Boxing: Rhodes revels in fast lane
Harry Mullan sees another Brendan Ingle prodigy emerge as a prince in his own right
Sunday 02 March 1997
The first was when Rhodes, having made a Naz-style entrance to the noisy and atmospheric Hillsborough Leisure Centre, danced his way to the ring and, milking the moment, stood on the ring apron. Everyone expected him to vault or somersault the ropes, and he let the anticipation build for fully a minute before wrong- footing us all by ducking conventionally through the ropes as if he were any journeyman professional going to work.
As a small thing in itself, it may have been his way of letting the punters know that, whatever the parallels with his world champion stable-mate, he is no Naseem clone but defiantly his own man. The uninitiated see Rhodes as the poor man's Hamed, which ignores the fact that much of Hamed's repertoire of back-flips, somersaults and breakdancing is borrowed from Rhodes, his stable-mate and training partner since they were child prodigies together in Brendan Ingle's Wincobank Academy.
The second cameo offered a poignant illustration of the unbridgeable gap between the small-hall, down-the-bill background from which Waudby so briefly emerged, and the championship class in which Rhodes already looks so comfortable. When Waudby, having been made to sit on a stool in mid-ring to recover from the effects of three punishing knock-downs, walked over to congratulate his conqueror, he tapped Rhodes on the shoulder with his glove and gestured towards the Lonsdale Belt which encircled the winner's waist. One more defence will make Rhodes the youngest-ever outright winner of a Belt after which he will certainly move on to greater things, but to his credit he was mature and sensitive enough to understand immediately what Waudby meant. He took off the belt and offered it to Waudby, who kissed it and handed it back: a touchingly symbolic way of kissing goodbye to the dreams which sustain battlers in his bracket. Boxing is a harsh sport, but it can have its beautiful moments too.
Within minutes of leaving the ring, Rhodes was back sitting at ringside beside Hamed as the pair offered vociferous and energetic encouragement to one of their less-gifted gym-mates, Kevin Adamson, who was stumbling towards a painful points defeat and probable retirement. The "club" ethos, which Ingle works so hard to nourish, binds his boys as closely as the tape and wrapping which still covered Rhodes's fists.
Ingle and the promoter Frank Warren are convinced that Rhodes can emulate his friend by winning a world title before his 22nd birthday, and supporting evidence is accumulating. But I would question the choice of target: the World Boxing Organisation champion, Steve Collins, two weight divisions up at super-middle and a world ahead in hard experience.
Collins himself regards Rhodes's challenge with the amused tolerance a Labrador might show towards a fox terrier yapping at his ankles. "Tell him to go away and beat somebody his own age," was the 32-year-old Irishman's post-fight comment, while Ingle said: "I've told Steve that Rhodes is the boy who's going to beat him, but he just laughed and said: 'If the money's there, then let's find out.'"
There is surely a world title waiting for Rhodes, but there are a great many softer options than the rugged Dubliner, whose priority is a showdown with the International Boxing Federation champion, Roy Jones, on which he has set a $5m price tag. Rhodes, who fights with Hamed's mixture of bewildering unorthodoxy and stunning power, has unlimited potential but there is still a long way to go before fighting him becomes worth $5m. His early fights were at middleweight, before Ingle brought him down to 11 stones when the chance arose of a British title fight in December, but he is at an age of rapid physical growth and it is unlikely that he can hold the light-middleweight limit for more than the one defence he needs to win the Belt outright.
After that, a challenge for Neville Brown's British middleweight title would have its attractions, even if it would sorely test the celebrated Wincobank esprit de corps: Brown is also trained by Ingle.
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