By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
If Winky Wright wins, Dan Birmingham will be back atop the trainer heap.
MEMPHIS - When he steps into the ring Saturday night for the biggest fight of his life, St. Petersburg trainer Dan Birmingham will do so with his familiar swagger, bouncing on his toes and chomping a piece of gum.
He hopes to leave the same way.
Rarely do trainers have so much to gain by the success of their fighter, but Birmingham's work in Winky Wright's corner will be scrutinized like never before.
Though he engineered Chad Dawson's impressive takedown of light heavyweight Eric Harding June 2, the taste most have in their mouths of Birmingham is one left by super-middleweight Jeff Lacy's performance against Joe Calzaghe.
On a cool, clear March night in Manchester, England, Birmingham's star fell from the sky.
Saturday, he can put it back in the heavens.
"Dan Birmingham has been raked over the coals for Jeff Lacy, and glorified for everything that Winky has done," HBO commentator Jim Lampley said. "I do think he has something to prove. I think that if I'm Dan Birmingham, I'm smarting a little bit."
Saturday at the FedEx Forum, there will be a stronger-than-usual focus on the trainers. In one corner, legend Emanuel Steward, who heads the world-famous Kronk Gym and has trained 33 world champions, will guide Jermain Taylor (25-0, 17 KOs) after being hired six weeks ago.
In the other, Birmingham, the boxing writers' trainer of the year in 2004 and 2005.
"I don't feel like I have anything to prove, and if I needed to bounce back, I did that with Dawson," Birmingham said. "But if everyone needs to see us beat Taylor, then that's what they'll see on Saturday."
Steward's hiring has been perhaps the biggest story since the fight was signed. He's seen as a godsend to Taylor and the perfect guy to make just the right changes to topple Wright, who was the favorite when the fight was announced but is now a slight underdog.
Despite a successful three-year run in which he has lost just one high-profile fight, Birmingham is facing questions. His brilliant game plan to beat Felix Trinidad has faded into the background after Lacy's showing.
"There are people who will always point the fingers," Birmingham said. "I think sometimes fighters need to take the blame. Jeff was a man when he lost. Jeff was prepared. I know it, he knows it and what everyone else says doesn't matter."
Some of Birmingham's sharpest criticism came from Tampa light heavyweight Antonio Tarver, who suggested in one interview that Lacy and Wright should fire Birmingham. He said he feared for Wright's safety if ever in a tight spot, adding he planned to try to convince his friend to make a change.
Birmingham, however, said he was vindicated by Tarver's performance Saturday against Bernard Hopkins.
"I guess Tarver now understands how a fighter can have a bad night," he said.
Wright (50-3, 25 KOs) said over the years "millions" of people have tried to pry him away, which he said is unthinkable.
"Me and Dan, we're a team, and we've been together forever and we're going to stay that way," said Wright, who was 15 when he first walked into Birmingham's gym.
Birmingham says his relationship with Wright is special. There have been no arguments over money, no disagreements in strategy, and outside the ropes, they share rounds of golf and family barbecues. After 20 years together, fighting with promoters and seeking the glory that is now theirs, the idea of splitting up is ludicrous.
"Ain't happening," Wright, 34, said.
If Wright wins, Birmingham will be back on top of the trainer heap, and Lacy's loss will become a more distant memory. And Birmingham will be remembered as the guy who outmaneuvered a legend.
"I think," said Lampley, "that is probably pretty good incentive for Dan."