Boxing: Hodkinson's heavy burden: Ken Jones reports from Toulouse on the WBC featherweight champion from Liverpool who defends his title tonight

Professional boxing is a harsh enough business without being disadvantaged by a face that tends to bruise as easily as an over-ripe peach.

It is such a burden, this face with lids drooping over the eyes like canopies, that whenever Paul Hodkinson goes to the ring it is with the knowledge that he will probably spend the next three days of his life looking at the world through dark glasses.

Simply put, there can be no such thing as an easy contest for the 27-year-old from Liverpool who is defending the World Boxing Council featherweight championship here tonight against Fabrice Benichou, of France.

For Hodkinson the grimmest memory is as vivid as yesterday. The record book shows that he was stopped in the eighth round when challenging Marcos Villasana for the nine-stone title on Merseyside 29 months ago. It does not tell you that he was then blind for 48 hours, unable to see through folds of brutalised tissue. 'It was awful to wake up in darkness and be told that the sun was out,' he said before out-pointing Villasana in a return last November to become the champion. 'My girlfriend (now his wife) had to wash and dress me and guide me to the car. I was a lost soul.'

Obviously, it was the worst experience of Hodkinson's life, and to hear it recalled is to obtain some measure of the determination that enables him to overcome an affliction that would have long since discouraged a lesser man. 'I've had to live with it since my amateur days,' he said this week.

Not that Barney Eastwood, the Belfast bookmaker who manages Hodkinson, is allowing nature to take its course. Recently he sought the advice of Mike Cheminski, a physician employed by the Los Angeles Lakers basketball club who was first consulted in Las Vegas six years ago when Eastwood had an alliance with Barry McGuigan, the former featherweight champion. Cheminski casts some serious doubts on the methods traditionally employed by boxing trainers, especially in the area of running repairs.

Hence the precautionary measures now being taken in Hodkinson's corner. 'Cheminski believes that it is a mistake not to deal with the problem until it develops,' Eastwood said, 'so now we are applying a treatment to Paul's face (a legal mixture of adrenalin and vaseline) before the bruises appear.'

The problem is compounded for Hodkinson by the fact that all his opponents have got the message by now, and inevitably some of them are not particular about leading with their heads.

It appears that this applies very much to Benichou who was born to a circus family in Madrid, and joined the troupe as a contortionist, which helps to explain why Hodkinson has been advised to guard against blows delivered with the back of the head.

John Davidson, who lost to Benichou when challenging for the European title, said: 'I found him a gentleman in and out of the ring but he has this habit of ducking low and bringing his head up backwards into your face. I don't think he does this intentionally but it's very dangerous. Paul should use his jab and avoid getting in close.'

Translated, that means Hodkinson will be instructed to keep the contest at long range and stay out of all unnecessary trouble. Not that Eastwood needs to be told anything about Benichou, a fighter he has promoted and employed as a sparring partner in Belfast.

An astute mover in boxing circles, Eastwood succeeded in persuading the WBC that Hodkinson should be permitted a voluntary defence against Benichou before further consideration was given to a match against Kevin Kelly, of the United States, who is currently their leading challenger.

It suggests that Benichou is not thought to be a danger although there is always a risk in defending a title abroad. 'My fighters are for fighting,' Eastwood says boldly, but with the confidence of a man used to getting things right when it comes to calling odds.

Apart from the potential incumbrance of bruises and cuts there is no reason to suppose that Hodkinson is under any serious threat, and predictably there is fresh talk about a unifying contest against Colin McMillan, the World Boxing Organisation champion from London who will be in the audience tonight.

Hodkinson's insistence that he can handle McMillan's mobility and quickfire punching is coupled with the understandable complaint that he is not being given the credit his endeavours deserve. It does not take much to bring that out of him.

'Yes, I am pissed off,' he said. 'I suppose it's a lot to do with not appearing in London where you are always likely to get more attention. I'm not the first British boxer to suffer this but still it is irritating when you see other people getting all the attention.'

Such restrained rhetoric is typical of Hodkinson who can claim to be a genuine champion amid a ludicrous proliferation of title-holders, 68 covering four administrations.

The trouble is there are times when you look at him and wonder whether he would be safer marching off to war.

(Photograph omitted)

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