Boxing: From Spice Boy to man of the world

Ryan Rhodes is on a fast track to glory in the boxing ring. Harry Mullan meets the Prince's stablemate

There were two good reasons why Ryan Rhodes, in the time-honoured tradition of such events, was "unable to be with us tonight" to receive his trophy as Best Young Boxer at last week's Boxing Writers' Club annual dinner. The first was that he was boxing for the World Boxing Organisation Inter-Continental light-middleweight title two days later (he knocked out Lindon Scarlett in 91 seconds) and the other was that there would not be any women there, since the club, marching determinedly away from the millennium, refuse to admit them to any of their functions.

Brendan Ingle, Rhodes's manager, collected the award on his behalf, and in his acceptance speech rightly rebuked the club for its archaic attitude. Ingle's objections were rooted in the passionate socialism which guides his philosophy, but Ryan just likes to have the ladies around.

The "Spice Boy" logo which adorned his shorts in the Scarlett fight derived from a famously sour quote from Brendan's son Dominic as he left the dressing- room after Rhodes had retained his British title inside a round against Peter Waudby a few weeks previously. "I'm getting out," he said. "It's like a Spice Girls convention in there."

The girls' enthusiasm is understandable. Rhodes has all the qualities needed to be a bimbo-magnet: a good-looking 20-year-old who is the youngest British champion for nearly 20 years, he has the glamour and charisma to secure a future as golden as that of his long-time friend Naseem Hamed. He has enjoyed a meteoric rise, capturing a Lonsdale Belt in record time (90 days) after winning the British title by knocking out the former WBO champion Paul Jones, once his stablemate in the Ingle camp.

"I knew it would happen," he says. "I never had any doubts that I'd be a champion, but it's all happened so quick.

"But there's no danger of me getting carried away with my success. Everybody says I haven't changed, that I'm not big-headed. I can't see myself ever outgrowing Sheffield, whatever happens. Sheffield people are great and I get a real buzz out of boxing here. I'll never move out. My parents are both from Sheffield and I belong here. I've got a big family in the city, three younger brothers and quite a few uncles. I'd like to fight at Caesars Palace or Madison Square Garden but I'd always come back home afterwards."

Rhodes was introduced to boxing by Ingle's first great fighter, Herol Graham. Ryan was an unruly six-year-old, while Graham had just his second European title. He had a gold shop in Sheffield market at the time, and Rhodes's exasperated mother marched the youngster down there for Herol's advice on disciplining him. "He told her to bring me to the gym the next day, and I loved it," Rhodes says. "Paul Jones was there, too, which made it quite hard for me to fight him for the British title last year when I'd known him since he was a kid. But he had to do it and I had to do it. I've spoken to him recently, and there's no bad feeling between us.

"A lot of people were surprised when I was matched with him, but I never questioned Brendan's judgement, even to myself. I had absolute confidence that I could beat Paul, and so did Brendan and Frank [Warren]. The only worry was the similarity in our styles - fighting Paul was like fighting my shadow. It wasn't that I'd modelled myself on him or on Herol or anyone else. All Brendan's boys have basically the same style, hit and not get hit. It's the way he's been training fighters since he first came to Sheffield, and he was doing it before he had Herol."

The best-known present exponent of the Ingle style is Naseem Hamed, the WBO and International Boxing Federation featherweight champion who set the standards for Rhodes by winning the European title at the age of 20. "Naz coming through so young has been a help to me," Rhodes acknowledges. "He's explained things to me, told me what's going to happen and told me how to handle it. We started boxing around the same time and we've always hung around together. We won our first national schools titles on the same day, at the Derby Assembly Rooms in 1990. I was the one who started doing the back-flips in the gym, but now I let Naz get on with that kind of thing.

"Naz and me used to talk a lot when we were boys about what we were going to win, but I suppose I didn't really start to believe it was going to happen for me until I won my first national title, when I was about 15. Everybody knew Naz was going to be a megastar. You could see him getting better and better every year, so we were all prepared for what happened to him. We're still very close, in fact we've been playing snooker today. I don't begrudge him any of his success, and he's always there encouraging me.

