TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION — Ricardo “Rocky” Juarez cruised along the fast lane comeback trail, speeding past what ended up as not much more than noble roadkill on a detour to Champtown.

On paper, Juarez’s match against proven tough guy Emmanuel Lucero looked to have intriguing possibilities in the high stakes brawl department. In the ring, it was all conk and count in favor of Juarez, now 26-3 (19).

Lucero, 23-4-1, is a talented, unconventional boxer who definitely earned his paycheck trying to make a stand, but Juarez looked excellent on a Telefutura card at Desert Diamond Casino last Friday. If styles make fights, this fight was made for Juarez, who scored three knockdowns in a five round blastout.

“I thought the referee was going to stop it when I was hitting him earlier,” said Juarez, sporting a couple new bruises. “I was kind of hesitating because I felt he was already out on his feet. I continued to just land (held back) shots, because I didn’t think I needed to land hard shots.”

Even holding back, 26-year-old Juarez looked like a top contender.

Both men weighed in at 128. Lucero, from Mexico City by way of the Bronx, entered in glittery Mexican flag theme regalia.

Juarez sported basic black trunks, with moderate red and silver striping that looked old school except for a metallic new millennium shine.

As Juarez’s moniker implies, the ensemble fit a no-nonsense, traditional pro.

Juarez showed patient confidence as Lucero, ducking and bobbing low to the canvas, tried to dart in and score with flicking flurries. Juarez responded with solid thuds to reddening ribs.

A short right dazed Lucero and his knee bounced off the cerveza sign canvas. He beat the count and stared into his corner. Lucero was shaky but charged back, throwing tons of wild punches to the full house’s delight.

Lucero exhaled little “whoos” excitedly when he threw his most wound-up pitches, unorthodox but briefly effective, and forced Juarez backward into the strands.

Lucero immediately went for broke in the second and charged into a counter left that dumped him once more. Lucero made it up quickly but almost fell again as he slipped along the ropes.

He was still coherent enough to smile at the crowd and respond to referee Bobby Ferrara He fought pretty cocky for somebody dropped twice, and he paid for it soon. Lucero may have actually landed more punches for a little while, but Juarez landed the ones that counted.

Lucero definitely didn’t show up to go home early, and held up to more big shots as the round ended. If he was hoping for Juarez to tire, it was a false hope.

A three-punch combination wobbled Lucero early in the third. He tried to hang tough but just didn’t have the necessary firepower to respond. Juarez’s shots rained over him, up and down. Lucero was in good enough shape to take a lot of punishment and that’s about all he did as the frame wound down.

To his credit, Lucero got on his toes, stayed busy, and made it through round four without trouble.

Juarezblocked just about everything, but at least Lucero was still throwing.

Lucero managed to show once again, a la Marco Antonio Barrera, that it’s easier to outbox Juarez than it is to out-punch him.

Lucero’s all-out underdog effort got the crowd of around 1,200 roaring his way in the fifth. By now, Juarez had a welt under his left eye that showed he wasn’t on a cakewalk.

A huge right hand mortar made Lucero stumble, and a follow up left dropped him again. He staggered to his corner and stared blankly at his team as if asking what to do.

Ref Ferrara gave Lucero one more chance. Juarez held back, but just a little. Lucero tried to duck away under the storm but got hit from everywhere until Ferrara stepped in. The official time was 1:05 of the fifth frame, with Juarez up by six points on all cards after four rounds.

On his way to the dressing room Juarez passed through a throng that offered cheerful congratulatory touches and evidence his popularity didn’t suffer after two bitter defeats to Barrera.

“When you bring Barrera’s name up it kind of upsets me,” said Juarez. “I get upset with myself that I didn’t capitalize on the chances I had. But I think I learned from the experiences. Coming off the losses I felt I had to make a statement. I signed a new promotional contract with Golden Boy as well, [so] I felt a little nervous, but I think everything turned out all right.

“Two other opponents fell out. Lucero was the toughest of all of them. I was on a couple of his undercards when I was starting out. Lucero’s a gutsy fighter, but we felt a left hook to the body would get him out. When I caught him with the first body shot I thought the fight was over, that he was gonna take a knee and give up, but he took the punch and continued.

“I guess it was kind of a mistake on my part trying to land the body shot again rather than a variety of punches. He was looking for it, that’s why the fight lasted as long as it did. My training was very well. I felt really good running hills when we started camp. I’ve got Ronnie Shields on my team now, and I’m fortunate to be working with my trainer of 13 years, Ray Ontiveros, who’s now my cutman.

“It’s a new beginning (for me) with Golden Boy. I know they’ll do everything they can to get me another title shot. As far as confidence goes, I’ll fight any champion around 126 to 130 pounds. I’m at the point in my career where I have to jump on every chance I get.”

“I think he put a lot of pressure on himself,” cautioned manager Shelly Finkel, “rather than just going out there and letting things happen.”

Finkel stated Juarez would probably have one or two more relatively safe assignments around summertime, unless the right offer for higher stakes came in sooner.

“Rocky looked sharp. His punches looked crisp, His right hand looked dangerous,” observed Winky Wright, in attendance as part of his relationship with Golden Boy.

Don’t be surprised if Juarez has a legitimate title opportunity by the 4th of July.

The trail to the top has many exits and on ramps.

A Rocky road doesn’t necessarily mean a bad trip.