Boxing: Dunstan's hard road to fame

Seth Linder studies the talents of a boxer at odds with the image makers
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When it comes to putting bums on seats there's no such thing as bad publicity. Bad-mouthing opponents and weigh-in confrontations have helped make Prince Naseem Hamed a national institution after all. But what about the fighters who prefer to do their talking in the ring? As the line between sport and showbiz becomes ever more blurred, are equally talented but less controversial boxers in danger of being overlooked?

On Saturday, Terry Dunstan fights for the vacant European cruiserweight title against Patric Aiouissie of France. Terry who? Precisely. Yet many in boxing rate the 6ft 3in Londoner as a future world champion. His ex- sparring partner Frank Bruno believes there is no one in the country to touch him, including Hamed. "Terry's the most skilful boxer and mover out there," Bruno said. For the ex-flyweight champion Charlie Magri, Dunstan is special: "One of the finest of the bigger boxers we've produced." According to Barry McGuigan, Dunstan at his best can be brilliant, reminiscent even of Sugar Ray Leonard.

At the relatively old age of 28, Dunstan is being taken very seriously indeed. So why is it still Terry who? There was certainly little in the likeable, straight-talking Dunstan's early career to excite the kind of interest generated by Hamed. Growing up in south London, Dunstan turned to boxing after a promising spell as a basketball player, reaching the England under-19 squad. His 17 fights as an amateur, however, hardly set the boxing world alight, critics pointing to a lack of motivation. Even his present trainer, Howard Rainey, believes Dunstan just played at being an amateur. Dunstan does not deny the accusations. "There was nothing to fight for. Just a trophy at the end. If I had to lose weight I'd go out night- clubbing. But when I turned pro [in 1993] that was different. I was earning my living."

A late developer by his own admission, Dunstan's pro-record showed a stark contrast: all 14 fights won, with eight knock-outs, including the second fasted in British title fight history - 44 seconds against John "Buster" Keaton last May and two defeats of the ex-world champion Dennis Andries. But little change in his profile ensued. Magri believes he just hasn't had the breaks, essential to any boxer. Rainey says he hasn't had the luxury of looking good against inferior opposition. "If you look at Naseem, he's been well protected. Terry's come up the hard way. He hasn't ducked the tough fights. He won the British cruiserweight title after eight fights, the Lonsdale bet outright after 13."

But the contrast with Hamed is instructive in other ways too. Dunstan, who laments the lack of real characters in the sport today, says he just isn't interested in ridiculing opponents to raise his stock. "Boxing is like a carnival these days. You're expected to razz it up, be gladiators. But Bruno showed you don't have to bad-mouth people to get to the British public. They want a fighter who does his talking in the ring. Guys like Naseem haven't got the style of true champions."

Rainey, who recommends a read of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the egos of the boxing world, says Dunstan has too much respect for his opponents to follow the Hamed route. "It's just not in his nature. When he knocks a guy out the first thing he does is go over and ask how he is. To show it's nothing personal, just business." The image makers cannot be altogether ignored, however. Even Bruno, a role model for Dunstan, has suggested the removal of Dunstan's prized earring.

A maturer Dunstan feels he is ready to take not just the WBO cruiserweight title but the other three belts as well. The ultimate plan is to move into the heavyweight arena, perhaps to take on another ex-sparring partner, Lennox Lewis, against whom, according to Rainey, Dunstan more than held his own. Rainey says Dunstan is now supremely fit and stronger than ever - areas where Bruno expressed concern. McGuigan, too, qualifies his admiration with worries about Dunstan's concentration and consistency. "He's got to stick to his strategy. He boxes brilliantly at times but he can lose concentration and, at this level, that can mean the end of the fight. If he can conquer that he can be a world-beater."

Dunstan, who believes the British public have yet to see the best of him, says he will take Aiouissi in five rounds. Then he stops himself. "I sound like Naz," he laughs. Victory should finally bring Dunstan the attention he and others in boxing feel he deserves. But he could remain a challenge to the image makers. The Polite Assassin? Maybe not.