Boxing: Hodkinson's target now McMillan: Ken Jones reports from Toulouse on prospects for the WBC featherweight champion after weathering a Frenchman's fury

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IN the dressing-room, where the heat bordered on tropical, Barney Eastwood directed attention to the champion's face. 'Just look at it,' Paul Hodkinson's manager said excitedly, 'not a mark worth talking about.'

Under the drooping lids that are part of the price Hodkinson pays for the World Boxing Council featherweight title, his eyes twinkled. For once he was not holding an ice pack to ugly bruises and feeling the sting of an astringent swab. 'Makes a change,' he said quietly.

Half way through the 10th round of a hard contest on Saturday at the Patinoire Olympique de Blagnac near Toulouse, it was all over for Fabrice Benichou, the French challenger who was not permitted to continue because of a gashed mouth. 'I don't know how it happened,' Hodkinson added.

It was hard to believe, but when Benichou, complaining bitterly, was hustled back to his corner, two of the ringside judges had the fight so close, one of them scoring it 86-86 by the end of the ninth round, that Hodkinson was not guaranteed to retain his title. 'The crowd lifted Benichou and he came back well,' Hodkinson said. Not well enough to justify an impression of equality, but that is just one of the hazards when a championship is risked abroad.

Even though his man had won, even though nothing beyond that mattered for the moment, Eastwood wanted to debate another point. 'Colin McMillan knows where I am if he wishes to speak to me,' the Belfast bookmaker said.

McMillan, who holds the World Boxing Organisation version of the nine-stone title, had been at ringside working for BBC television, partly for the very good reason that there is much talk of him hooking up with Hodkinson in a unifying contest sometime next year.

This considerably interests Frank Warren, the London promoter who has an arrangement with McMillan that covers one more contest after defending the WBO championship on 26 September against Ruben Palacio of Colombia at Olympia in London. 'Do you know that Warren has increased the offer to pounds 200,000?' somebody asked Hodkinson. 'I think it's worth more,' he replied.

Hodkinson was thinking about pounds 250,000, four times what he was paid in Toulouse. So is McMillan. 'I wouldn't take a penny less than Paul,' he said.

Eastwood has said that the longer the contest lies there the more it will be worth, but he does not do business with Warren. Doubtless it will happen, and most probably in London, where McMillan has a following.

Does Hodkinson want the fight more then Eastwood? Another question: will McMillan be too smart for Hodkinson? 'It would be a terrific fight and very close,' McMillan said, 'and I'm sure a lot of people would want to see it. Paul isn't a big puncher but I respect him.'

The danger for Hodkinson in Toulouse was that he would find himself in familiar difficulties with bruises and cuts against a strong, awkward opponent who is inclined to be careless with his head.

Sensibly observing the advice of his corner men, Hodkinson did excellent work with a stiff jab and was usually inside the arc of Benichou's wide, flat hooks.

These tactics so unsettled the Frenchman that by the fourth round he was already looking desperate, returning to his corner on unsteady legs after taking a count of five.

It looked then as though Hodkinson could think about an early night but this didn't allow for the extent of Benichou's will and his spirited response to the roar of the crowd.

Getting back into the contest was no small task for the Frenchman but he had enough left to worry Hodkinson, particularly when tunnelling up through the champion's guard and calling upon mean tricks learned in 44 professional contests.

Looking to the future, Eastwood said: 'The promoters were delighted with the fight and there is an offer for Paul to box here again.' There is also the possibility that the WBC will require Hodkinson to make a mandatory defence against Kevin Kelly of the United States. Then, of course there is the one that matters. 'As soon as they like,' McMillan said.