Boxing: Rhodes scholar of style

'It will be like Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United in the FA Cup final' - Brendan Ingle, master salesman; Harry Mullan on two Sheffield showdowns that bridge the generation gap
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The Independent Online
HISTORY could be made at both ends of the generation gap in Sheffield on Saturday night as Ryan Rhodes bids to become the youngest ever British champion and Dennis Andries the oldest.

Rhodes is the latest off Brendan Ingle's production line of stars from his gym on the outskirts of the city, a 20-year-old of exuberant twirls and antics who devised the front-flip somersault which his better-known stablemate and life-long friend Naseem Hamed appropriated as his own. He boxes a former Ingle protege, Paul "Silky" Jones, for the vacant British light-middleweight title, while yet another of Ingle's long-time charges, Johnny Nelson, faces Andries for the vacant cruiserweight championship.

Ingle, who has never knowingly undersold either a fighter or an event, is also the co-promoter of Saturday's show at the Ponds Forge Arena and assures us that: "It will be like Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United in the FA Cup Final."

A degree of promotional over-enthusiasm can be forgiven, but the bill is undeniably intriguing on several levels. Rhodes, the first to benefit from the Board of Control's decision to reduce the championship qualifying age to 20, has been trained by Ingle since he was six. Jones was with him from the age of 14 to 26, so there is nothing about either man to surprise the veteran Dubliner.

"People said I was crazy when I put Rhodes in with Del Bryan [the former British welterweight champion] but Ryan beat him easily," he says. "They said the same about Hamed when I matched him with Vincenzo Belcastro for the European title in his 11th fight, and Naz won every round. This is Rhodes' 11th fight too, and he's good enough to do the same."

Jones has not fought since winning the World Boxing Organisation title from Verno Phillips a year ago. He signed a three-fight option with the American promoter Bob Arum in order to get the chance, but then walked out on the first of those defences, against Bronco McKart, because he felt unhappy with the purse his manager Barry Hearn told him he would clear for risking his title in the challenger's home town. The WBO promptly stripped him of the title, and Jones learned via a message on his answerphone that he was now an ex- champion. A period of bitterness ensued, with Jones attempting to relaunch his career under different management, but he has now made peace with Hearn.

"All the pressure will be on Jones," Ingle points out. "He's 30, so where can he go if he gets licked? I spent 12 years on Jones, for no return. He walked out on me like he walked out on Hearn, but what goes around comes around and I've no doubts at all about Saturday. Jones is a good 30, but Rhodes is a great 20 - a strong, mature 20."

Whatever satisfaction Ingle will feel if the precocious Rhodes becomes champion will be nothing on the pleasure Johnny Nelson will bring him by regaining the British title he relinquished six years ago. Nelson, 30 next month, has been paradoxically his greatest achievement and his most notorious under-achiever. "Forget about Hamed, Herol Graham and the rest - Johnny's been my success story," Ingle insists.

"He had nothing going for him when he came to me at 14, chronically shy and with no idea how to box. He had 15 amateur fights and lost 12 of them, disqualified four times, and when he turned pro he lost his first three fights. But he stuck at it, and look at what he's done: won a Lonsdale Belt outright, fought twice for the world cruiserweight title, won World Boxing Federation titles at two weights, and won in Australia, Germany, Thailand and New Zealand."

Nelson has undoubted talent, and like all Ingle's boxers is so defensively adept that he conceded several stone to Henry Akinwande, now the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, and frustrated him for the full 10 rounds. He flopped horribly in his two world-title attempts, a dull draw in Sheffield and a points defeat in the US, but his long spell on the road seems to have restored his confidence.

Nelson should be too young and fresh, even yet, for the ancient Andries, whose age is a tantalising mystery. His "official" date of birth made him 43 on 5 November, but the former three-time WBC light-heavyweight champion (born in Guyana) claims to be older. Whatever the truth, his has been a remarkable career.

Andries developed from a crude preliminary fighter of no amateur pedigree into a world champion, and after moving up to cruiserweight won the British title in January 1995. He lost it to Terry Dunstan in his first defence, a controversial verdict, but was clearly outpointed in the rematch and cannot realistically expect to fare any better on Saturday.