Boxing: Quicksilver Prince true to his word

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The Independent Online
There is a world of difference between competence and genius, a fact that was driven painfully home to the European featherweight champion Billy Hardy when he challenged for Naseem Hamed's World Boxing Organisation and International Boxing Federation world titles at the Nynex Arena here last night.

Hamed needed just 93 seconds to wipe out Hardy's ambition, flooring him twice with devastating right hooks to force referee Paul Thomas to rescue the dazed and shaken challenger. Hamed had predicted precisely this finish, but that seemed to be giving Hardy less than proper credit for his talent and accomplishments over an honours-laden 14-year career.

Hardy won 14 of his 18 title fights at all levels, including championship victories in seven of his last eight fights, but Hamed swept him aside with the kind of arrogant ease which makes him one of the world's most dramatic performers.

A left-hook followed by a frightening right slammed Hardy to the floor, his eyes wide in shock and pain. He pulled himself together quickly and got up at seven, but there was no to be no escape from Hamed's crashing power, speed and accuracy.

He drove Hardy back along the ropes, before a final left and a pair of rights floored the challenger for the second time. He rose at six, but referee Thomas took a long close look into his eyes and waved the fight off.

Hardy sank to his knees in tears of disappointment. A fighter of his professionalism deserved better than this crushing humiliation. He had prepared well for his third world-title bid, after two failures in challenges for the IBF bantamweight title, and he did not appear intimidated or impressed by the champion's theatrics. He sat in his corner, a study in concentration, head covered in his red gown and cupped between his gloves during Hamed's interminable procession to the ring, but once the bell rang, Hamed's genius took over.

Hardy did not even have the satisfaction of landing a worthwhile punch on the elusive champion, who presented an impossible target as he switched between southpaw and orthodox stances and launched attacks from gravity- defying angles.

The World Boxing Association champion, Wilfredo Vasquez, who is likely to be Hamed's next opponent in a summer unification match, had been due to attend last night's but did not show up. Perhaps, for his peace of mind, that was just as well: he would not have enjoyed what he saw.

Whatever sense of disappointment had lingered after the Hamed fight was swept aside by the WBC super-middleweight thriller which saw Runcorn's Robin Reid retain his title in an enthralling battle with Yorkshire challenger Henry Wharton, whose courage and resilience was unforgettable.

Reid won a majority decision with scores of 118-111, 117-113 and 114- 114, leaving Wharton a loser for the third time in world title bids. The margin did less than justice to Wharton's heroic effort, but there could be no serious argument of the outcome.

The champion took time to get going, but when Wharton put him under pressure from the seventh round Reid responded with a display of counter-punching of the highest quality. Wharton never stopped chasing him and had his successes with thunderous left hooks, but Reid invariably came back with something better.

Wharton's endurance in the later rounds defied belief as Reid rocked him repeatedly with jarring counters, but the harder Wharton was hit, the harder he came back. There were moments in the 10th and 11th when it seemed that Reid might be fading, but he rallied superbly in the final round to put the verdict beyond doubt as Wharton flailed away with mounting desperation.

There were no knockdowns, despite the number of stunning punches landed, but the pace was unrelenting and the sportsmanship impeccable in a fight which showcased the best in boxing.

There was no happy ending to Steve Foster's career fairytale as the 36-year-old Salford light- middleweight took a painful beating from the WBO champion Ronald "Winky" Wright in the night's third world-title fight.

Foster was rescued by referee Gino Rodriquez after 2min 52sec of the sixth round as he went down for the second time, wincing in pain from the effects of Wright's wicked right hooks to the ribs. It had looked all over a moment earlier, as Foster struggled upright at nine after the first knockdown and turned towards his corner, but in fact Foster was only having his gum shield rinsed and replaced. One punch later, though, it really was the end.

Foster tried his limited best, but was never able to make any impression. Wright's boxing and punch-placing was a delight to watch. "I'm just not good enough for the world stage," Foster acknowledged as he announced his retirement. "I'm going to go out with my mates have a good drink and a good cry, but that's my lot now."