There is finally light at the end of the tunnel in the long and circuitous journey of top-ranked welterweight contender Joshua Clottey. At the Aviator Sports Arena in Brooklyn, New York, on April 3, he became the first man to stop the alligator-tough Jose Luis Cruz of Mexico.

The fight was televised on the Versus network, which has the capability of reaching 80 million homes.

By scoring a fifth round TKO over Cruz, Clottey raised his record to 34-2 (20 KOS), while Cruz saw his ledger slip to 34-4-2 (27 KOS).  Clottey also assured himself a guaranteed bout against the winner of the April 12 welterweight title bout between IBF champion Kermit Cintron and Antonio Margarito.

Unless the winner of that fight is seriously cut, Clottey should be squaring off against him on July 20 at a site to be determined. The bout will be promoted by Top Rank.

Although Clottey already lost a 12 round decision to Margarito in December 2006, he would have no compunctions about fighting him again. He was more than holding his own against the then WBO titlist, when a serious hand injury forced him to lessen his level of intensity.

“I would feel very confident against Margarito,” said Clottey, a 31-year-old native of Accra, Ghana, who fights out of the Bronx. “I was already beating him when I hurt my hand and was forced to fight more carefully. He does not impress me.”

Nor does Cintron. While Clottey hopes that Margarito beats Cintron, so he can attain sweet revenge against him, his gut tells him that even though Margarito has already stopped Cintron, in the fifth round in April 2005, Cintron will win the rematch.

Regardless of what happens in that fight, Clottey is in a win-win situation. “I’m ready to go,” he said. “I have waited a long time for this chance. I have sacrificed a lot to get to this point. I will not pass this opportunity up.”

Clottey’s level of confidence is so great, he was eager to fight Cruz even though his number one IBF ranking already guaranteed him the summer title bout. On the day before the Cruz fight, he said he had never felt better and he couldn’t wait to get in the ring.

“Everything is back on track, and everything I’m doing is good,” he said. “I am very focused and confident. I will stay confident by fighting in the ring.”

The only blemishes on Clottey’s record are an 11th round disqualification loss to Carlos Baldomir in 1999 and the heartbreaking defeat to Margarito. What made the latter so difficult for him to swallow was the fact that it was on HBO, and he was looking very impressive prior to injuring his hand.

He rebounded from that loss with a 10 round decision victory over Diego Corrales five months later, in what would be Corrales’ final fight before being killed in a motorcycle crash.

Since beating Corrales in April 2007, Clottey has won decisions over Felix Flores and Shamone Alvarez. He is, by all accounts, fine-tuned for another run at the title.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is fight the best,” said Clottey, whose relatively low knockout ratio belies what appears to be bone-crunching power. “I came to the United States to fight the best and become a world champion.”

Clottey and his brother Emanuel, a once highly regarded welterweight, began fighting in Accra’s Bokum Square, where disputes large and small are settled with one’s fists. It is the same place where Azumah Nelson got his initial experience.

Clottey says the fights there were often tougher than the ones he would later have in the ring.

“You fight to hurt each other,” he said. “Nobody calls the police. If someone insults your mother, you settle the score in Bokum Square.”

Seeing how successful Nelson and Ike Quartey, another local hero who went on to attain ring glory were, the Clottey brothers moved to New York to pursue their pugilistic dreams.

“I box full time here, but financially it is very tough,” said Joshua, who lives in a Bronx neighborhood so dangerous he says he only leaves the apartment he shares with his girlfriend to jog or go to the gym.

But, he says, his motivation to succeed has as much to do with personal pride as his deep love for his 8 year old daughter, Zinat. She lives back home in Ghana, but he speaks to her about three times a week.

“She is the love of my life,” said Clottey. “I am fighting for my daughter’s future, so she can be proud to call me her daddy. My determination comes from my desire to give her a better life.”

Clottey has always fought at a level of great intensity, but the determination he showed against Cruz proved that his admonitions are not just talk.

“I wanted to protect my number one spot (IBF rating),” he said. “Cruz fought many champions, like Sharmba Mitchell and Shane Mosley, and they couldn’t knock him out, so I feel very good about stopping him.”

But, he added, he wants bigger fish to fry than the Cruz’s of the world. Being the first man to stop a guy like Cruz is nothing compared to the thrill he will get when he is announced as the new IBF welterweight champion of the world.

“I want to fight Margarito and Cintron and (Miguel) Cotto,” he said. “They are the best (welterweight) fighters out there. But they are running from me. I think Cintron is scared to death of me.”

After winning the IBF title, he would love to challenge WBA champion Cotto in a unification match.

“To beat Margarito and Cotto in back to back fights, that would be a dream come true,” said Clottey. “That is what I’ve been dreaming about all of these years, to fight the best and beat the best.”