Boxing: Dokes a convalescent contender: Riddick Bowe's first challenger is fighting his way back from cocaine. Paul Hayward reports from New York

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The Independent Online
THE FUR coat seemed about right for a world heavyweight championship contender, but the footwear was a little less convincing. Michael Dokes wore his slippers to the gym.

It was hardly the warrior's entrance, but then nothing about Dokes's position as challenger to Riddick Bowe at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night entitles him to behave like an executioner. Dokes is 34, a former chronic cocaine addict, and is expected by this pitiless city to be no more than a token presence at Bowe's 'homecoming' in that most evocative of boxing venues.

This is what it is to be the 12-1 outsider in a two-horse race. While Bowe, the champion, was enjoying the relative tranquillity of his Pennsylvanian retreat early this week, Dokes was padding into the unprepossessing Times Square Gym wearing a pair of soleless moccasins. In the icy New York nights (wind chill factor: -20C), he has been running down Fifth Avenue to add final conditioning to his 6ft 3in frame, another hooded eccentric out long after hours, long after the dispossessed have taken over the streets.

'It's quiet after midnight, it's tranquil,' Dokes said before a routine sparring session at the gym on West 42nd Street. But then the serenity Dokes has sought most of all has litle to do with traffic or human congestion. It is freedom from the memory of a promising career lost in a narcotic haze.

Three times Dokes has been arrested for cocaine abuse. On the most recent occasion, in 1991, he narrowly escaped a prison sentence when a judge handed him a suspended sentence, five years' probation and the threat of certain incarceration if he was caught again.

'I was doing drugs before I won the title but I was only a casual user then,' he said. 'I didn't become abusive until late 1983 or '84 when all this became a nightmare for me.' He was referring, most obviously, to the day he was knocked out by Gerrie Coetzee after taking the WBA title home to his native Ohio, where only a few thousand people turned out for what was supposed to be a fanfare.

'All this,' of course, has been submerged beneath the cold arithmetic of whether Dokes can represent a credible opponent for Bowe in his honeymoon period of title defences.

Dokes's record of 50 wins from 55 fights provides only the scantiest summary of his difficult passage from being WBA champion in 1982, through drug abuse, some brutally debilitating fights, the nadir of 1991, and finally to the minor renaissance of a nine-bout unbeaten run and a chance to confront Bowe in the Garden.

The fact that along the way Dokes spoke of abandoning boxing and setting up as a professional wrestler ('The Handsome Stranger' to be his moniker) tells you everything you need to know about his undulating fortunes.

In their harshest moments, and there are plenty of them, New Yorkers loudly declare that Dokes is 'a bum' whose paper credentials (that brief world title) have been horribly inflated, in the way of boxing, so as to maximise ticket sales while minimising the risk to Bowe. 'He used to buy cocaine like other people buy potatoes,' was one comment overheard.

And yet even the most severe of those judges were willing to concede that Dokes's upper body, when he removed his slippers and tracksuit, contained enough of the requisite bulges for Saturday night's fight at least to resemble a combat zone. The memory of him being felled by Razor Ruddock in this city one night in 1990 ('I thought he was dead,' a spectator recalled) was a more disquieting image to place alongside that of Dokes's current fitness and sense of resolve.

Listening to Bowe is to ride the surf of expectation that carries a homecoming champion (Bowe is from Brooklyn). Listening to Dokes is to be taken close to the bonfire within. 'I'm an addict,' he said. 'A recovering addict, but like the rest of us, an addict. We always want things to happen now. I can't go that route anymore. I have to take my life day by day, and sometimes minute by minute.'

You can say, as many people here do, 'it's his own fault', or you can hope simply that he emerges from Bowe's punches well enough and wealthy enough to continue in his recovery. He has no wife or children. 'I fight for myself,' he said during an address more rich in humility than you are entitled to expect five days before a world heavyweight fight.

'Most people clean out their houses in the spring,' Dokes said. 'I have to do the same to my mind, every day. I'm glad now I did those drugs because it took me somewhere I didn't want to be. Coming back, you can't even imagine. To rise to the point where I am now, it gives you strength you can't believe.'

Strength he is going to need on Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)