BRIXTON BOY’S ROAD TO MANDALAY

7 November 2004

Williams’s world title fight with the Ukrainian is an unlikely recovery, says Brough Scott in Las Vegas 

Las Vegas was full of the unlikely last week. On election day you could walk the whole length of the Sunset Strip without seeing as much as one poster for either Kerry or Bush. And beyond the impossible to believe hotels such as Caesar’s Palace, Luxor with its own tomb of Tutankhamun, Paris with its Eiffel Tower and Venice with not just the Grand Canal but St Mark’s Square minus the pigeons, comes a new proposition: Danny Williams from Brixton, future heavyweight champion of the world.

Back in January, as not many of you may remember, 31-year-old Williams had lost his British and Commonwealth titles after 12 deeply unimpressive rounds with Michael Sprott at Wembley. True, it was only his third defeat in 31 professional fights, but as the previous one had been a six-round battering in Berlin by the Turk Sinal Samil Sam, on Williams’s only attempt at the European title, everyone, most of all Mike Tyson’s advisers, thought they knew his limitations.

Which was how we all ended up in Louisville, Kentucky that thundery night in July with Tyson doing his tattooed `Baddest Man on The Planet’ act in one corner and all 19 stones of Williams standing up ready for the slaughter in the other. The chop came soon enough, a left hook to Williams’s head right in front of us which was little short of decapitation. But Danny somehow hung on, Tyson ran out of steam, and in the fourth ended up sitting on his backside blinking stupidly at the referee’s improbably ponderous attempts at the count.

So Williams the fall guy, the reluctant boxer only put in the ring by his father Augustus’s world champion dream; whose two other fights this year (against the not desperately well-renowned might of Messrs Ratko Draskovic and Augustine N’Gou) were both in Bethnal Green, will now rock up to the $950 million Mandalay Bay resort hotel at the airport end of The Sunset Strip on Dec 11 and step into the ring with the truly forbidding sight of the 6ft 7½ in Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko, holder of the World Boxing Council crown.

In 33 fights the 34-year-old Vitali, who rejoices in the nickname of Dr Ironfist and whose brother, Vladmir, was originally an even higher contender, has lost only twice and both times unluckily. Against Chris Byrd in 2000 he had a dislocated shoulder; against Lennox Lewis in Los Angeles he was ahead on all three judges’ cards when cuts stopped him in the sixth. With his piercing eyes and sculpted face, Klitschko looked an intimidating figure as he towered over the 6ft 1½ in Williams at press conferences last week in Los Angeles and at the Mandalay Bay fight venue, a hotel whose delights include a full scale `beach’ complete with surf wave machine. Six months ago we would have laughed at the prospect of the two men sharing the ring. Now, as ever in boxing, we cannot be so sure.

The transformation, we are asked to believe, is Williams overcoming pre-fight tension, on one occasion actually bursting into a blubbering fit at traffic lights when in the car. “It haunted me from my amateur days,” he said on Friday. “I have always been open with the press and when I told someone about my lack of confidence it began to become a big thing. “I put more and more pressure on myself. I went to all sorts of sports psychologists but in the end I had to solve it myself. After the last Sprott fight I told myself I was letting myself down. Now I feel comfortable.”

So we journey down the necessary roads of self-belief. Williams’s first defeat, to Julius Francis (earlier flattened in two rounds by Klitschko) was later avenged. His savaging by Sam `The Beast of The Bosphorus’ was down to shingles; his Sprott `stinker’ would never happen again. Difficulties in going with the Williams’s theories are not eased by his innate good manners. When Paul Gallico may have famously said “I like my heavyweights mean,” he was referring to the immortal Jack Dempsey. Williams is cut from different cloth, “I like to be polite and respectful to people,” he said last week. “Klitschko has been a gentleman at the press conferences, has come up and shook my hand. But when I get in the ring, I can be as nasty as possible.”

It all sounds a rather improbable threat to Klitschko’s crown even if Sprott did dub Williams “Desperate and Dirty Dan” after the third of their three fights. However, here is something deeply impressive as well as endearing in Williams’s humility and homespun philosophies. His training has included the body strengthening exercise of pushing his wife and two daughters around Brixton in his car. “Blokes kept coming up to me and asking if I wanted some jump leads,” he said.

He may be 20 pounds heavier than that bad night with `The Beast’ in Berlin but there is an armour of massive muscle which could yet discomfit the 20lb lighter Klitschko if Williams can survive the physical and mental barrage of Dr Ironfist’s usual opening onslaught. The revelation in Louisville may well have been as much about getting away for four weeks quality work in New York with his astute little trainer, Jim McDonnell, as the much trumpeted mental transformation.

These final weeks in Las Vegas will move his schedule and sparring to a higher dimension again. “I am already fitter than I was for the Tyson fight,” Williams said. “Jim has worked me very, hard and we have a very tough programme ahead. I visualised everything before Tyson, even him hitting me harder than anyone ever has before. I will visualise Klitschko. I will do everything he does, but do it better.”

There’s such a dignity about the man that you feel awkward in asking how, in this city of temptation, he will avoid succumbing to the traps which have corrupted so many would-be champions. “I am a devout Muslim,” he said quietly. “In New York I kept my head down and got on with things. My parents will come out, and my sister and maybe my wife and kids later. But I have a job to do. “Besides,” he added with a welcome sense of proportion, “getting into the ring is tough but it is not the end of the world. I have been hit on the head since I started boxing 20 years ago. I can take some more for a world title.”

The make-believe of sport and of Sin City could have no harsher resonance than to walk through Las Vegas on election day listening to a cheery phone message from my son Jim about to lead 25 young Scotsmen on an unspecified mission into the Iraq badlands above Basra. All the posturing of politicians, all the phoney fury of big fight promoters pales behind the brutal realities these soldiers are being asked to combat in the desert.

It is not something that Danny Williams would dispute. “This is business,” he said, “not putting myself on the line. But I am fitter than I have ever been. I believe I can do it.” There was sunshine in Nevada but snow on the mountains and ice in the heart as we yearn for combat as no more than a game.

** NB Danny Williams took a nine count in the first round and harsh beating from Klitchko until the fight was stopped in the 8th. “He didn’t hit as hard as Mike Tyson,” said Danny ruefully, but he was more consistent with his punches.” Understatement of the year ?

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