NEW YORK (AP) – When Floyd Mayweather Jr. walked away from boxing, he was widely considered the pound-for-pound king, the mythical mantle bestowed upon the best in the game.

Now that he’s back, at least one person believes Mayweather still is: lightweight champ Juan Manual Marquez, whom he’ll face in his highly anticipated return.

“I’m expecting the best Floyd Mayweather ever,” Marquez said Tuesday, at a news conference on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building to help launch the fight. “I’m putting in my mind that he never retired, so I’m expecting the best.”

The two will meet July 18 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where tickets are scheduled to go on sale Friday. They’ll fight at a catch-weight of about 143 pounds, eight more than Marquez has ever fought and the lightest that Mayweather has been since 2005.

Neither believes the weight will make much difference.

Mayweather already has been in the gym a couple of months, ever since giving his adviser Leonard Ellerbe the green-light to screen potential opponents.

Mayweather claims he’s close to 147 pounds and pronounced himself fit after a run through Central Park on Tuesday morning.

Marquez has been packing on muscle while training in the mountains of central Mexico.

He said the brutal regimen, which has included several weeks of lifting boulders, has given him confidence that he’ll be the one to finally dethrone the king.

“I always prepare myself to win,” Marquez said quietly, sitting a few feet from where the outgoing Mayweather held court with dozens of reporters. “He’s not a machine, he’s a human being, and human beings can be beat.”

Mayweather, the former five-division champ, hasn’t stepped in the ring since knocking out Ricky Hatton in December 2007, when he was still basking in the aura of his transcending victory over Oscar De La Hoya. He’d cashed in his “Pretty Boy” nickname for one more befitting his agenda – “Money” – and was showing up everywhere from “Dancing with the Stars” to WrestleMania.

That’s when Mayweather abruptly called it quits, turning his attention to show business.

Mayweather’s year away from the ring opened the door for Manny Pacquiao to step through, and the charismatic Filipino icon did it in destructive fashion.

Where Mayweather needed 12 rounds to beat De La Hoya, Pacquiao needed eight; where the flamboyant welterweight needed 10 rounds to stop Hatton, the smaller Pacquiao needed only two earlier this month.

Now, much to Mayweather’s chagrin, many consider Pacquiao the best.

“I respect him for what he does, I respect him in the fight game, but I’ve never been beat,” Mayweather said of Pacquiao, who’s lost three times, the last in 2005. “Nobody has the antidote for Floyd Mayweather.”

While most presume the two will eventually settle the pound-for-pound dispute in the ring, Mayweather (39-0, 25 KOs) must first deal with Marquez, his hand-picked opponent.

Marquez (50-4-1, 37 KOs) lost a slugfest by close split-decision to Pacquiao in 2008, a bout that Mayweather and many others believe the Mexican fighter won. Five years ago, Marquez rallied from three first-round knockdowns to earn a bloody draw with Pacquiao in their first bout.

Marquez’s stunning knockout of Joel Casamayor last year and his brutal knockout of Juan Diaz in February entrenched him as one of the most electrifying fighters available. More importantly, they produced an opponent that intrigued Mayweather enough to return to the ring.

“Marquez is a warrior,” he said, conferring rare praise upon one of his foes. “He’s a hell of a fighter. I don’t have to come here and bad-mouth anybody.”

Mayweather paused for a moment, then added: “They say to be the best, you got to beat the best. I think they got Marquez in the dark and somebody has to give him a shot. Why not me?”

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