For the first time in a long time, there is plenty to look forward to in the cruiserweight division. With the heavyweight division currently in disarray, fighters are now having second thoughts about surpassing the 200 lb. weight limit in favor of heavyweight dollars. Unlike the heavyweight division, the cruiserweights have a true consensus leader to aim for in Jean-Marc Mormeck, who presently owns the WBA and WBC belts.

The third major belt – the IBF title – is currently vacant, but that will be taken care of this Friday night in Florida. While the path which led to this fight is anything but cut and dry, O’Neil “Give ‘Em Hell” Bell plans to clear things up in a hurry.

“This fight has definitely been a long time in the making, no doubt,” says Bell, who takes on “Cowboy” Dale Brown in the ESPN2 main event this week (Friday, 8PM ET, live from the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, FL). “I’ve been waiting in line for two years, but at least I know my shot is coming at the perfect time.”

The timing is key for a number of reasons. For starters, he takes on a 33-year-old Brown with over 280 fights between the amateurs and pros. Though able to avoid wear-and-tear throughout his ten year career, Dale has also shown an inability to get the job done at the top level. All three of his losses (33-3-1, 21 KOs overall) have been of the knockout variety against former and present cruiserweight champs (Vasiliy Jirov, Wayne Braithwaite and Jean-Marc Mormeck).

Brown is no walk in the park, but figures to be much less of a threat than Kelvin Davis would have posed three months ago. Bell and Davis were to square off for Kelvin’s IBF title in the co-feature to Zab Judah-Cory Spinks II in St. Louis on Showtime. Like the main event, Bell and Davis had plenty of unfinished business. The two squared off in 2003 in an IBF Cruiserweight Title Elimination Bout. Ahead on two of the three cards heading into the eleventh round, Bell took out Davis courtesy of a knockdown and a follow up barrage, prompting referee Bill Marshall to halt the bout a minute into the round.

Despite the win, all that was eliminated in the end was Bell’s mandatory ranking.

Upon further review on the heels of a protest from Davis’ camp, the IBF declared that Bell clipped Davis while on the canvas. The referee missed the call (as did many other viewers, including this reporter), so the IBF offered an alternative: sanction a rematch, with the winner to fight

Bell’s camp found the ruling to be ridiculous, and turned down the rematch, believing that they could square away matters after fighting for the title. The IBF was having none of it. The sanctioning body removed Bell from the top spot and proceeding with yet another eliminator between Davis and Louis Azille. Bell reluctantly moved on, taking out his frustrations on Derrick Harmon in a December 2003 ESPN2 telecast. A vicious eighth round knockout netted Bell the NABF title and what he believed to be a mandatory ranking with then-WBC champ Wayne Braithwaite.

But the powers that be apparently had other plans.

“I’m saying, I couldn’t catch a break. I knocked out Davis for the right to fight for the IBF title. I then knock out (Harmon) to fight for Big Truck’s title. Yet when 2004 rolls around, everyone EXCEPT me is fighting for a title. But I knew that my time would come, so I stayed busy outside the ring, and kept my mind off of boxing and its politics for a minute.”

With only one fight in 2004, Bell had plenty of spare time on his hands. Where most fighters fall out of shape and into trouble under such circumstances, Bell showed a different side than the “Give ‘Em Hell” tagline would suggest.

Hooking up with reputable sports agent Glenn Toby, Bell discovered life after and besides boxing immediately. Working his magic instantaneously, Toby hooked up O’Neil with sponsors and with his “Book Bank Foundation.” The transition from one-hitter quitter to humble spokesperson was a smooth one; for Bell it’s as simple as flipping a switch.

“All fight fans get to see of me is the violent cat that’s blasting out contenders left and right,” says Bell. “But what they’ve yet to see is the real O’Neil Bell. I save my aggression for the ring. Outside the ropes, I’m as cool and calm as can be.”

Toby attributes Bell’s attitude to upbringing, and never forgetting his roots.

“When I first met O’Neil, I saw a lot of potential with minimal work”, recalls Toby. “Most guys have potential, but there’s a lot of molding and coaching involved. But O’Neil is a natural. He doesn’t walk around town with a busload of hanger-ons. He’s not out disrespecting women and harming his body any. He was the perfect spokesman for my organization; well-mannered, articulate, and born for success.”

One of the major goals of the Book Bank Foundation is “to produce individuals that will make positive contributions towards the growth of our society and become successful law-abiding individuals.” The idea is to encourage children to read more, and to treat education as a necessity rather than a choice. Such is the way Bell conducts his life, whether it’s sharpening his business skills, or perfecting his fight game.

“The key to my success is simple; always have peace of mind. I don’t walk around looking to kill people, not even an opponent I strongly dislike. It’s easy to be humble when you’re surrounded by good humble people. Other cats walk around with large entourages and whatnot. My crew consists of Glenn, my 70-year old track coach, and my 76-year old trainer. Through each of them, I gain wisdom, as I’m able to learn and appreciate everything they’ve been through. The opportunity is golden.”

