Boxing: America awaits Neary's progress

SHOULD TONIGHT'S World Boxing Union light-welterweight title fight at St George's Hall, Liverpool, featuring Shea Neary, turn out to be an uneventful bout it will surely surprise many observers. The Merseyside- based champion has a cultivated a burgeoning reputation as British boxing's most exciting fighter.

As usual when Neary fights in his home town, the arena - albeit a modest 1,500-seater - was sold out weeks ago. Neary, 30, is a rarety in this sport: a man who has the capability of packing houses irrespective of his opposition. That tonight's challenger is a little known Argentinian, Juan Carlos Villareal, is neither here nor there. A Neary fight has long been recognised as an opportunity for Liverpool's fight fans to turn up in force.

Tonight will be a homecoming of sorts for the champion, his last defence - a stirring 12-round win over South Africa's Naas Scheepers in July - having taken place in Widnes, due to the scant availability of suitable sized venues in Liverpool. When Neary faced his home-town rival Andy Holligan in March, his promoters were forced to erect a marquee on Stanley Park, famously situated in the "no man's land" between Anfield and Goodison, in order to accommodate a raucous crowd of 5,000.

But now the celebrations are set to go global. While tonight's fight will be screened live by ITV, the first time that the network has gone head-to-head with Match of the Day for almost four years, the interest expressed in Neary by the American subscription TV channel Home Box Office looks set to move the Scouse success story on to another level entirely.

HBO have made stars of Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed in the United States, and the all-action style of "Shamrock Express" Neary has further impressed the American TV moguls. But a convincing performance against Villareal is imperative to transforming HBO's interest into the kind of agreement that has made Lewis and Hamed into multi-millionaires.

Neary's commitment is unquestionable; he is as ferocious a trainer as he is an opponent and his conditioning is beyond reproach. And the chances are that he will need all his stamina this evening as Villareal, 28, has a reputation for durability earned in more than twice as many fights as the champion - 36 wins, five losses and one draw. But the unbeaten Neary, in search of his 21st career victory, is favoured to win on points.

Integral to the success enjoyed by Neary's Liverpool promoters, Munro- Hyland, are their links with the Norfolk-based World Boxing Union. While it is rated as the fifth most important of world boxing's sanctioning bodies, the WBU's commitment to competitive match-making has provided Munro-Hyland with the consistently exciting bouts with which to attract worldwide TV interest.

Also on tonight's card, Peter Culshaw aims to become Munro-Hyland's third WBU champion - Neary aside, stablemate Colin Dunne holds the organisation's lightweight title - when he meets South Africa's Mzukisi Marali for the WBU flyweight title. Culshaw, with a 13-1-1 record, has the class to stop the former World Boxing Council title challenger.