Boxing: Journeyman in search of a milestone

Bob Mee talks to an unlikely lad fighting fit for his big British title challenge
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The Independent Online
TONY BOOTH has made a promise to himself. When he steps off the scales at Hull Ice Arena at 5pm tomorrow, he will sink a welcome pint of Guinness. "One nice pint won't do me any harm, will it?" said the man who will fight for the British light-heavyweight title 24 hours later.

The champion, Crawford Ashley, is a top-class operator and veteran of two world title fights. Booth is arguably the unlikeliest challenger in British championship history. After the weigh-in, at which he must make the 12st 7lb limit, he will retreat to the bungalow on the coast near Hornsea lent by a friend. "I'll get my head sorted out, watching videos of Only Fools and Horses and Aud Wiedersehen Pet. Then, as Del Boy says, 'He who dares, wins'..."

The dockworker born, bred and still living in Hull has made a second living as a professional fighter for almost a decade. Now, after years of providing a service as a hired opponent expected to fill gaps on shows and lose, he has turned himself into a contender inside nine months. "I have trained for four and a half weeks," he says. "It's the best prepared I've ever been. I'm earning a few grand, but this is not for the money. It's about ambition. I've always wanted to fight for a British title and I'm not going to be dancing around or sitting on the ropes. I'm in there to go for it."

It's the kind of talk you would expect of anyone before the biggest night of their sporting career, but Booth's lop-sided record - 28 wins in 78 fights - means he is a 4-1 outsider at the bookies. "I haven't had a bet, but some of my mates have had a few quid on me."

Most experts would point out politely that Ashley has already beaten him in one round in December 1996 . It is a fact Tony considers irrelevant. "It doesn't mean a thing. I was there for the money at two days' notice. I was fat, not interested. He can punch and I went down for nine. I got up and expected the ref to stop it, but he didn't. I had to go down three more times before he got the message."

Booth is used to the reality of boxing, the strange, misunderstood world that exists away from the spotlight of main event and television hype. Until now, the luxury of training for weeks for a particular fight has not been afforded him. His kind of boxers takes contests at short notice, often a long way from home, drives there on the day, gets the job done and drives home again through the night.

"Once I was sitting at home with a mate about two in the afternoon, and I'd just said I could do with a fight. I needed some money... and the phone rang. They were offering me Neville Brown [British champion, world title challenger] at Alfreton that night. I lost on points."

The best result of his career was not a win, but a draw against Ralf Rocchigiani in Berlin in 1993. "A draw against a German in Berlin says enough..." Rocchigiani went on to earn serious money in a two-year reign as WBO cruiserweight champion, while Tony returned to the circuit.

He boxed in Holland, France, Belgium, Germany, Finland and Denmark. Perhaps the most bizarre occasion was in 1992 in the little town of Izegem in Belgium. Tony fought a Ugandan named Franco Wanyama and lost on points. Nothing odd about that... except that it was on Christmas Day.

Since parting amicably from Ingle and his Sheffield team last year, he has turned himself into a contender with his new co-managers from Hull, Geoff Rymer and Mickey Brooks. He trains at Rymer's gym at the Whittington and Cat pub in the city centre and together they have stacked up five consecutive wins. It was a points verdict over leading contender Bruce Scott in London last October which earned him British Boxing Board of Control approval as a genuine challenger.

"I've had 78 fights and I'm still sharp," he said. "I boxed Bruce Scott's head off when they thought I'd lose. On Tuesday I might win, or I might lose, but Ashley can be knocked out."

And afterwards it would probably be fair to say that at least one more, purely celebratory you understand, pint of Guinness might be enjoyed in The Whittington and Cat.