Boxing: Rhodes hits the class barrier

The precocious talent which made Ryan Rhodes the youngest post- war British champion and the fastest outright winner of a Lonsdale Belt proved not quite enough to carry him the final step to a world title. Last night, in front of his home town fans here, he found Canada's Otis Grant a shade too seasoned for him and was soundly outpointed in his bid to lift the vacant World Boxing Organisation middleweight title. The verdict was unanimous: Judge Nelson Vasquez of Puerto Rico scored it 115-114, American judges Larry Hazzard and Al Munoz had identical cards of 115- 113.

Victory would have made Rhodes, at 21 and three weeks, Britain's youngest world champion since Jack "Kid" Berg won the junior welterweight title in 1930. But it was his youth and inexperience which beat him, although he boxed well enough in defeat to show that another year of testing matches could produce a different result when he next mixes with the big boys.

There is no disgrace in defeat by such an accomplished technician. The Jamaican-born Grant, who will be 30 on 23 December, is a boxer of real quality and, by a considerable distance, the best man the Sheffield southpaw had faced in his unbeaten 16 fight career. Grant has spent years campaigning in world class, and his only loss in 31 fights was to a future world champion Quincy Taylor. He is a university graduate who works with disfunctional children, and he brings the same cool intelligence to his boxing.

Rhodes' battle plan was predetermined by their discrepancy in age and experience. He had to try, in boxing parlance, to "jump on" Grant from the first bell, and not allow him to settle into a rhythm. But Grant is too wise to let himself be hustled out of a fight. He gave the youngster his head for a few rounds, and then began reeling him in like a master angler matching wits with a particularly lively salmon.

The boos which greeted the announcement of the verdict were more an expression of disappointment than disagreement, and if anything the official margins were surprisingly close. Rhodes had his moments, but Grant had an answer to everything he tried. When Rhodes opened up, Grant invariably blocked the punches with his gloves or ducked away from them, but Grant's own punches were unerringly accurate and there were several occasions, notably in the 10th and 11th, when Rhodes had to show grue grit to stay in the fight.

This was the first time he had been more than eight rounds, whereas the Canadian has completed the full distance five times. There were no knockdowns, although Grant was wrestled over in the final round as Rhodes rallied desperately, surely knowing that he needed a knockout to win. It had been a painful education for the Englishman, and the apprehension showed in his eyes every time Grant went to work with short right hooks to the ribs and hard lefts from his southpaw stance.

This was a new level of competition for him, but he can take heart from this performance against a cagey old pro who never once lost his composure even under the most severe pressure.

This was Grant's second attempt on the WBO title. He was held to a draw by Lonnie Bradley, when he allowed the champion to run away with the 12th round. Given the closeness of the cards last night, he almost repeated that mistake by allowing Rhodes to win the round by default, but he had enough points in the bank this time.

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