Boxing: Hide's absence lets Francis seek place in spotlight

A HEAVYWEIGHT championship fight still dominates tonight's promotion at London's Royal Albert Hall and, in truth, Frank Warren's show will not be diminished by the cancellation through injury of Herbie Hide's World Boxing Organisation championship defence against the American Orlin Norris. Hide's lack of activity precludes him from being the attraction he could be but tonight's gate will not suffer overly.

If Hide seems destined to underachievement, then Julius Francis is his opposite. Hide, still only 27, is a former Amateur Boxing Association finalist who turned pro in his teens and so seemed destined for professional success. Francis, 34, has only been a pro for six years and had no amateur career to speak of. But tonight he replaces Hide in the spotlight and deservedly so.

Francis defends his British and Commonwealth titles against the unbeaten prospect Danny Williams in a domestic showdown between south London "faces", men who have worked the doors on some of the toughest clubs in the country and become known for their ability to handle themselves when things get nasty.

At one time, he admits, Francis was the cause and not the cure in matters of civil disorder. The Woolwich-based champion's past, he confesses, features football hooliganism under Millwall colours and small-scale drug dealing. Williams, 25, is more circumspect but admits to being "a bit of a lad" in Brixton.

Both are now born-again Christians and prescribers of the virtuous life, but their street-level reputations precede them and their fight was always the main attraction on this show, not Hide's, nor the replacement headliner which sees Mexico's WBO super-bantamweight champion, Marco Antonio Barrera, defend his title against the Liverpudlian challenger Paul Lloyd.

Francis has done more than was ever expected of him, but here he attempts to win outright ownership of a coveted Lonsdale Belt by winning his third British title fight. The contest was originally due to take place two months ago but, if anything, has become more intriguing for it.

When Williams withdrew with flu, the unbeaten and highly touted Nottingham heavyweight Pele Reid, Brendan Ingle-trained and explosive, stepped in. The champion had lost seven of his previous 25 fights and was expected to be overwhelmed by a rampant Reid. But Francis stopped Reid in three for a major upset.

Prior to that fight, Williams - unbeaten in 15 - had been expected to have little problem with Francis. But Reid's fate has changed the perception of the champion. Now it is not so much the losses on his record that are noted, but to whom those defeats occurred. Zeljko Mavrovic, Axel Schulz and Vitali Klitscko, to name three, are world-class fighters, while Brighton's Scott Welch is a former world title challenger. Suddenly it is being noticed that Williams's record contains no such names. Some even wonder whether this fight could turn out to be man against boy.

However, Williams, who is rumoured to have floored Hide in sparring recently, is the man on the up and has a considerable size advantage. This despite Francis's new-found success resulting in his being featured in adverts for bodybuilding supplements. Youth should prevail towards the end of this 12-rounder, but Williams will have to earn it.