Boxing: McMillan shoulders burden of unknown

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD have been derided as a mismatch 13 months ago, but tonight's World Boxing Organisation featherweight contest between Steve Robinson and Colin McMillan at the Cardiff Ice Rink has the makings of a classic between two men with several points to prove.

Last September, McMillan was hailed as the new face of British boxing. The 27-year-old Londoner blended virtuoso boxing skills with an engaging personality, a refreshingly articulate antidote for a sport dominated by the snarlings of Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank's calculations and, most pertinently, the suffering of the stricken Michael Watson.

It all went wrong for McMillan in a routine defence of his WBO title against the Colombian, Reuben Palacio. A dislocated left shoulder brought an end to his reign, but although he was ahead on the scorecards at the time of the stoppage, the champion was unconvincing against an unfancied opponent.

Meanwhile, Robinson was scuffling for little more than loose change on the undercards at such venues as Llanelli, Istre and Barri. The 24-year-old Cardiff storeman, boxing to supplement his pounds 52-a-week income, had more talent than a patchy record suggested, but seemed destined to achieve little more than journeyman status.

Things changed in April, when Palacio tested HIV positive 48 hours before a scheduled defence against Newcastle's John Davison. Drafted in, Robinson capitalised on his opportunity with a narrow points decision, then silenced his doubters with an impressive defence against Sean Murphy in July. In this context, it is surprising to find McMillan the odds-on favourite. That he possesses the superior skills is beyond question. However, he looked uncomfortable when pressed by Palacio, and doubts remain about his damaged shoulder.

A 13-month absence is hardly ideal preparation for a world championship contest, but McMillan believes his strategy is sound. 'I don't think I could have got myself motivated for a warm-up fight,' he explained. 'Mentally, I think I'll perform better when it really matters, and it will matter on Saturday.'

Motivation is unlikely to be a problem for Robinson, a man transformed by the unlikely events of recent months. The first Welsh world title holder since Howard Winstone, the champion has assumed national folk hero status, and while the adulation seems not to have turned his head, his demeanour suggests an inner confidence commensurate with his position.

Like any sport, boxing is riddled with imponderables. If McMillan's shoulder has healed, and the long lay-off has not blunted the cutting edge of his skills, the London man should regain his crown. However, Robinson will enjoy home advantage, and the knowledge that he has prevailed in adversity before will work in his favour. The bookies make him a surprisingly generous 9-4 underdog, odds attractive enough to merit a moderate wager on the Welshman retaining the title with a narrow points decision.