Boxing: Holligan to confront colossus of Culiacan: On Saturday an unbeaten Liverpudlian has his first fight abroad - against Julio Cesar Chavez. Nick Halling reports

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The Independent Online
IT IS true that there are no cast- iron certainties in professional boxing. But even in such a notoriously unpredictable game, Saturday night's contest between Julio Cesar Chavez and Andy Holligan, of Liverpool, in Puebla, Mexico, looks a home banker.

Chavez, who will be defending his World Boxing Council light-middleweight title, has cast a colossal shadow across the sport's middle divisions since winning the WBC super-featherweight title in 1984. Unbeaten in 88 fights, he is without question a fighter of the highest calibre, whose status as one of boxing's all-time greats seems assured.

The Mexican is a folk hero in his country, a man who has acquired only the most basic grasp of English and has resisted the temptation to adopt a more glamorous lifestyle in the United States, remaining among family and close friends in the troubled, drug-ridden city of Culiacan.

Few Mexicans have had such a dramatic and positive influence on national self-esteem. During a career in which he has tamed a generation of American fighters, Chavez has been elevated to an unprecedented level, a national institution, the embodiment of the warrior-sportsman.

On Saturday night, Chavez will be roared on by 60,000 compatriots at ringside and a television audience numbering millions. Spare a thought for poor old Holligan, who seems blissfully unaware that not only is he facing one of the best fighters in history, he is taking on the whole country as well.

Unbeaten in a 21-bout career which began in 1987, Holligan is the reigning British and Commonwealth champion, but there has been little evidence to suggest he is capable of bridging the gulf which separates Chavez from the pack. So why take the fight?

There is evidence that the Mexican, at the age of 31, is in the preliminary stages of a decline. He has lacked his usual sharpness in recent contests, notably in his last outing against the crafty American Pernell Whitaker, when he looked fortunate to be awarded a draw, a decision greeted with scorn even by many Mexican observers.

There are also rumours that Chavez is no longer drawn to the spartan atmosphere of the gym, and has instead been seen going the distance in some of Mexico City's more rigorous night-spots. Having scaled so many peaks, has the champion retained the hunger that has brought him world titles at three separate weights?

Then there is the example of John H Stracey, a similarly unfancied underdog, who took on Jose Napoles in December 1975, in Mexico City, and silenced the vociferous home crowd with a sixth-round stoppage to claim the world welterweight crown. Napoles was no Chavez, but Stracey set a precedent: it is possible to go to Mexico and return triumphant.

Perhaps this explains the 26-year- old Liverpudlian's extraordinary self-confidence. Holligan, who has been in Mexico almost a month, acclimatising to the high altitude, genuinely believes he has an outstanding chance. 'It's my biggest opportunity, and I've got to go for it,' he said. 'Sure, Chavez is a great fighter, no one doubts that, but someone is going to beat him sometime. Why not me?'

One reason is that Holligan's style seems made for the champion. The British champion enjoys coming forward, and is easy to hit as a consequence. When Chavez has been troubled in the past, it has been against southpaws, or slippery customers such as Whitaker.

'I don't think Andy has much chance because he hasn't the style to beat Chavez - he'll be right where Chavez wants him,' said Mickey Duff, Holligan's manager until May, when the fighter left to join Frank Warren.

It is a point conceded by his present boss. 'They have similar styles, and that worries me,' Warren admitted. 'I'd like to see Andy jab and move. That doesn't come naturally, but it's what he's worked on during training. Whether he'll stick to it when the fight starts is anybody's guess. He's naturally aggressive. Chavez won't have to go looking for him.'

Atmosphere and altitude will also count against the challenger. The American Greg Haugen, for example, was thoroughly intimidated by the hostility of a jeering, taunting 130,000 Latin throng when losing to Chavez in Mexico City in February.

'It will be like nothing Holligan has ever experienced before,' warned Terry Lawless, Stracey's trainer for the upset against Napoles. 'It was bad enough when we went over there, but with Chavez, you're talking about God. I'm also worried about the altitude. I remember people telling me that you get puffed out walking up a flight of stairs, and thinking they were kidding, but it's true. You need time to become acclimatised.'

It will certainly be a new experience for Holligan, who has never boxed abroad, nor met an opponent remotely approaching comparable stature. He has had just one fight since last November, a meaningless two-round crushing of a carefully chosen import, Lorenzo Garci, a contest which convinced him that his future no longer lay with Duff.

'Andy came into my office around September saying he wanted a world title fight,' Warren said. 'Not only that, he told me he wanted Chavez.' The wish came true as a result of Warren's association with the flamboyant American promoter Don King, who handles the career of Chavez.

It is a repeat of a contest earlier this year when another unknown Warren fighter, Crawford Ashley, found himself up against the formidable Michael Nunn, the holder of the World Boxing Association super-middleweight championship.

As with Holligan, the overmatched Ashley had little chance but acquitted himself well in defeat, and is now considered a genuine prospect. A second world-title fight is planned for next year. That, plus the sweetener of an pounds 80,000 purse, is all Holligan can realistically expect from his exertions on Saturday.

'It wouldn't completely surprise me if he pulls it off, because I rate Andy as the best in Europe at his weight, and among the top five in the world,' Warren said. 'But even if he loses, he has a bright future ahead of him - and at least he's getting well paid.'

In the rarified and intimidatory atmosphere of a Mexican fight- night, financial matters are unlikely to occupy Holligan's thoughts as he attempts to prove that Chavez is, after all, a mere mortal.

(Photograph omitted)