No sport is harder to predict an outcome than boxing.

Well, maybe jai-alai is, but I don’t know how that’s played, so I vote for boxing.

Think about it: in all those team sports, if your star player was out and about cavorting the night before, doing body and powdered-substance shots off the ladies derrieres at the local exotic dancing establishment, then at least the next best player can pick up some of the slack the next day.

But in boxing, if a dude has an off night, then it’s just lethal.

It’s that much harder to predict an outcome when the fighters in a bout are 37 and 35 years old, as Ike Quartey and Winky Wright will be when they step in to the ring in Tampa on Saturday evening.

Perhaps Wright will finally look his age, and his reflexes, so instrumental to his status as a defensive wizard, will have declined enough for his foe to make some inroads where men like Jermain Taylor, Tito Trinidad and Shane Mosley haven’t been able to.

Perhaps Quartey will be a shadow of his former self, more BB gun than Bazooka, when he gloves up on Saturday. This will be, after all, his fifth fight since he began his comeback in 2005, after walking away from the game following his loss to Fernando Vargas in April 2000. He’s looked pretty good for a senior citizen, but will Saturday be the day when his body rebels, and his brain joins the rebellion and lobbies to leave the ring for good, and return to Ghana?

Larry Merchant, the HBO wordsmith, has a label for the Wright/Quartey fight, which can be seen on the cable station with a broadcast starting at 9:45 PM Eastern (with a super middle scrap between Jeff Lacy and Vitali Tsypko kicking things off). “This is a fight between two angry old men,” he says.

I asked Merchant earlier this week which ‘dog, among Quartey or Kassim Ouma, he thinks has the better shot at the upset. The six-decade student of the game said he thinks Ouma has a better shot at upsetting the applecart than Quartey does, seeing as how Wright is clearly established at 160 pounds, while Quartey’s glory days were spent toiling at 147 (he owned the WBA welter title from 1994-1997).

The other half of the dynamic HBO duo, Jim Lampley, sees Saturday as a hard slog for Quartey.

“It will be very difficult for him,” Lampley told TSS. “He’s a smaller power fighter who’s got to win by doing physical damage. He’d probably have had a better chance at 154 than 160 with the combination of Winky’s defense and the size differential making it difficult for him to rip Winky up. At the end of the day, if Winky’s in shape and there’s nothing unusual there then it’s hard to see how Quartey can get a style situation to accommodate him.”

I tossed a high, hard one at Lampley, and I must say, he turned on it and belted it up the middle. If you weren’t a member of the HBO crew, which show would you watch live and which show would you DVR?

“Winky has the most at stake, defending his pound for pound rank,” Lampley said. “Cotto and Margarito on Showtime are both exciting, so it’s a very, very close call. But given that I am who I am, I’ll say I would watch Winky live and DVR the other, and be good to go. But I would be very excited when I switched over to the other show because I think there’s going to be some terrific action.”

SPEEDBAG Merchant agreed with me that it was a noticeably savvy, classy move that fight fans didn’t holler and harrumph when Morales, with his eyes still reasonably clear, sat on his butt on the canvas after Hurricane Manny crashed down on him. Astute fight fans know how much Morales has given them, and would dare to even imply that there’s even the scent of dog in the guy. He was beaten,he knew it and fight fans saw that if he stood up he’d only be elongating the assault. Hats off to you, fight fans…

***More Merchant for your money…I was chatting with Merchant about the state of the heavyweights, and he said that eventually again, there’d be a heavyweight champion of note, someone to excite the masses and there’d be a Hispanic heavy for us to fall in love with in the not-too-distant future. How distant, I wondered. “Will we be alive to see it Larry?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I suspect you will be alive to see it, but I may not.” Priceless.

***Word out of Tampa is that Jeff Lacy, age 29, has been bored with training at times, and is generally pissed off with the world. He hasn’t been cooperating with the press or photogs, had that acrimonious split with Gary Shaw…do you smell the making of an upset here? Trainer Dan Birmingham hopes Lacy’s state of dissatisfaction, which emerged after his dismantling at the hands of Calzaghe in March (doesn’t it seem longer than that?) will result in the boxer taking his ire out on his foe, the 17-1 Tsypko. Perhaps we shouldn’t think an upset is in the cards; Lacy and Tsypko stepped in against each other already, in 2004, but that fight didn’t get out of the second round due to a Tsypko cut caused by a butt. Presumably, Team Lacy knows exactly what Tsypko is, and isn’t. BTW, Tsypko is a native of the Ukraine—it isn’t only heavyweights who are products of these emerging fistic markets…

***Paulie the Mouth Malignaggi isn’t taking a gimme in his first fight back since Cotto bested him in June and put him on the shelf for a few months—21-4-2 Bahamian Edner Cherry is really, really active, with sneaky hands. This one’s a 50-50 proposition to me. Good for Paulie for coming back tough…

***APB goes out for: Zab Judah…Tony Thompson…

***Team Mesi has been quiet, huh? Haven’t heard from them since Joe Mesi fought another comebacker in Michigan in September. Turns out that Joe’s dad/manager Jack is still plotting a comeback course. Joe may fight in 2006, but more likely he’ll start again in the New Year. After one or two more fights, the elder Mesi told me, they’ll re-apply for a boxing license in NY, where Mesi is banned from fighting after suffering tiny brain bleeds in 2004. Jack Mesi has no love for the New York State Atletic Commish, which banned his boy, and Evander Holyfield after Real Deal looked shot in a November 2003 NY outing. “They were wrong on both counts,” he says. Stay tuned for some legal slugging…

***Portent of Doom Dept? Winky Wright fielded three questions on his ESPN.com chat on Thursday, then the moderator cut in and said there were some tech difficulties, and then he cancelled the chat because of tech woes…

***And regarding Saturday, with dueling shows on HBO and Showtime, I get on my knees and thank God for his best invention in the last 4,000 or so years, the DVR. What are you guys going to do—-which show do you watch, and which do you tape?