So is his future, even if it means enduring potholes and speed bumps on the way to the top.

Ending a nine-month layoff, Bell was invited to Don King’s Labor Day weekend fight card in Las Vegas last September. A second round knockout of Ezra Sellers earned him a mandatory ranking for the third time in as many fights. This time, it would stick, as Bell was finally set to rematch Davis, who had defeated Sellers four months prior to win the vacant IBF crown.

As mentioned earlier, the rematch was set for February 5, with the duo to meet in St. Louis. Once again, Davis’ camp managed to make things difficult for Bell.

Davis stunned the boxing world by filing for bankruptcy late in 2004. The move wound up costing Davis his title, as the courts determined all existing contracts were to become null and void. The ruling terminated his contract with promoter Don King. It also kayoed the bout agreement with Bell. When a new agreement was offered a few weeks before the fight, Davis was the only one unhappy with the new terms .The IBF was unhappy with Davis’ decision and elected to strip him of his title for failure to satisfy his mandatory defense.

Bell knew that his shot would eventually come, but was disappointed at what he viewed as a golden opportunity to shine.

“I can’t lie,” admits Bell, “I’d have much rather fought Davis in front of 22,000 fans on Showtime, then to be fighting for considerably less money in front of a smaller crowd on ESPN2. That part disappointed me. I can’t lie.”

What hurt more was the fact that his fans would be let down as well.

“Here’s what separates O’Neil from the rest of the pack,” explains Toby. “Under those circumstances, most fighters would grab their ball and storm off the court in a huff. O’Neil chose to stay in St. Louis, and reached out to the fans. He wanted to make sure that they were not disappointed by the sudden cancellation. Some were, but were appreciative of the fact that O’Neil elected to stay in town and carry himself as a proud champion should. It’s proof that the belt does not make the man a champion, but the man that lends credence to the belt.”

True, though holding some hardware is a key selling point in the cruiserweight division. The IBF belt would be the missing piece of the puzzle in complete unification within the weight class, which is why Bell has no reservations about returning to ESPN2.

“True, it’s not Showtime. But hey, Dale Brown has the courage to follow through on his word and fight me for the title. I want to help restore credibility in this division. People care less and less about today’s heavyweights, so the faster we can get an undisputed champion, the more power to us. Once I collect the IBF belt on Friday, I got my eye on Mormeck and his two belts.”

What about an eventual rematch with Davis?

“Let him work his way back through the ranks. That’s what he made me do, and even after I did all that, he still went ahead and avoided me. If he can work his way back to the #1 spot, then hell yeah, we can do this. Until then, he’s not on my radar.”

He may wind up back on his radar before the weekend is out. Don King just announced that Davis will be fighting this weekend on the undercard of the Lamon Brewster-Andrew Golota show in Chicago. Davis will be facing Guillermo Jones in a cruiserweight elimination bout. The winner will face … you guessed it: the winner of Bell-Brown.

Bell’s not concerned about facing Davis next. What piques his interest is how Davis wound up back with the promoter from whom he was looking to escape just three months ago.

“That why I don’t get how people could even question if he was ducking me,” exclaims Bell. “C’mon – why would someone file for bankruptcy, give up his title and a chance to avenge an earlier loss, and then return belt less to the promoter with whom he had beef in the first place? The answer: because you want to get out of a fight against someone you know you can’t beat.”

Time will tell if Bell is correct in his assessment. In the meantime, he focuses on the present.

“With Brown, I see a cat who’s beaten the rest, but falls short against the best,” suggests Bell. “He’s more of a boxer, doesn’t possess a lot of power. My plan is simply to outbox the boxer, and let the knockout come as it may. People see me as a straight power cat, but I want to prove to people just how diverse I can be. I can crack, no doubt, but I’m definitely of the boxer-puncher mode. Brown will see that, and see some things he’s never seen before.”

That’s quite a statement; Brown’s three losses have come against three of the best cruiserweights in at least the last ten years. Vasiliy Jirov stopped Brown in ten rounds on the Felix Trinidad-Oscar de la Hoya PPV undercard in 1999. Brown gave a great account of himself before succumbing to Jirov’s body attack late in the fight.

A year later, Braithwaite stopped Brown in eight rounds, a feat that Mormeck would match two years later in his first defense of the WBA title. The loss was Brown’s last, as he has rattled off five straight wins since then. At age thirty-three, Brown views this third world title shot as possibly his last, with hopes that the third time will be a charm. Bell believes he will prove only half of that statement to be true after Friday night.

“I know that Dale will be looking at this fight as a last-chance opportunity. My job is to make sure that he’s right – and also unsuccessful at the end. It’s nothing personal. I respect his game and his work ethic. But I’ve been waiting two years for my shot. I’ve worked too hard to let it end any other way. So long as he brings it, then expect some magic on May 20. It will be explosive, but it will be my time in the end.”

And a new beginning for the cruiserweight division.