Boxing: Exile on boxing's mean streets

Andrew Longmore says the American who came to Britain was the week's class act
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Not 30 seconds into his challenge for the World Boxing Organisation light-middleweight title, Adrian Dodson must have wondered about the wisdom of swapping a career as a dancer for life in the ring. Twice his head had been snapped back on its well-muscled neck by the right hand of Ronald Wright and long before the champion had called out: "You're dead, man" in the sixth and terminal round, the Englishman knew his fate. Boxing is cruel in obvious ways, but most of all in the awful suddenness with which reality dawns.

By the end of the first round, Dodson knew two things with startling clarity; one was that he had stepped into space, the other that there was no retreat from the darkness or the pain. He waded forward with commendable bravery and, in the privacy of his dressing-room afterwards, even dredged up a sense of humour. "Don't tell me," he said. "I look like elephant man." You only had to look at the mess which was once his face to know the accuracy of his assessment. "I just couldn't get away from that jab, man. I tried everything, but he was just too good."

Across the corridor, Dodson's doctor had wandered into the victor's dressing- room, partly to check on the stitch in Wright's left eye caused by a clash of heads, mostly to add his own to the flood of congratulation. Wright wanted to know if Dodson's nose was broken. "I think so," replied the doctor, "but I haven't told him the bad news yet." Wright shrugged and apologised. "I told him that, man. I told him he should quit, you know, and I didn't want to hit him much after that because I don't want to take his livelihood away. I mean I just wanted to win. Hey, tell him to keep going, get back in the gym. It's just boxing."

There were plenty in a desultory crowd at the Docklands Arena on Friday night who knew they didn't have to be in Madison Square Garden, New York, to catch class. It was right there in front of their eyes, wrapped up in 26 years and 10st 133/4lb of calculated venom, masked by an innocent face which suggested that the first rule of the boxer - "hit and don't get hit" - had been scrupulously observed by its owner. Sadly, though, the game has moved into cruder times. Brilliance is simply not a good enough gimmick. While Prince Naseem Hamed struts his way through New York, "Winky" - the nickname stems from childhood - Wright has been forced into exile to earn his living. A quarter-full arena was a shabby backdrop to his skills.

Since leaving his home town of St Petersburg in Florida five years ago, Wright has fought in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Argentina and, for his last three fights under the co-promotion of Frank Warren, in England. "I don't begrudge Naz nothing," he said. "He deserves what he gets. But, hey, they should spread some of that money around. I've been taking on all-comers in their own towns and I think I've earned some of it now."

There are some signs that his talent is finally being recognised. "HBO called me up two weeks ago and said they wanted to give him a spot," Dan Birmingham, Wright's long-time trainer, said. "But who knows? It's all politics. When he was 16 and 0 [16 wins, 0 losses], I called up Don King, the Duvas, everyone, but not one of them returned my call. Since Wink won the title, he's fought twice in 19 months and 16 days. I count every day because we're not making any money."

But Wink still has a few more luxuries than when his family first arrived in St Petersburg from Washington 10 years ago. He owns a nice house, drives a BMW and a brand new Ford truck. His father called up some months ago for the first time in 30 years, but Wink was suspicious of the motives and did not pursue the contact. It is classic boxing territory, even down to the tale of the quiet youth who turned up one morning at St Pete's Gym on the corner of First Avenue and 32nd Street South. "He was just a happy-go-lucky kid who wanted something to do," Birmingham recalled. "But within three weeks he was beating the best I had. Behind the little smile, there's one tough kid."

Dodson would echo the sentiments. Entering the ring, he cut an impressive figure in chequered shorts and black bandanna; 23 minutes later he returned to his seat a bloody testimony to the speed and slice of Wright's jab. A profusion of instructions from the corner hardly helped his clarity of thought as he struggled to digest mouthfuls of green leather. "A masterclass, mate," one of Dodson's followers told Wright later. It was too. "We're heading for Las Vegas , we've just taken a little longer than most to get there," Birmingham said. After years of travelling, the arrival might be a shock. Wright is far too classy for Vegas.