BOXING: McCall eager for chance of a lifetime: Biggest upset in recent history inspires man with designs on Lennox Lewis' title. Ken Jones reports

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IN JULY 1988, Oliver McCall stood before a circuit judge awaiting sentence on two counts of burglary. Moist of eye, he entered a plea for leniency. 'With another chance I know that I can be a success as a fighter and a human being,' he said. The judge sent McCall down for 60 days and gave him five years probation.

As no violations have been reported and tomorrow night he is challenging Lennox Lewis for the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship at Wembley Arena, we can assume that McCall has kept to the promise faithfully. 'Sure, I remember what I told the judge,' said McCall this week at Henlow Grange, the health farm in Bedfordshire some 40 miles from London where he has been completing more than two months of studious preparation. 'I was expecting a long sentence but the judge was good to me. I think about it a lot, I'm always thinking about my past, but I don't let it bother me.'

With seven mouths to feed, a wife and six children, his gratitude is understandable. 'I'm looking at more than a title,' he added. 'I'm looking at a big future for my family.'

It was raining heavily outside but McCall smiled as though it was a summer's day. It did not suit him to be speaking about the fight but he went along with the questions quite happily. The challenger looked in excellent shape and there has been an impressive edge to his sparring, especially with the former International Boxing Federation champion, Tony Tucker. 'To be honest I can do without all this,' he added. 'I mean the talking, the bullshit. Hey, it's almost fight time and I can't wait for it to happen. Let's get it on.'

McCall is a Don King heavyweight. The great manipulator has numerous other heavyweights and most of them have been worked into title contention. King's grand plan is to regain control of the heavyweight division, lost when Mike Tyson was sensationally rolled over in Tokyo by James 'Buster' Douglas four years ago. Contenders in whom he has more than a passing interest are now thick on the ground.

If McCall, a 100-30 underdog, is able to defeat Lewis the door will be wide open. 'He can do it,' said the challenger's chief trainer, Emanuel Steward, the man who brought Thomas Hearns to prominence in the middleweight division. 'Trouble with Oliver was that he picked up enough money as a sparring partner not to take boxing seriously. When he got a fight it was just another pay day. He has a lot of natural talent but he never utilised it. One thing about him is that he is very strong, physically and mentally. He's naturally about 230 lbs. He's the kind of opponent I would not entertain if I was managing Lennox Lewis. In fact Oliver's name came up when I managed Michael Moorer and I wouldn't touch him.'

Steward felt it a duty to impress upon McCall the importance of a healthy mind in a healthy body. If he insisted on playing around there was no point in forming an alliance.

In agreeing that Steward accurately evaluated the situation, McCall recalled that he took a closer look at himself when Douglas defeated Tyson. 'It wasn't that I'd done all that sparring with Mike, and knocked him down. It was knowing that I went 10 rounds with Douglas without giving myself a chance of beating him. Didn't train at all, not a day. Going into the last round I was way behind, then I hurt him. His eye blew up and I heard him squeal. I was holding him up. I knew that if I'd worked for the fight I would have beaten Douglas and he wouldn't have got near Tyson and all those dollars.'

Steward thrusts the idea of a fortune at McCall continuously. 'I keep telling him what's out there - a chance to set himself up for life. That he could be like Hearns, drawing dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,500) a week in interest.'

Before Lewis quickly knocked out Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock in a title eliminator, the twice former heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, felt that he had brought about important technical improvements in Ruddock. On the night Ruddock reverted to type, wild lunges making him an easy target for Lewis. 'Oliver has improved,' Steward insisted. 'He was a mauler: he hit you and pushed you at the same time. I've let him know that Lewis is a very big guy and a very good thinker in the ring. Probably, Lewis is planning on boxing, side-stepping and regarding Oliver as a brawler he'll eventually knock out. But we have other things in mind.'

The word on McCall is that he can take it and give it. 'None of the top guys would give me a chance,' he said, 'and they should have. But that don't matter any more because I'm fighting for the title now and I'm gonna grab it from Lewis. He's not as fast as Tyson and some of those other guys I sparred with. Back when I worked with Tim Witherspoon he would have knocked out Lewis.'

Sparring is one thing. Fighting is another. For the time being it suits McCall to ignore the difference.

(Photograph omitted)