He pummeled Brewster to the head and body. Eventually, he broke Brewster's jaw.
"We received the opportunity to fight for the title sooner than we thought. We felt we won the fight. We got robbed," said Meehan's trainer, Mark Janssen, who retired from boxing in 1997 with a middleweight record of 23-0. "[Meehan] has sparred over 200 rounds with the likes of Lamon Brewster and other great heavyweights."
Janssen said Meehan's fight with Rahman will be easier than the one with Brewster.
"We were just 70 percent for that [Brewster] fight, and we should be 90 percent for this fight," Janssen said. "Brewster was a tougher style for Kali, who is a very good fighter and will prove that off what he does to Rahman. Rahman doesn't handle distance well."
Back in Australia, Meehan said, "I was the big fish in the small pond. When I hit someone hard in training, they wouldn't come back. But at this level, you hit someone hard, they hit you back hard."
Meehan is frank about the lone blemish on his record, a 32-second knockout loss in June 2001 to Danny Williams.
"I came out and threw some punches at him, and I thought, `He is so easy to hit.' I had my hands down and he hit me with a good shot," Meehan said. "When I went down, I jumped to my feet in a second and he got me again. I went down and got back up and the referee stopped the fight. I have no excuse."
Yesterday, Meehan said he wants Rahman to throw his right hand.
"If someone has a big right hand, I want to go into the ring making him throw the right hand right away," Meehan said. "As soon as he throws it, I can react to it quicker. I can get ready to react. It's an opportunity for me to feel the guy out."
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
TV: Pay-per-view, 9 p.m.
John Ruiz (40-5-1, 28 KOs), Chelsea, Mass., vs. Andrew Golota (38-4-1, 31 KOs), Chicago, for Ruiz's World Boxing Association crown.
Chris Byrd (37-2-1, 20 KOs), Flint, Mich., vs. Jameel McCline (31-3-3, 19 KOs), Port Jefferson, N.Y., for Byrd's International Boxing Federation crown.
Hasim Rahman (39-5-1, 32 KOs), Baltimore, vs. Kali Meehan (29-2, 23 KOs), Australia.
Evander Holyfield (38-7-2, 25 KOs), Atlanta, vs. Larry Donald (41-3-2, 24 KOs), Cincinnati.