When I first heard Vai Sikahema had accepted a challenge to box former Major League slugger Jose Canseco for $5,000, I thought the former Cougar and Philadelphia Eagle pro bowler had gone nutty.

Then I called Sikahema.

It will be the quickest pocket change Sikahema has ever earned. Canseco is going down.

Canseco, who has made recent headlines in his post-Major League Baseball career with a book on steroid abuse in the majors and reality TV, is losing his house. Plus, two divorces have cost him a reported $8 million. So he went looking for a gimmick, like a challenge to fight somebody for money.

Sikahema, currently a popular Philadelphia TV sports anchor, will fight Canseco on July 12 at the Atlantic City Bernie Robbins Stadium. They'll use headgear and fluffy 14-ounce gloves. The rounds will be two minutes each.

Still, folks think he's crazy. "Especially some people in my own house, namely my wife," Sikahema said Friday.

Canseco is 43; Sikahema is 45. Canseco is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds. Sikahema, who was 5-9 and 185 as an NFL kick return specialist, now is almost 210. Canseco is considered a bad boy; Sikahema is a positive icon in the City of Brotherly Love.

Canseco claims he's

earned black belts in kung fu, tae kwon do and muay Thai. Sikahema once fought in a National Golden Gloves Championship that would eventually be won by Sugar Ray Leonard.

But Sikahema says he is currently in the best shape of his life. He runs six to eight miles a day and regularly spars with friends in a Philadelphia gym. And he has a plan.

I'm tuned in to Sikahema's boxing roots. I was 10 years old when my father, Rondo Harmon, worked as superintendent of Liahona High School outside the capital city of Nukalofa, Tonga. Vai's father, Loni, came to Liahona, a young man headed for what Vai calls "juvenile delinquency" before Loni hooked up with a palangi (white) faculty member named Charles Woodworth, who introduced him to boxing.

Impressed, my father — once a boxing instructor in the Army — made Loni a leader over an on-campus dormitory.

When Woodworth left Tonga, Loni followed him to Arizona with his little family to become a prize fighter. Loni trained his son Vai to be a boxer, and Vai was well on the way to doing so before he got to high school and turned to football.

When promoters called Sikahema last month about fighting Canseco, it was, well, like a calling. But Sikahema didn't bite right away. He did some research. He told the promoter to give him two weeks.

In that time, Sikahema lined up two guys who were Canseco's size, guys who had some boxing experience, and he boxed them. What he learned proved he was up to the task.

Big versus little favors the little guy. Sikahema is a student of the sport, knows all the fighters, their strengths and weaknesses. The rare exceptional champions who were tall or big used their superior reach to jab, like George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

But the power punchers were short, stocky and had leverage, guys like Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson.

Sikahema said, "Big guys can't punch and recoil fast enough. Also, they can't use their leverage. A shorter fighter has the bigger guy right in his wheelhouse and delivers more effective punches, combinations, and endurance past a furious first round (for a big man) is questionable.

"We can't control when opportunities come around," said Sikahema, who admitted it was a circus event, a little out of the box. "There are all kinds of reasons not to do it. I may look back on this with some regret. I may pass up on some opportunities. We all make decisions in our life, and I like to live my lift to the fullest."

Sikahema said if the call had come two years ago, he wasn't in shape. If it had come five years from now, he'd be 50 and too old. "But I'm a young 45, and I know what I'm up against. I've been realizing what I've been up against all my life, in my football career, my broadcasting career, and I know my limitations. I think I've made a decision that is prudent, although unconventional, and people think I'm out of my mind."

Sikahema will give his purse to the widow of a Philadelphia police officer who was gunned down this year trying to stop some criminals.

"It's not much, but if it makes a few mortgage payments for her, it is a good cause," he said.

If you think about it, it has all the makings of a good "Rocky" sequel.

In fact, Sikahema's TV station, NBC-10, as you can imagine, is going nuts. There will be promotions, a Web site, updates, profiles and marketing angles galore.

There are big reasons Sylvester Stallone set his boxing movie scripts for the character Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia. This is a city that knows the sport.

Imagine promos shot by Sikahema's station — him running up the stairs to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Cue music. Him running through the Italian market. A shot of him in an old meat locker, punching huge hanging sides of beef.

Yes, this one is going the distance. In hype.

Canseco is big. And remember, he has access and contacts with performance-enhancing drugs.

"There's a reason why boxers don't look like that," said Sikahema, already setting the stage.

"If all it takes is simply juicing up, then everybody at Gold's Gym would be making money. Big doesn't matter because it takes too long to throw a jab. Guys who can throw a combination are lean because it's like a whip and they can recoil and deliver another. Counterpunches will eat you alive. That's why boxers don't look like he does.

"All the scoring is done between 18 and 24 inches," said Sikahema.

"You know what? I think he's going to be in trouble. He's a big dude, big target. He has to find me. I know combinations and how to throw punches. I'm short but I'm not small. I'm in great shape, but I don't have the reflexes of an Oscar De La Hoya."

No, but he's got the Rocky factor all the way, baby.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com