ATLANTIC CITY - Antonio DeMarco's empty stomach was growling like always.
The then-14-year-old ventured into the modest kitchen of his family's home in Los Mochis, Mexico, in search of something to eat, only to find his mother, Imelia, sobbing.
"She was crying because she had nothing to feed my sister (Karime) and I," DeMarco said through an interpreter. "I've never forgotten my mother's tears. That was the moment I decided to become a professional fighter. And that's what inspires me and keeps me hungry to do well."
DeMarco (28-2-1, 21 KOs), now 26, will defend his WBC lightweight championship against unbeaten Adrien Broner (24-0, 20 KOs) at Boardwalk Hall tonight. He knows a lot about hunger, both in and out of the ring.
After drying his mother's tears, DeMarco left home for Tijuana, Mexico, to pursue a boxing career and hopefully earn some money for his family. On his way out the door, he vowed to return one day as a champion.
"My grandfather and uncle had been boxers, so I thought I could do it, too," DeMarco said. "When I was little, I would tag along with them to the gym and hit the bag and stuff. Once in a while, I would shadow box in the street and people would throw me money. I thought moving to Tijuana would be a way for me to become a champion and feed my family."
Success and money did not come right away. DeMarco wound up homeless and penniless. At night, he would climb into garbage cans behind restaurants and gobble up the uneaten scraps.
That was 12 years ago. Today, DeMarco lives with his pregnant wife Tania and the couple's 4-year-old daughter, Camilla, in a new home he just bought a few months ago in Tijuana.
But though he can now afford to eat steak every night if he so chooses, his hunger has never gone away. The memory of seeing his mother crying in the kitchen still fuels him.
"It's amazing what he went through in his personal life," said his promoter, Gary Shaw. "The kid went through hell and back to get where he is now. And he hasn't forgotten what it took to get there."
DeMarco is a ferocious, relentless fighter who is just as apt to wear down an opponent with his will as his fists. Shaw compared him to the late Arturo Gatti, who used to thrill fans at Boardwalk Hall with his brawling, exciting style.
That is why Shaw didn't hesitate when the opportunity arose to bring DeMarco to town.
"I see him as a Mexican Arturo Gatti," Shaw said. "He's a lot like Arturo in that the only way he's going out is on his sword. I thought it's only fitting that he get a chance to fight at Boardwalk Hall."
Broner figures to present a tough challenge, however.
The Cincinnati native is one of the most talented fighters in the sport. The former WBO super-featherweight champ has yet to be seriously challenged in his four-year pro career. He has registered four straight victories by knockout or TKO. Fourteen of his last 15 bouts did not go the distance.
He has yet to be drawn into a slugfest and has no plans to do so tonight.
"Just because I haven't shown that yet doesn't mean I can't do it," Broner said. "I'm sure there's going to come a time when I will have to take a stand and show people that side of me. But I'd rather not. Forget getting into a 'Tough Man' contest and getting all bloody and cut up. That's just stupid to me. I'm not in this game to let somebody hit me and then hit them back.
"I have a lot of respect for DeMarco. He's a great champion and a world-class fighter. He has the talent to bring something out of Adrian Broner the world hasn't seen yet."
Broner, 23, is brimming with confidence that sometimes crosses the line into cockiness. After each victory, he has a tradition of allowing someone from his corner to comb his hair before he conducts interviews.
But away from the cameras, that's not always the case. Upon arriving in Atlantic City earlier in the week, he spent a day at the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club. Broner allowed himself to be turned into a human jungle gym, with dozens of children climbing on him. Afterward, he played a little basketball with them and drew cheers when he swished a half-court shot.
"Once someone sees me on TV, they always think that, 'He is just a cocky brat,' but I'm not," Broner said. "Once you get to sit down with Adrien Broner, you will fall in love with me. I don't want the world to dislike me in any way. I just want you accept me."
PREDICTION: Broner by 10th-round TKO
PUNCHLINES: Tonight's card also features a heavyweight co-feature between top American prospects Seth Mitchell (25-0-1, 19 KOs) and Johnathon Banks (28-1-1, 18 KOs). ... Doors to Boardwalk Hall open at 6 p.m. with the first undercard fight slated for 6:05. ... Tickets are priced from $25 to $200 and are available through pressofatlanticcity.com/tickets. ... Golden Boy Promotions is donating $2 for every ticket sold and $1,000 per knockout on the card to the Boys and Girls Club. Oscar De La Hoya and Caesars Atlantic City is matching the donations.
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