For the winner, it will be a step forward. It will move him closer to one last hurrah in the boxing ring. For the loser, the only real option is retirement.

That is what is at stake when Antonio Tarver, 46, fights Steve Cunningham, 39, on the Premier Boxing Champions card on Friday at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. It will be televised on Spike.

"This is a must-win fight if they're going to continue at the highest levels of the heavyweight division," promoter Lou DiBella said. "Antonio and Steve don't have a margin for error here. The winner will move on to a huge opportunity and the loser of this bout it's a huge step back and maybe really the end of the line. So this is the kind of fight that figures to be a terrific matchup and a must-win fight that's a recipe for a great fight."

Although Tarver and Cunningham are now competing at heavyweight, both fighters bring a long list of credentials in lower weight classes.

Tarver won a bronze medal for the U.S. at the 1996 Olympics. He also is a three-time light heavyweight champion and has fought the best 175-pounders of his era. He won his first world title against Montell Griffin and has won two of three fights against Roy Jones Jr. Tarver (31-6, 22 KOs) also has lost decisions to Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson.

An action fighter, Cunningham (28-7, 13 KOs) is a two-time former cruiserweight champion. Among his memorable cruiserweight title fights are a loss to Tomasz Adamek and wins against Marco Huck and Wayne Braithwaite.

"Well it's just like any fight I've had over the years," Tarver said during a conference call last week. "All of my fights have been huge fights. I can tell you I feel good going in. I've done the work. I haven't underestimated Steve Cunningham at all. I have a great deal of respect for the man."

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That respect seemed to unravel as the conference call progressed. Cunningham took exception to the fact that Tarver previously ignored opportunities to fight him but has since praised this fight.

"Where does all this utmost respect come from?" Cunningham said. "A few years ago it was all, 'Who are you? You're nobody' . . . I'm not one of these trash talkers who can run their mouth and get themselves into some money. I fight to get my money, you understand? . . . You're a professional mouth-runner. I'm a professional fighter, period."

Tarver was critical of Cunningham, who briefly left training camp to do color commentary on a boxing broadcast.

"I think you're taking me lightly," Tarver said. "You're overlooking me. How are you going to break camp and go to Vegas and commentate, like you've got it easy. I wouldn't break camp for you, but you going to break camp for me? Good luck. You have no idea what's coming on August 14."