Akinwande weaves his magic

Harry Mullan says Oliver McCall could fall foul of the London- born Nigerian; Forgotten British heavyweight in Don King's camp has the chance to set up fight for the world title
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THESE are anxious times for Frans Botha, the IBF heavyweight champion, and Henry Akinwande, the lanky Londoner who wants his title. The routine drugs test administered to the roly-poly South African after his controversial points win over Germany's Axel Schulz for the vacant title last month revealed substantial quantities of anabolic steroids, and if the follow- up test - results due shortly - confirm that finding, there is a strong possibility that Botha will be stripped of his crown.

As matters stand, that would mean a match for the vacant title between Schulz and the No2 contender, Oliver McCall - the American who stopped Lennox Lewis and then flopped against Frank Bruno. But Akinwande is due to fight McCall in Phoenix on Saturday, and would automatically replace him in the title fight if he wins. Rarely can the results of a German drugs test have been awaited with such anticipation and trepidation in Lewisham and Johannesburg.

Botha, of course, vigorously denies using any body-building drugs, and it is true that his generous proportions are not appreciably different to those I have achieved myself over the years using tournedos rossini, barolo and tiramisu with extra cream. If he was on steroids, he ought to ask his chemist for a refund.

Saturday's fight is a major breakthrough for Akinwande, whose career has taken off in the year since he joined Don King's heavyweight circus after six successful but low-profile years under Mickey Duff's management. Despite remaining unbeaten and winning the European and Commonwealth titles, the 6ft 7in Londoner had to watch Britain's other three heavyweights - Lewis, Bruno and Herbie Hide - win world titles and seven- figure pay cheques. Hide's WBO title success was particularly galling, since Akinwande had outpointed him comfortably in the 1989 ABA final.

He also fumed with frustration as Schulz made his name last year when George Foreman was given the verdict over him, and again when Schulz fought Botha for the title Foreman vacated. Akinwande had faced the German twice in European title fights, drawing the first (the only blemish on his 27- fight record) and winning virtually every round in the rematch. But these days if you're not on King's team you don't get to play in the game. Akinwande eventually accepted this unpalatable fact of boxing life and signed with Sterling McPherson, one of King's "satellite" managers.

Suddenly, the doors were open. In December, he was featured on the Mike Tyson v Buster Mathis show in Philadelphia, and gave a career-best performance in outclassing the former IBF champion Tony Tucker to take over the American's No3 spot in the world ratings. Only Tyson and Lewis had beaten Tucker in nearly 60 fights, so it was a truly significant victory and underlined what Akinwande said of his British rivals a couple of years ago, when his own career seemed stagnant: "We're all travelling down the same road, but it's narrowing and at the end of it they'll find Henry Akinwande still waiting for them."

Despite his lack of public recognition here, he has been around in the top flight, amateur and professional, for a decade. He took up the sport at 20, soon after his family's return from Nigeria, and within a year was contesting the first of four consecutive ABA finals (he won in 1988 and 1989). He boxed regularly for England and made the 1988 Olympic team.

What happened next goes some way towards explaining why Britain's last boxing gold medal was won nearly 30 years ago. The local Social Security office ruled that since Akinwande was training he was not available for work, and stopped his unemployment benefit. Friends and well-wishers rallied round, but in the circumstances Akinwande's defeat in a preliminary round was hardly surprising.

He has grown into a much more intimidating physical specimen since, and will be nearer 17st on Saturday than the 14st 12lb he scaled on his professional debut in 1989. His height, and proportionately long reach, make him a nightmare opponent for anyone. The troubled McCall, demoralised by his shoddy performance against Bruno, could not have picked a more difficult route to rehabilitation.

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