Boxing: Dokes struggles to provoke fear: Paul Hayward reports from New York on Riddick Bowe's world title defence tonight

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A VETERAN trainer with one of those smashed-melon faces leaned forward in the Times Square Gym this week and said: 'This guy Dokes isn't a fighter any more, and I ain't convinced about the champ either.' You could call it the cynic's view of tonight's heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden.

In a less devious boxing world the issue today would be just how good is Riddick Bowe, the puppyish and increasingly popular Brooklynite who deposed Evander Holyfield as champion in Las Vegas three months ago. But with Bowe just embarking on what is, in effect, a lucrative victory lap before the real business of facing Lennox Lewis, and possibly Mike Tyson, the best we can hope for is that Michael Dokes can still brush his own teeth tomorrow morning.

The idea that this is a genuine contest worthy of the great traditions of the Garden has been under the kind of pressure the New York road system faces at rush- hour. Indeed one prominent columnist here has aroused the indignation of the organisers by questioning whether the match- up should have been sanctioned at all given Dokes's dubious credentials.

Nor was much credibility lent to the contest at Thursday night's weigh-in, when the two fighters recorded the second-highest combined poundage in the history of the division. Bowe was 17st 5lb, or 9lb heavier than when he fought Holyfield, while Dokes was fractionally heavier than the WBA- IBF title-holder at 17st 6lb. Bowe's lack of definition in his upper body placed severe strain on the repeated assertions that he has trained for this fight as he would any other.

Nobody can begrudge Bowe his pay-day, and certainly few would deny Dokes the opportunity to further his battle against cocaine addiction with a dollars 750,000 ( pounds 525,000) injection of funds. But still the mystery endures as to why New Yorkers ('the smartest and the best fans in all the world,' according to Bowe's pudgy spin-doctor manager, Rock Newman) should endorse such a one-sided competition with their money.

Sterling McPherson, Dokes's handler, did his best yesterday to rally his client by saying: 'Michael's spilled enough blood all over this country to earn a shot at the title, and I can't believe there are so many fighters out there who are inconsiderate enough to say he shouldn't be in the ring tomorrow.

'You'll see he's well-conditioned for this fight. The bookies (who, in Vegas, have pushed Dokes out from 12-1 to 16-1) don't count. They made Buster Douglas 40-1 before he fought Mike Tyson in Tokyo. The bookies don't mean shit to me.'

Fair enough, but McPherson is forgetting one thing. The reason for Dokes's walk in the betting is that he packed up training on Monday night after taking 'a testicle shot' in a routine sparring session. The fact that he has been preparing for this fight for six weeks would not normally provide him with enough justification to down tools on such a pretext, and much less would it entitle him to complain of feeling 'jaded', as he did on Monday night. At least his arms and shoulders look as if they have been maintaining regular appointments with weights machines.

And still the tickets sell and the media army dumps its bags in ever-growing numbers wherever a quotation or anecdote can be consumed. Is it true Bowe saw everybody in his housing project wiped out in a multi-Uzi shoot-out? Is it right that every day he cradled shot kids in his arms? One day, at this rate, Bowe might not recognise his own life.

For all the justifiable cynicism, though, there is a crackle of anticipation in New York that has to do with memories of the city being what Bowe's estimable 81- year-old trainer, Eddie Futch, calls, 'the Mecca of the boxing universe'. Those who stand to gain most from tonight's wrangle were elated to hear Futch say: 'I first came to New York in 1942, and seeing a turnout like this (for a press conference) reminds me of those golden days. If you wanted to be a great fighter you came to New York. There were eight fights a week in the metropolitan area, and I'm hoping that this is a signal that New York will regain its old status.'

Before that, an organising official of the kind who leaves a fog of hyperbole and a cloud of cologne in his wake, had lauded the high level of ticket sales and pointed out fiercely: 'These are not gamblers and high-rollers who've been given tickets (in the fashion of Las Vegas). These are fight fans who know their boxing.'

Or who like their home-town fighters, and the allure of Madison Square Garden. Bowe's words suggest that he is staving off complacency in every waking moment, but the fact that he spent less time than normal in training camp, plus his lack of hard conditioning, suggests that he and his trainers are acknowledging that there are only so many peaks in a fighter's career, and that this need not be one of them.

For the record, Bowe is insisting: 'I've got great respect for my opponent. He has a lot of experience, he's rugged, and he's a very courageous guy, so I expect it to be a hell of a fight.' In a looser moment, though, he also said: 'All he has to do is show me the spot he wants to lay down on and I'll help him out.' There. Showtime, at last.

If the ritual sharing-out of such a large quantity of money is going to acquire some late sense of purpose, it could just come from the news that Lennox Lewis, the WBC champion by default, is to earn dollars 9,692,000 for fighting Tony Tucker in Las Vegas on 8 May. The fact that Lewis's purse will be comfortably higher than Bowe's is both one of those perverse twists of boxing and a product of Bowe's preference for staging his first defence in New York rather than in a Nevada casino.

The venue is costing him money, and the opponent, Dokes, is arousing the scepticism of those who argue that a champion must never have a soft-ish fight, lest the supposed integrity of the fight game suffer.

Easy to say from ring-side.

MIKE TYSON last night issued an open letter to Riddick Bowe from prison severely criticising the champion for being an 'atrocious weight' for his fight tonight against Michael Dokes. Tyson, in jail for rape, wrote: 'When I received the news about your weight I was shocked. I am ashamed for you and you should be ashamed of yourself, because so many people idolise you, such as myself. God will have mercy on you, and hopes you get through this one. If you do, and continue to come in at such a weight (17st 5lb), you won't survive long.'

(Photograph omitted)