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Boxing: Poet fighting to be his own man

Tomorrow an unusual boxer seeks a world heavyweight title. Ken Jones reports from Atlantic City
WITH the list of accomplishments he is said to possess - gifted pianist, poet, chess hustler and fluency in French - Shannon Briggs could get boxing a bad name.

Truth has never hampered the sport's publicists. But if the projected image of Briggs does not fit with an upbringing in the same New York ghetto that produced Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, there is evidence of capabilities that do not conform to the typecaster's idea of what a prizefighter's should be.

Briggs is articulate, amusing too, with a smile that breaks out frequently beneath the sprouting dreadlocks that give his head the appearance of a large pineapple. "I'm here to enjoy myself," he said this week, meaning an attempt to take the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship from Lennox Lewis tomorrow at the Convention Center in Atlantic City.

On the Jersey shore a little more than two years ago Briggs climbed into the ring against Darroll Wilson holding a record of 25 straight victories and the confidence of his associates and handlers.

If matchmaking can never be an exact science Wilson seemed perfect for the role of an opponent who can keep the pupil interested without presenting him with too much of a problem. Unimpressed by this estimate of his talents Wilson knocked Briggs out in the third round.

What happened in the dressing-room afterwards - Briggs blamed the setback on an asthma attack - helps to explain the challenger's sunny disposition. "I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself," he said, "when I looked up and saw Lennox Lewis. Lennox told me that losing wasn't the end of the world, to get on with things as he did after losing to the [world] title to Oliver McCall. Lennox didn't have to do that and I'll always be grateful to him."

Remarks are invented for Briggs on the basis that they are sure to figure eventually in the flood of his conversation. This does not bother Briggs because the representation is invariably favourable. "He's a nice kid," somebody said this week.

Niceness in fighters does not do much for the box office but Briggs wants nothing to do with the tasteless hyperbole many fighters now go in for. "I'm not here to play silly games," he said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Briggs got this far through a controversial points decision over George Foreman last November that gave rise to rumours of a fixed contest and an investigation by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

It eventually threw out a complaint from Foreman's promoters, clearing the New Jersey boxing commissioner, Larry Hazzard, of conspiring with two of the three official judges to give Briggs the verdict.

Briggs did not think he would get the decision but only because he was fighting a popular figure. "The crowd was behind George," he said, "cheering every punch he landed and not giving me any support. When the decision was announced it was like all my dreams were realised. I've had plenty of bad breaks you know."

It was not only the loss to Wilson that made 1996 a bad year for the young new Yorker. Soon afterwards a close friend was shot dead on the streets where he grew up and then his mother, who was fighting a drug habit, died suddenly of a heart attack.

When Briggs found himself losing concentration against Foreman he thought about his mother. "It was in the eighth round," he said. "George hurt me badly. I bit hard on my mouthpiece and said, 'this one's for her.'"

Briggs feels that the force of Foreman's punches, especially the head- rattling jab, made a man of him. "It's a thunderous jab," he recalled. "Every time he got through it was like being hit with a bat. Lennox is a big puncher but being able to take George's best shots and stay with him has done a lot for my confidence. I'm having fun but I'm very serious about this fight. I'm right back on track and Lennox shouldn't expect an easy time because I'm going to make it hard for him."

Going in at odds of 15-1 Briggs is not given much chance of causing what would be a major upset in the division, one that would put paid to the prospect of a unifying bout between Lewis and Evander Holyfield. "I know that," Briggs said, "but it will be tremendous if I can get into the shake- up. There is an awful lot to fight for."

Lewis's serene countenance suggests that while he is taking the contest seriously enough he does not imagine that Briggs is capable of standing up to his firepower. "That's Lewis's business," Briggs said when the suggestion was put to him.'

Soon after the only defeat he has suffered in 30 paid contests Briggs was abandoned by his then manager of record, Mike Marley, and the leading trainer Teddy Atlas.

Atlas's complaint was that Briggs was too easily distracted by extra- curricular activities. "I guess we were never going to get on with each other," the challenger said. "I have always tried to market myself," he admitted.

"I get into that and so do my fans. People came to see me because of my looks. Now they come to see me fight. But I'm always going to be Shannon Briggs. I'm still rapping and modelling. I'm proud of doing well at school and if there'd been any money I would have gone to college. There is more to Shannon Briggs than a fighter."

Trouble is that, apart from Muhammad Ali, fighting poets have never been taken seriously.