Boxing: Bowe has the mass appeal: Paul Hayward reports from New York on the heavyweight hit man with humanity who is winning the fight for American hearts

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HE IS now more than a champion of the boxing ring. 'I'm the all- American kid,' Riddick Bowe said in a quiet moment after a press conference here, and the country is warbling its approval. When Bowe is in town, you get more than just the reflections of a face-puncher.

Few Americans would contest the idea that Bowe is the most appealing heavyweight champion since Ali. Mothers love him because he tells kids to respect them, liberals champion his philanthropy, and the boxing world admires his talent and his ability to portray this savage activity in something approaching noble terms.

'I want to tell them,' Bowe said in a discussion about young fighters beating their way out of the ghetto, 'not everybody in boxing is corrupt. You can be honest.'

This is powerful talk in a sport which is more accustomed to being despised than exalted, and you can see why the men in suits want Bowe to go on and on, both with his victories in the ring and his gentle exhortations to the urban poor to rise by self-improvement rather than crime or revolt. He counsels admiring children 'to be respectful, and listen to their mothers', and says: 'People think all boxers are dumb and that they drink and take drugs. It doesn't have to be like that.'

Bowe was talking after the ritual hyping of his first WBA and IBF title defence at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night against Michael Dokes, whose slow-talking, shuffling demeanour provided a stomach-tightening contrast with Bowe's aura of youth and good health.

This is his time. He is a bright- eyed, affable family man who is being elevated to America's small gallery of universally approved celebrities. New Yorkers are scything a path to Manhattan to see his first defence and all the while his schedule of non-boxing engagements grows so there is a possibility Bowe will join Ali as one of the totemic figures in the history of black Americans.

A few examples. Later this month, Bowe is planning to meet Nelson Mandela in South Africa before flying on to Somalia to make a donation to the relief effort there. After that he will travel to Rome for an audience with the Pope, and Germany, where he will visit American troops (a stop in London to promote his five-fight deal with ITV is also planned). Is it all an outrageous expression of vanity, of cunning? No, is the unlikely answer.

There is too much evidence to the contrary. Like the fact that Bowe has worked with the civil rights activist, Dick Gregory, and his organisation, Dignity. Like the fact that Bowe spent dollars 10,000 on tickets for tomorrow's fight to give to children from the dreaded housing projects. 'You've got to give something back,' he said in a small huddle after the pre-fight promotion ceremony.

It is a potent and in many ways bizarre combination. Bowe is the social missionary who funds his work by pummelling other men's skulls in a trade he shows no signs of detesting. Alongside his desire to assist those still stranded in Brooklyn and the Bronx he has placed a startling range of behavioural rules for himself that even preclude the use of 'profane language'.

Altogether, this is a champ with far softer outlines than a Mike Tyson. While other boxers are absurdly nicknamed 'The Assassin' and 'The Terminator', Bowe has settled for 'The Big Daddy'. He calls his trainer, the owl-like Eddie Futch, 'Papa Smurf' in deference to the old man's wisdom and protectiveness, and Bowe's wife, Judy, is very much a sober-looking, homely woman who emanates familial solidarity. 'When you get hit, I can feel it,' she once told him.

The two of them plan to enroll at Howard University, where Judy will study health services and Riddick will read business administration and drama.

So much for the all-American story of spirit triumphing over adversity, but what about Bowe the fighter? Futch once said: 'Riddick Bowe reminds me of a young Muhammad Ali,' but the consensus in New York is that 'young' was the word to highlight from Futch's entirely sincere appraisal.

For all the power and courage of that title win over Evander Holyfield on 13 November, there are still those who maintain that Bowe has not yet faced a puncher of Tyson's ferocity in his 32 successful professional fights.

Tyson, the jailbird, is the ghost at every dinner in heavyweight boxing. Bowe has spoken to him and says, with typical maturity: 'I hope he realises his mistakes and becomes a better person for them.

'As far as boxing goes, he knows that when he comes home and I'm still heavyweight champion he's going to have to fight me. In order for me to be proclaimed as one of the best heavyweights ever I'm going to have to beat Mike Tyson. Ali had Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, and I need a guy like Mike Tyson.'

Bowe, by the way, is not succumbing to romantic retrospection when he says Ali was the biggest influence on his childhood. 'He inspired me in so many different ways,' he said. 'He wouldn't renounce his religion of Islam, he wouldn't fight in Vietnam because he said he had no cause to. He was always someone I could look up to.'

Bowe had an absentee father (now dead) of the 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone' variety. It delights magazine writers and purveyors of melodrama that Futch, the sagacious cornerman, has performed that role since taking on Bowe (reluctantly at first). 'I would have felt a little naked without him,' Bowe said last week after Futch, who has a heart complaint, was cleared by doctors to attend tomorrow's fight.

'Usually when I'm wrapping his hands, nobody's standing around, nobody's nearby, and he'll say things to me that are really in here,' Futch said, tapping his heart, and from this patriarchal figure, Bowe has learned like a mantra the lesson that retaining his title (Lennox Lewis, of course, nominally holds one third of the crown) will require unceasing attention to work.

Bowe weighed in last night at 17st 3lb, six pounds more than when he won his titles from Evander Holyfield. Dokes weighed a pound more than Bowe.

(Photograph omitted)