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Kevin Kelley has eyes set 130-pound title

Say what you will about Kevin Kelley’s comeback, but one thing he certainly hasn’t lost is his speed.

Like the Kelley of old, the former featherweight champion of the world spoke about his life, in and out of the ring and behind the microphone, at breakneck speed Sunday, jumping from one topic to the next without the need for prompting.

It seemed a cathartic conversation for the boxer and former Flushing resident, convincing himself as much as anyone else that his bid to reclaim the title he lost more than seven years ago is not, at best, a pipe dream, but in fact, destiny.

“With wisdom came knowledge, and with knowledge came experience,” Kelley said. “The problem with experience is when you get it you’re too old to use it. I don’t think I’m too old to use it.”

At 34, Kelley’s best years are no doubt behind him, but those were some pretty remarkable years. In December 1993, Kelley won the World Boxing Council 126-pound crown via unanimous decision over Gregorio Vargas. He lost the crown three defenses later to Alejandro Gonzalez.

He later held a minor version of the featherweight championship, lost a much ballyhooed match-up with Prince Naseem Hamed and then slowly and quietly faded away from boxing, concentrating instead on his second career, that of a fight color commentator.

And while moderately successful behind the microphone — landing an occasional gig with Heavyweight Explosion and behind the mic as a featured commentator on the now defunct HBO series, KO Nation — Kelley never cemented himself into the position by officially retiring from the ring as a prize fighter.

“My main purpose is boxing,” Kelley said of his new focus. “My main purpose is to finish off what I started. I have more to offer now than I did then. Now I know exactly what I’m doing. I know what to expect from myself. I can’t wait to get back in the ring and fight.”

Kelley fought for the first time in 18 months in April, winning his comeback bid against a nondescript opponent by knockout in the opening round. A scheduled match for this month has been ruled out and Kelley has tentative plans to make the second start of his comeback on July 10 in England.

He seems supremely confident he can recapture his past success despite the fact that the last time he stepped in the ring against a world-class opponent — more than a year and a half ago vs. Erik Morales — Kelley was game as always, but completely outclasses en route to a technical knockout defeat.

“Forget the old Kevin, he’s dead,” Kelley said. “I’m a new man. I have to prove something to myself. I got a new hunger. I want to be the best.”

The reason for this rediscovered confidence is Kelley’s belief that a slight move up in weight will prolong his career. While most smaller fighters typically grow out of their first division, Kelley never did, staying at the same 126-pound limit he campaigned at while still a teenage amateur out of the 110th Precinct Police Athletic League.

Kelley’s latest bout was fought at the junior lightweight limit of 130 pounds. And while it is just a matter of four pounds, Kelley seems convinced he is stronger and more equipped at this stage of his career to fight a little heavier.

“My father says I never reached my full potential,” Kelley said. “I think that has to do with my weight. After I lost my title, it seemed like every time I got hit I went down. I think my body wasn’t as strong as it could be. I wasn’t as physically strong as I should be. When I fought at junior lightweight, it never happened.

“I have to do what’s comfortable for Kevin.”

Case in point, Kelley said, was his bout against current WBC title-holder Morales, whom Kelley battled for the interim title in 2000. Kelley claims to have dropped 11 pounds in 10 days for the fight, leaving him in a weakened condition when the bell sounded for round one.

“When I fought Morales, that was a wake-up call,” he said. “Things happen in sports. I wasn’t listening to myself. I wanted to be featherweight champion of the world again. What I created, I wanted to keep.

“It didn’t kill me. It made me stronger.”

Kelley has been widely credited with a resurgence for boxers below the lightweight limit of 135. Prior to Kelley’s talking and fighting his way into a contract with HBO, the cable network had not televised a featherweight bout in close to 20 years. Since Kelley’s debut, lighter-weight fighters have found a home on the cable station as regularly as the heavyweights.

Soon after losing to Morales, Kelley’s marriage, which yielded the fighter five children, broke up. Not long after, his work as a commentator began to dry up, leaving the boxer with only a few alternatives if he wanted to continue to make a living in the Sweet Science.

“You are who you are,” Kelley said. “I’m a fighter. Hearing all the stuff the last few years, it’s like boxing forgot about me. It makes you very, very vengeful. I’m back with a great deal of vengeance. I don’t think there’s any 130-pound fighter can touch me.”

But with age, Kelley said he realizes he has to augment his style. While still primarily a boxer who relies on his hand and foot speed, he said he can’t afford to keep taking punches, something that became all too common in the latter years of his career.

Any missteps at this point could spell disaster for Kelley, who still has his eyes on commentating after his boxing career is done.

“Every fight at this point in my career is big,” he said. “My whole goal is to fight for the world title and get a commentating contract.”

But can Kelley rise to the top again? Is there enough gas left in the tank?

“I know it’s there,” he added. “I’m looking for opportunities to show that. I’m not going to get into the ring for low money. Now it’s pay Kevin for what he’s done. People think I’ve been sleeping, but I’ve been honing my skills. Hopefully, I will have a title belt around my waist.

“I can’t push it if it’s not there. If it’s not there I’d have to quit. It’s perfect timing. I feel right now is perfect. I know I’ll be champion again. I’m going to dominate the 130-pound division.”

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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