That's right. The man who challenges Nigel Benn for the World Boxing Council version of the super-middleweight championship at Alexandra Palace in north London tomorrow night is not a fugitive from deprivation with no other way of improving his life than the perils of the hardest game. He is a tall, handsome 27-year-old from Culverhouse Cross, near Cardiff, with a qualification in business management and an intellect to make it probable that eventually he will study for and gain a degree.
On one occasion he rose early in the morning, left the neat terraced house he shares with his parents and went to take an examination at Treforest Polytechnic. Later in the day he stepped into the ring for one of his 19 professional contests (17 victories, one defeat and one draw), which he won on a knockout in the third round. 'On reflection that was pushing it a bit,' Piper admitted this week.
We were talking five days before tomorrow's fight against Benn. The Welshman was sitting at a round table sifting through photographs that had arrived in the post. They were mostly of him hard at it in the gymnasium, but a couple showed Muhammad Ali in the second of three famous tussles against Joe Frazier, and also there was one of Barry McGuigan in his featherweight prime. Didn't it trouble Piper to think of the impairment that has invaded Ali's middle age, and the fears held out for McGuigan when, dehydrated, he was carried from a ring in a state of collapse after losing his title to Steve Cruz in Las Vegas? And what of poor Michael Watson?
Piper addresses the risk with a vocabulary that leads people to joke about him giving boxing a bad name. 'I'm aware of the hazards,' he said, 'but I don't let them impose on the thrill of being in the ring, of knowing that I possess the power to knock men out. There isn't anything quite like it.' In common with the majority of professional fighters Piper is not naturally a violent man, and there is the paradox. As Joyce Carol Oates put it, 'The boxing match is the very image, the more terrifying for being so stylized, of mankind's collective aggression; its ongoing historical madness.'
Aggression, yes, but use it up in the ring where, frustratingly for the forces of revocation, there survives an unavoidable sense of nobility. 'Having the power to end a contest with one blow is tremendously exciting,' Piper added, 'but there is more to it than that, and I don't think people exaggerate when they speak of the best champions raising boxing to an art form.' Echoes here of Colin McMillan, the bright, pleasing stylist who will shortly resume his career after losing the World Boxing Organisation 9st title to Ruben Palacio, of Colombia.
Given that an alert mind has been central to practically all the great success stories in boxing, where does erudition put Piper? Where did it put Dr Terry Christle, who fought professionally in the United States, one of three Irish brothers who took up boxing while studying at Trinity, Dublin? For Christle there was no dilemma in his fondness for a sport that continues to affront many in his profession. Piper concurs. 'If I was being badly knocked about, and it became obvious I wasn't going anywhere, that would be the time to get out,' he said. 'There are dangers of course, but these days there is much better medical supervision, and you don't come across battered old pros propping up bars.'
Interestingly, Piper suspects his energies would have been directed elsewhere in sport but for the enthusiasm of an elder brother who introduced him to boxing as a seven-year-old. 'If I'd been a few years older, I might not have been so keen,' he said, 'but at that age you don't know much fear, and I quickly discovered that I could hold my own.' From there it was a steady progression through the amateur ranks while making a considerable impression on his teachers at Glanely High School.
As the Welsh amateur middleweight title holder, he was a losing finalist in the 1988 ABA Championships but succeeded at light- heavyweight the following year before turning professional with Frank Warren, the London manager and promoter. Since then his record shows just one defeat, a stoppage in three rounds when giving away too much weight against Carl Thompson, who took advantage of a serious error in matchmaking.
As a prizefighter, Piper obviously is cut from rare cloth. Irrefutable proof of that came when he answered a newspaper advertisment for Mensa membership. Having first taken the tests at home to gain a rating of 145, he decided to repeat the experience under University conditions and improved by eight points. Imagine the dull stares and falling jaws when it was revealed that Piper fights for a living.
The reputation serves Piper well. Garth Crooks, a former chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, sees him taking up a similar role in the boxers' union initiated by McGuigan. It was at one of the early meetings, before he was advanced as contender for the WBC title, that Piper first met Benn. 'Nigel was extremely pleasant,' he said. 'Came across and introduced himself and wished me well.'
Maybe that in itself is a commentary on how much comradeship exists in professional boxing, but the important thing is that Piper is under no illusions. He understands it to be a punishing business that pays no account to academic achievement, only the smartness all great fighters have taken to their corners. Piper is not remotely in such a class, but as someone once said, if you are going to fight, do it in the ring for money.
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