NEW YORK – Antonio Tarver could feel the difference when he started sparring with the big guys. Round after round, punch after punch, he was taking a heavyweight thumping.
"Even when they don't punch, 230 pounds, they really get you," Tarver said, laughing at the kind of punishment that would make most men cringe.
The former light heavyweight champion will debut in boxing's former glamour division next weekend, when he fights Nagy Aguilera at Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Okla. It'll be the first time that Tarver steps into the ring in more than a year, when he couldn't stay with the younger and faster Chad Dawson in a loss that left him pondering retirement or a move to heavyweight.
He chose the latter, and at least a couple times during camp has regretted it.
"I'm fighting longer, harder, really feeling strong," Tarver said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday. "But man, I came out with a few bumps and bruises."
In many ways, Tarver is poking fun at himself. But he turns serious when he talks about his future, and his goal of challenging the brothers Klitshcko and their heavyweight supremacy.
Tarver had been working as a boxing analyst for Showtime, showing a natural ability to break down what's happening in the ring while looking effortless in front of a camera. But being so close to the action was intoxicating for Tarver, who beat Montell Griffin more than seven years ago to win his first 175-pound title. It wasn't long before Tarver wanted back in the game.
"That weight class has been beautiful for me, I accomplished a lot, so I'm not going to look back and say I regret anything," he said. "I did it until I could no longer do it comfortably. I had a choice to continue or retire. My choice was to do it at heavyweight.
"If I'm going to do it, do it big. I've always been a dreamer."
It's been five long years since Tarver was at the top of the boxing hierarchy, when his back-to-back victories over Glen Johnson and Roy Jones Jr. branded him the best at 175 pounds.
He lost to Bernard Hopkins in a lopsided unanimous decision, then rattled off three wins against overmatched opponents before dropping his last two fights to Dawson. In both of those matchups, Tarver lost at least nine rounds on two of three scorecards.
Tarver insists he now feels better than ever. He doesn't have to worry about cutting weight for the first time in his career, losing 20 or more pounds in just a few weeks. He can focus entirely on eating well and training, building muscle to bang with the heavyweights while working on his stamina in the hopes of wearing them down with speed in the later rounds.
He also argues that, despite turning 42 next month, he's young for his age.
The 1996 Olympic bronze medalist didn't turn pro until he was 29, and has only had 33 fights since then. He hasn't taken the same kind of punishment as many of his contemporaries, including longtime rival Jones Jr., and he's never been knocked out in a fight.
"It's a blessing I haven't been abused as a fighter. A lot get shot-worn early in their careers, and I think having a long amateur career benefited me," Tarver said. "I just feel grateful that I was able to be here with my wits, my strength and energy."
He's also grateful that he'll have a chance to challenge some of the best heavyweights in the world, assuming he gets past Aguilera next week. He realizes that most people don't think he can do it, that this is a ridiculous quest, but that's part of the challenge.
"I'm pretty sure they think I'm crazy now," Tarver said, laughing again. "If I hit these guys and all they do is laugh, I'm in trouble."