Boxing: Neary spearheads new television era

The `Shamrock Express' is the engine behind ITV's fight to re- establish prime-time coverage of the sport

THIS TIME it's for real. After wetting their toes again at a Tuesday night presentation last July, this weekend ITV will show its first live Saturday night boxing in almost four years, going up against Match of the Day, no less. "We're going head-to-head with the big one," said ITV's Jeff Farmer, "and we're confident in our ability to be competitive."

Has Naseem Hamed deserted Sky Sports, once more to record the astonishing 10 million-plus viewing figures of his ITV heyday? Has Frank Bruno come out of retirement in order to spearhead the network's return to truly big time boxing? Not at all.

ITV has placed its faith in the far less stellar form of Shea Neary, the pasty Liverpudlian light-welterweight whose startling success on Merseyside has seen him finish in front of Scouse football luminaries Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman in the local Sports Personality of the Year polls.

Neary is no Spice Boy, though. The no-nonsense World Boxing Union champion, unbeaten in 20 fights, checks the inside of his collar not through label paranoia, only to ensure its blueness. The 30-year-old father of three provides his thrills without frills and confesses to feeling slightly embarrassed by the pyrotechnic entrances devised for him by his upwardly mobile (in a uniquely Liverpudlian sense) promoters, Munro-Hyland Brothers.

"Nothing to do with me. I'm just an ordinary Joe," said Neary, who barely manages a smile let alone Hamed-style somersaults during working hours. "I suppose my entrances look good on telly and help me get known, but, personally, I'd rather just walk in with no music, like Mike Tyson used to.

"Boxing isn't a smiling atmosphere, to me; the task ahead always seems so massive. You just never know what's going to happen."

Certainly, few who witnessed the early days of Neary's career could have predicted such success for the honest but essentially ordinary workman. But the turning point of Neary's career came in February 1996, when ITV featured Neary's thrilling second-round victory over New York's Terry Southerland. The network's lack of confidence in boxing resulted in the fight being shown way outside prime time, in the early hours of Sunday morning. But the TV executives liked what they saw as Neary, bleeding from a horrific gash to the eyebrow and seemingly seconds from defeat, poleaxed the American with a crashing right-hander from nowhere. It made for incredibly dramatic television and had network veteran Gary Newbon gushing that ITV had discovered a "white Nigel Benn".

"Neary's a throwback," said John Hyland, the 36-year-old front man of the independent promotional group comprising himself, his brother Stephen and Neil Munro. "Shea may be the opposite of Naseem Hamed, but he's a promoter's dream simply because he gets the job done.

"He's the most exciting fighter in the country today, he brings old time boxing back to the TV screens; fighting for three minutes every round, 12 rounds per fight - total commitment. He's so modest. There's no bad- mouthing or gamesmanship with Shea. He's like a breath of fresh air."

ITV have shown their agreement by backing the "Shamrock Express" to the hilt, believing that Neary's local success can be transferred to the larger stage. Encouraged by the 2.5 million viewers who tuned into Neary's midweek victory over the South African, Naas Scheepers, in July, the network plans for Saturday night's show to be the first of eight featuring the Munro- Hyland stable over the next 12 months.

"The 24th of October is going to be massive," said Hyland. "For the first time in four years, there will be millions of kids sitting down to watch boxing. Sky have done a great job, but their audience is too limited for enough youngsters to want to get off the couch and give it a go themselves. But starting this Saturday, the sport has a future again and, hopefully, ITV see us as a big part of the future."

That would hardly be surprising; the enthusiasm, dedication and determination of the Liverpool team is impressive in its intensity. The threesome display a total inability to remain seated during their promotions, punching the air and hammering on the ring apron as fighters from their stable such as Neary, the lightweight Colin Dunne (the group's second WBU champion) and the undefeated bantamweight Johnny Armour go about their business.

"No obstacle is big enough to dilute our ambition - if anyone's looking for commitment, they need look no further than us," said Hyland, whose position as company spokes-man comes as a result of the elevated public profile earned during his own highly successful amateur boxing career. He is at pains to point out that the organisation's success comes through group effort. "Your only as good as the team around you and we're very, very strong," he said.

And at the centre of it all is Neary, a former infantryman in the King's Regiment whose own fierce intensity dictates that, while remaining in Liverpool, he must live apart from his family in the weeks before his fights in order for the rage and aggression that has become his trademark to be saved solely for opponents such as Argentina's Juan Carlos Villareal, who challenges for Neary's title at Liverpool's St George's Hall on Saturday night.

If he is to become British boxing's next superstar, then Neary's unprepossessing nature will set him apart as a refreshing original in an era where success in sport often appears to breed arrogance and petulance amongst the achievers.

"Boxing's been very good to me, but I haven't really made any money yet," he said. "If it comes, it comes, but my only goal is to have a furnished house, a decent car and a couple of hundred quid a week coming in - nothing else. I just give 100 per cent and take whatever comes to me - everything's a bonus. But whatever I get, I know I'll have deserved it."

Indeed he will.

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