ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ Former world champion Danny Romero learned four years ago that even the most obscure opponent has the potential to turn from prey to predator.

In September 1995, Romero was the unbeaten IBF flyweight champion and an overwhelming favorite to beat Willy Salazar, a journeyman boxer from Guadalajara, Mexico. What was supposed to be little more than a workout for Romero turned into a nightmare. Salazar fractured Romero's left eye socket early in the fight and with Romero bleeding profusely most of the night, Salazar scored a convincing victory.

On Saturday night, Romero faces Leonardo ``Chucky'' Gutierrez, another less-than-marquee boxing name. He was a last-minute replacement for two other boxers that Romero's camp tried to sign. And no one seems to know what Gutierrez's record is. Fight Facts says he's 17-10 with 8 knockouts, but his trainer contends Gutierrez had three other victories in fights in Mexico that weren't registered.

To Romero, Gutierrez might as well be Salazar.

``There ain't no set up fights,'' Romero, who lives in Albuquerque, said this week. ``I've been in that situation _ everybody knows all about that. It (the Salazar fight) was supposedly all set up and he came out and whupped my butt, basically. We all know these types of guys are the most dangerous.''

Romero (34-3-1, 29 KOs) is trying to rebuild his career, and knows he can't afford another loss if he hopes to get another shot at a world title.

``My career started on a rocket and then it got stuck,'' Romero said. ``It got into a little valley. This is a stepping stone for me.''

That stone, Romero hopes, will lead to Paulie Ayala, the current WBA bantamweight champion.

Romero won five straight fights after losing to Salazar, and took the IBF junior bantamweight title from Colombia's Harold Grey with a second-round knockout in August 1996.

But Romero's career started to slide when he lost the IBF title to longtime rival Johnny Tapia in July 1997. He also lost a controversial decision to junior featherweight champ Vuyani Bungu 10 months ago and struggled in settling for a draw against Enrique Jupiter of Mexico City two months ago.

The fights against Bungu and Jupiter were at the 122-pound weight class and Romero looked sluggish. The punching power and quickness that were his forte when he held the 112-pound and 115-pound IBF titles disappeared. Now he's dropped down to 118 pounds (bantamweight).

``When I moved up, my punches weren't as snappy,'' Romero said. ``I lost that and I tried changing style. I wanted to box, punch, then box some more. I screwed up. I've got to go back to where I was. All knockouts.''

A win by Romero should get him closer to a title shot against Ayala, who took the WBA title from Tapia earlier this year and handed Tapia the first loss of his career.

Romero said he knows little about Gutierrez.

``He's supposed to be a very durable, tough guy,'' Romero said. ``Guys like this, they've got nothing to lose and they know it. They know winning can mean a title shot. Look at what happened to Willy, he went on to fight Johnny.''

Gutierrez, who spent this week working out in Romero's gym, oozed confidence, saying he has held his own against other world class fighters.

``This is going to be a tough fight, as much for him as for me,'' Gutierrez said in Spanish. ``I'm not going to let up on him and I'm going to seize this opportunity.''

Romero hasn't fought in his hometown for 2 1/2 years. That, he said, provides him with some incentive to score a lopsided win. Gutierrez said it does the same thing for him.

``It will give me great pride to come in and beat him in his house,'' Gutierrez said.

And Gutierrez's trainer, Jimmy Montoya, said Romero can't afford to have another Willy Salazar on his hands.

``If he loses to Chucky, it means he's still going backwards,'' Montoya said.