LOS ANGELES – An intriguing matchup between boxing’s royalty Marco Antonio Barrera and the young aspiring Rocky Juarez takes place on Saturday at the Staples Center, and pits the master fighter versus the hungry lion.

Barrera, the WBC junior lightweight titleholder, has morphed from a brawling take-no-prisoners type of fighter with knockouts galore into a boxer-puncher who looks for a weakness then exploits it like a surgeon with a scalpel.

Now the Mexico City fighter known as the “Baby-Faced Assassin” faces a real baby in terms of boxing when he meets Juarez, 26, in a scheduled 12-round bout. The fight card is promoted by Golden Boy Promotions and Main Events and televised by HBO.

“Marco Antonio Barrera is one of my favorite fighters,” said Juarez (25-1, 18 KOs) while in Los Angeles. “I’ve watched all of his fights with Erik Morales.”

But after 18 years of facing every type of fighter across the ring, will this be the bout that shows Barrera’s age?

“I know Rocky Juarez is a young hungry fighter,” Barrera (61-4, 42 KOs) said. “I’ve been there.”

Hunger keeps a fighter on edge and keeps him running those extra miles and sparring the extra round when the muscles burn for rest. Juarez has that hunger.

“It’s hard to get up for every fight,” said Juarez whose only loss came against a little-known fighter Humberto Soto. “I’m fighting one of the best fighters in the world in Barrera. I have to get up for this fight.”

After years of trying to get a world title fight including cancellations, Juarez was set to meet Korea’s Injin Chi last August for the WBC featherweight title, but that fighter was injured. In his place Mexico’s Soto was inserted. He was a completely different kind of fighter than Chi.

“It was a tough fight,” Juarez confessed. “I trained for another fighter but I felt I could still do it. I just wanted to fight.”

The fight against Soto proved that Juarez could have a bad day. When the scores were read it was close but the Houston native had suffered his first and only loss.

“He was tough,” Juarez said, who was a silver medal winner in the 2000 Olympics in Australia.

Barrera has his own weaknesses but they’re much harder to exploit. That’s why many fellow boxers call him one of the masters of the profession.

“He’s one of the greatest boxers in history,” said Oscar De La Hoya, who is a partner with Barrera in Golden Boy Promotions.

Toe-to-toe

In the beginning Barrera entered the ring with a lust for knockouts and toe-to-toe action. He was more eager to see his opponent bludgeoned to the floor than score a victory by decision. Most Southern California fight fans remember his many bouts at the Inglewood Forum where he became a fan favorite. The bout against Kennedy McKinney on Feb. 3, 1996 is called one of the greatest in history and led to much acclaim. But later that year he ran into the right hand of Junior Jones and was stopped cold for the first time in his career. Another match with Jones a year later resulted in a close loss, but still a loss.

Barrera changed gears slowly

Against Pastor Maurin in 1999 he used more boxing technique than muscle. The people booed.

Then, after years negotiating, Tijuana’s Erik “El Terrible” Morales signed to meet Barrera at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Feb. 19, 2000. History was made.

Morales and Barrera engaged in one of the most brutal yet beautiful battles the boxing world had witnessed in years. Round after round the two Mexican warriors took turns blasting each other at a level of boxing seldom seen. In the end Morales was given the nod as the victor. But Barrera had exorcised the demons of his losses to Jones and had won the hearts of boxing fans for his ferocity in the ring.

The following year a British warrior with a large following and knockouts in his fists came calling. His name was Naseem Hamed.

Barrera had sought a fight with the British bomber for years and when it finally came people expected a rugged slugfest. Instead Barrera showed another side as he used movement, angles and blocking techniques to easily out-box Hamed over 12 rounds. It was a stirring boxing clinic performed by the Mexico City fighter.

Two fights later, a rematch was signed with Morales. The boxing world shuddered with anticipation of another Fight of the Year.

In the summer of 2002, Barrera met Morales in Las Vegas once again but this time he displayed a different side to the Tijuana fighter who was befuddled most of the night. Using angles and a pinpoint jab, Barrera raced ahead to out-score Morales in an somewhat easy victory.

Buzzsaw named Manny

In November 2003, Barrera ran into a buzzsaw named Manny Pacquiao in Texas. Because of massive fires near his Big Bear Mountain training camp Barrera was forced to leave and other problems arose with medical accusations by his former manager. He was ripe for an upset and it came at the hands and fists of Pacquiao.

Observers and experts said Barrera was done. But a third match against Morales proved otherwise as once again Barrera prevailed with his superior technique.

A meeting last year with IBF Robbie Peden for a unification bout in the junior lightweight division became a mismatch as the Mexican fighter plainly had too much experience and knowledge for the rugged Aussie.

“You have to stay alert with Marco,” said Dominic Salcido who sparred with Barrera in Big Bear. “He figures you out real quick.”

Juarez and his trainer hope he’s learned enough to offset the experience.

“I think Rocky has a real good chance,” said his trainer Ray Ontiveros. “He’s still hungry.”

Juarez believes it can be done too.

Despite his loss to Soto, the first in Juarez’s career, the Houston boxer has a fight in front of him that can put him on the map of fame. All of the marbles can come together if he wins or puts on a competitive showing.

“Barrera is one of the best boxers in the world,” said Juarez. “But I’m going to do whatever I can to win this fight.”

For Barrera, if he wins, he earns a possible rematch with his last conqueror the Filipino slugger Pacquiao in September. If he loses, it’s probably over for the last of the few master fighters in boxing today.

“I want to fight for another three years,” Barrera said.

Other bouts:

Jorge Barrios, 29, the rough and tumble Argentine fighter who took Mighty Mike Anchondo’s WBO junior lightweight title, defends it against Janos Nagy of Hungary in the semi-main event. Barrios (45-2-1, 32 KOs) likes to manhandle and swing for the fences. He came sliver close to beating Brazil’s Acelino Freitas a couple of years back. He has the power. Nagy (24-0, 14 KOs) is known as “Bone cracker” and has beaten several mostly European fighters on his way to the top of the WBO ratings. Most notable on his list was Tonto Tontchev who fought De La Hoya in a losing cause during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Nagy, 31, beat him by decision last September.

East Los Angeles boxer Jose Armando Santa Cruz gets his world title crack against Chikashi Inada (19-2) WBC interim lightweight title. Supposedly the winner of this fight gets the winner of the Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo clash on June 3. But don’t bet on it. Santa Cruz (22-1, 12 KOs) barely escaped against Edner Cherry last February in a fight that saw him hang on for dear life as Cherry poured it on. It was the second time in three fights that Santa Cruz, 25, seemed to lose gas in the closing rounds. Inada (19-2, 14 KOs), 28, is a tall boxer out of Tokyo, Japan. Most Japanese fighters are in great condition to go all 12 rounds. Expect a non-stop slugfest. Both are tall for lightweights. Santa Cruz is 5-11 in height, Inada is 5-9. One other thing, Inada can hit.

The fight card also features two Golden Boy fighters in separate bouts. Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista (19-0, 14 KOs), the fighter with a 12-year-olds face, displays his fireworks in a bantamweight contest. Armando Dorantes will also be on the card in a lightweight bout. Dorantes (5-0) is from East Los Angeles.