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Boxing: Harder for Hardy

Harry Mullan wonders whether an ageing fighter can rise above the traumas
FOUR pounds in weight and a generation of experience separate Billy Hardy and Spencer Oliver, who defend their European titles in London this week. Hardy, the veteran featherweight champion, meets the Paris-based Algerian Mehdi Labdouni, the man from whom he won the title in 1995, at Bethnal Green on Tuesday. Oliver, one of British boxing's bright new stars, risks his super-bantamweight belt against the former International Boxing Federation world champion, Fabrice Benichou, at Pickett's Lock, Edmonton, on Saturday.

Despite Benichou's impressive credentials, Hardy's looks the tougher assignment since he seeks to exorcise the memory of his last catastrophic ring appearance, when Naseem Hamed humiliated him inside 93 seconds of a world title bid last May. The 33-year-old Wearsider will be having his 20th title fight at all levels from British, Commonwealth, European and world, but such a shattering defeat in a bout which he genuinely thought he could win must have left a deep scar on his psyche.

At least he has the boost of knowing that he trounced Labdouni almost literally on his own doorstep when they last met: the arena was only 300m from the Algerian's home. For Hardy, a London appearance is almost as exotic - he has not boxed in the capital since 1989 - but the Bethnal Green fans traditionally appreciate a professional of his quality and he can expect a warm welcome.

Labdouni, long-armed and awkward, outpointed Steve Robinson in the Welshman's last fight before becoming the World Boxing Organisation champion, and he also won a hotly disputed verdict over the three-times world champion Duke McKenzie. There is little to choose between them in ability, and their results against common opponents - Robinson, Stefano Zoff and Benichou - are identical, so the outcome may hinge on how well Hardy has come to terms with the Hamed debacle. Labdouni has won six in a row since losing to Hardy and even at 31 could have more ambition than the champion.

Oliver's super-bantamweight defence looks a more straightforward affair. Benichou, 32, was born in Madrid but became a naturalised Frenchman and has long been a mainstay of boxing in his adopted country. He held the IBF title in 1989, challenged for the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council versions, and was twice European featherweight champion before dropping back down to super-bantam. He will be contesting his 17th title fight in a 63-fight career (45 wins, two draws).

He gave Wayne McCullough (then the WBC bantamweight champion) a torrid 10-rounder in Dublin in 1994 and, in his last outing, stopped Martin Krastev, the Bulgarian whom Oliver beat for the title. He is still a lively competitor, and 12 rounds with a man of his quality will be an educational experience for the champion. But the young Englishman looks an exceptional talent at 22, and his manager, Jess Harding (the former heavyweight), has reportedly backed him at appealing odds to win a version of the world title this year.

There are a number of attractive domestic matches for him first, including the unbeaten British champion, Michael Brodie, and the WBC international champion, Patrick Mullings, so it may pay Harding better in the long term to let the bet go while his man masters his trade. Oliver's only obvious flaw is a lack of one-punch knockout power. That can be the recipe for an exciting but short-lived career.