"I lost some in the amateurs - 11 out of 67 - but most of those were down to amateur judging, which is unbelievable. I properly lost only three or four. Amateur boxing is ridiculous. If you're going to get anywhere you have to come from one of the top London clubs. That's why I turned professional as soon as I could, when I was 18.

"Two years from now, I could be fighting Oscar De La Hoya. He's a big lad [5ft 11in] and he's moving up the weights all the time. [The dazzling Californian took Pernell Whitaker's WBC welterweight title last weekend, having already won world titles at super-featherweight, lightweight and light-welter.] I don't think of myself in terms of him yet, but I'm getting there."

Having spent 14 years in the gym embellished with a sign reading "Warning: Boxing Can Damage Your Health", Rhodes is fully aware of the risks of his trade. "I never worry about hurting an opponent," he said. "We both know what the risks are, that you can be killed in the ring just as you can be killed anywhere else, any second of the day. Every boxer knows and accepts the risks. You just put it out of your mind. I'm not hard in any other part of my life, just my boxing.

"I've seen Chris Eubank stand off an opponent and tell the referee to stop it. I wouldn't do that. It's your job to keep punching until the fight is over. That's what this is: it's my job, my living and I don't know what I would be doing if I wasn't a boxer. I've never worked, never had a job or wanted one. If these first-round wins keep coming, I'll be in the game until I'm 50 or 60, stopping to cash my pension on my way to the gym.

"But I know what it feels like to be hurt in the gym. In my first fight, Lee Crocker knocked me down twice in the first round, with two good shots. I couldn't believe what was happening to me. I was sitting on the floor thinking 'What am I doing here?' I'd gone in the ring too relaxed, but when I got back to the corner Brendan gave me a rollicking and I stopped the boy in the second round. It was an experience, and you learn by your mistakes.

"Brendan can be a hard man in the corner. I remember we had a kid called Jason 'Pretty Boy' Barker. He had long hair and he loved that hair - he'd be at the hairdresser's twice a week. He wore it in a pony tail when he boxed, and one fight it came loose and was flapping around his eyes. When he came back to the corner, Brendan grabbed the scissors and cut it clean off. It didn't work: Jason got beat, and had a bad haircut too. It's a tough game, boxing."

Sheffield steel: A city's boxing legacy

Gus Platts

European and British middleweight champion 1921. Former wrestling champion, he survived over 200 fights, including many in America, without ever being knocked out.

Johnny Cuthbert

British featherweight champion 1927, 1929-31 (won Lonsdale Belt outright), and British lightweight champion 1932-34. Crammed 245 fights into 10-year career.

Henry Hall

British welterweight champion 1948-49. ABA welterweight winner in 1944, he never prospered as British champion and lost three non-title matches during his short reign.

Herol Graham

British light-middleweight champion 1981-83, Commonwealth champion 1981- 82, European champion 1983, British middleweight champion 1985, 1988-92 (won Lonsdale Belt outright), European champion 1986-87. Challenged for WBA and WBC middleweight titles. The unluckiest British boxer of the 1908s, he is now on the comeback trail at 38.

Brian Anderson

British middleweight champion 1986-87. Solid journeyman who enjoyed late career success after his friend Graham relinquished the British title to allow him to compete for it.

Johnny Nelson

British cruiserweight champion 1989-90, 1996 (won Lonsdale Belt outright), European cruiserweight champion 1991, 1997, WBF cruiserweight champion 1993, WBF heavyweight champion 1993-95. Challenged for WBC and IBF cruiserweight titles. The great under-achiever, finally coming good at 30.

Naseem Hamed

European bantamweight champion 1994, WBC international super- bantamweight champion 1994-95, WBO featherweight champion 1995 to date. IBF featherweight champion 1997 to date. Supreme showman who may be as good as he thinks he is.

Ryan Rhodes

British light-middleweight champion 1996 to date (won Lonsdale Belt outright in record time), WBO Inter-Continental light-middleweight champion 1997 to date. Megastar in the making?

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