Former welterweight champion Buddy McGirt's clientele expanded in step with his growing reputation as a trainer, and his Vero Beach, Fla., gym is more crowded than ever.

"I really lost count," McGirt said last week when asked how many new fighters have come to him in the nearly three months since Arturo Gatti's masterful performance in a unanimous decision over Micky Ward in November.

Along with his work with Antonio Tarver and Nate Campbell, McGirt's transformation of the brawling Gatti into a boxer-puncher made McGirt a near-consensus choice for trainer of the year. It also earned him a virtually exclusive contract to work with fighters promoted by Main Events earlier this month.

That contract has already led to scheduling conflicts with his other fighters, including Takoma Park 140-pounder Sharmba Mitchell.

Mitchell (50-3) is scheduled to take on Carlos Vilches (38-2-2) on Jan. 25 in Atlantic City, the same night that Campbell meets Joel Casamayor in a 130-pound clash on the undercard of the Vernon Forrest-Ricardo Mayorga welterweight title fight in Temecula, Calif.

McGirt will be in Campbell's corner that night. Mitchell elected to train with McGirt anyway.

"It's not a problem at all," Mitchell said. "Nate Campbell's coming up on the biggest fight of his life. I understand why Buddy's going to be there."

McGirt said that Mitchell has shown renewed commitment.

"He looks sharper this time than he did for the [Vince] Phillips fight," McGirt said, referring to his work preparing Mitchell for his last fight, a majority decision victory on Nov. 9. "The fact that he knows that I have to be in California with Nate and still coming down here and working hard, that makes me feel better."

Mitchell, 32, said that McGirt's role was more or less that of a consultant to Mitchell and Rock Simms, his longtime trainer.

"With Gatti, changing his whole style, Buddy had to be hands-on with him, and it's very beneficial to be with him," Mitchell said. "Gatti needs something like that. He knows I know what I'm doing in the ring. It's not really hard work with me."

Mitchell will surely be watching Saturday night when Kostya Tszyu, who holds all three of the major belts in the division, makes a title defense against Jesse James Leija. Both Mitchell and Washington's DeMarcus Corley, the WBO 140-pound champion, are hoping for a shot at Tszyu next.

Also working out in McGirt's gym is Great Falls 150-pounder Jimmy Lange, who is "taking his game to the next level," in Mitchell's view. Lange (18-1-1), according to his father and manager, John, is in the second week of a three-week stint with McGirt and Mitchell, preparing for a February return to the ring after an 11-month hiatus.

Joppy in Waiting

Silver Spring middleweight William Joppy, the WBA champion, continues to pursue a bout with Robert Allen, the IBF's No. 1 contender, sometime in March or April.

"We're just waiting to hear from" Allen's management, said Stan Hoffman, Joppy's manager.

Both Joppy (34-2-1) and Allen (33-4 ) are hoping for a fight against Bernard Hopkins, the undisputed middleweight champion.

Pearson on the Mend

Capitol Heights 130-pounder Lamont Pearson (19-2-1) said this week that he is recovering from December surgery on his right hand. The injury stemmed from his Dec. 5 loss to WBA champion Yodsanan Nanthachai in Bangkok. He targeted a late spring, early summer comeback.

"It's healing rapidly," Pearson said. But it has to be not only physically ready, but I have to be mentally ready to throw it." . . .

Forestville 164-pounder James McAllister (8-2-1) will meet Ian Gardner (7-1) in the co-feature bout at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie on Thursday night. . . . Former champion Mark Johnson remains on the undercard of the Mitchell-Vilches fight, but an opponent has yet to be named.