In the backyard of the old Olympic Auditorium, inside a now closed boxing gym, Antonio “Tijuana Tornado” Margarito and Paul “The Punisher” Williams first met each other under unusual circumstances for regular people, but normal conditions for boxers. They met in the ring during a sparring session.

That was almost three years ago. In that time a lot of words, rumors and taunts have been circulated about who got knocked down, cut and humiliated during a dozen or so minutes of punches exchanged in the boxing ring.

“I’m sick of all the lies,” said Margarito (34-4, 24 KOs).

After nearly three years have passed since that much discussed sparring session, WBO welterweight titleholder Margarito defends his title against Williams (32-0, 24 KOs) at the Home Depot Center on Saturday July 14. The fight will be televised by HBO.

The Olympic Auditorium has been converted into a church and the boxing gym behind it has been closed for more than two years, but inside the minds of the few people who happened to witness the infamous sparring session between Williams and Margarito – get ready for World War III.

It was a steamy hot August afternoon inside the dank upper floor gym. A few people sat on the three rows of bleachers as Margarito prepared to step in the ring for a sparring session. He was scheduled to fight Puerto Rico’s southpaw Daniel Santos for the WBO junior middleweight title in a few weeks.

Fixing his head gear on the other side of the ring a tall, thin Williams was fidgeting with the protective gear. Nobody had ever seen the lanky welterweight before so whispers were circulating about his identity.

“He must be a light heavyweight,” said one boxing trainer.

Though Williams fought for a short while at 175 pounds, he now was a super trim 147 pounds and looked real good before he ever fired a punch. But could the left-hander take a punch?

Everyone in the gym knew Margarito would test the new guy real quick.

As soon as the buzzer sounded both fighters circled each other warily until Williams shot out a few jabs with his seemingly endless reach.

“He can hit you from across the ring,” says George Peterson who trains Williams.

Margarito bobbed and weaved his way into range as Williams calmly peppered him with jabs. Soon the pair landed almost simultaneously and the sound of leather smacking bodies became constant.

Still, it wasn’t intense. But little by little the punches became stiffer and the blows came more furiously. In a matter of seconds both prizefighters began firing to the head and body with neither stepping back. People sitting and standing began looking at each other with curt smiles because normally this kind of action costs money to watch.

Williams had that cool confidence that only the exceptional seem to display. Every time Margarito landed a punch flush he was met in kind with an equal or more emphatic counterpunch.

“He knows what happened in the ring,” Williams, 25, says.

After that sparring session the rumors quickly spread that Margarito was knocked down by Williams or cut badly during their exchanges. None of that occurred. But the violent punches landed did occur. Though neither fighter was in danger of being hurt.

“Yes we did spar,” says Margarito, 29, who fumes at any suggestions that he was hurt from Williams punches. “If he says he knocked me down or cut me that’s a lie.”

Since that sparring session Margarito has successfully defended his world title four times with only his last opponent surviving until the final round. Williams has never been beaten but has only faced one truly dangerous opponent of the nine he faced after the now famous sparring session.

Lots of questions remain to be answered.

“Walter Matthysse was the toughest opponent I’ve faced,” said Williams who trained in Puerto Rico for this fight. “He had power in both hands. You have to be alert.”

The normally calm Margarito perks up when he hears that he was lucky to win his last fight against Joshua Clottey.

Margarito’s co-manager Sergio Diaz said the last training camp was a disaster with an injury to his fighter’s leg less than two weeks before the fight and a failure to obtain sparring partners.

“Things didn’t go right for that fight,” Diaz says.

Despite a serious injury to his right leg, Margarito stepped in the ring against the rugged Clottey. Though Margarito injured his right hand on the Ghanan fighter’s head and fought on one leg, he managed to forge ahead with a relentless but handicapped attack.

Instead of lauding the Mexican’s fortitude, detractors cited Clottey’s injured hand and claimed Margarito as an over-rated fighter.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto decimated fellow Boricua Carlos Quintana in five rounds and recently dismantled former welterweight world champion Zab Judah in 11 rounds. It was supposed to be Margarito fighting Cotto, not Judah.

Margarito refused to relinquish his WBO title to fight Cotto. Not that he was afraid of the Puerto Rican slugger, he didn’t like running from his mandatory against Williams.

Neither his promoter Top Rank nor his managers could convince Margarito to give up his belt for a bigger payday against Cotto. He opted to defend against Williams.

“I worked too hard for this title to just give it up,” says Margarito ignoring the possible $2 million purse to fight Cotto in New York.

How many prizefighters today would take a fight for lesser money to prove a point?

“It says a lot about Margarito,” said Dan Goossen, president of Goossen-Tutor Promotions that guide Williams. “He didn’t have to take this fight. There was more money for him to fight someone else but he took the more dangerous fight.”

The soft-spoken Williams, who is native to South Carolina, doesn’t hide his feelings about the up-coming fight.

“He (Margarito) says he’s the best fighter in the world. Whatever he brings to the table my plan is to interrupt his plans,” Williams says. “Everybody says he’s the most feared. I respect him being a champion but there is new blood in the sport. It’s my time to shine.”

No more sparring sessions verbally or physically for these two.

Tickets are still available at $25, $50, $75, $150 and $300. For information call (877) AEG-TICKETS.