Boxing: Ruddock ready for the big prize: Ken Jones on the man Lennox Lewis meets in tomorrow's world heavyweight title final eliminator

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JUST about three years ago Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock was playing around with the glorious idea of defeating Mike Tyson to become the undisputed world heavyweight champion when Howie Albert arrived with bad news. 'The fight's off,' he said.

As he remembers it now, Albert, a man of long standing in boxing and a close Ruddock associate, then called down damnation on Don King who lost control of the heavyweight division three months later when James 'Buster' Douglas sensationally knocked out Tyson in Tokyo.

The Tyson versus Ruddock title bout fell apart when an increasingly troubled champion reported a mysterious ailment. 'I found out from a newspaperman,' Albert recalled. 'King didn't even bother to call us.'

In view of what Douglas achieved in Tokyo, a good question is whether Ruddock would have been the first to benefit from the dishevelled state of Tyson's mind. 'Who knows?' Albert said. 'But we were all set, Donovan was in great shape, ready to go.'

Two subsequent losses to Tyson last year, a controversial stoppage in seven rounds and a points decision, do not fully answer the question. Tokyo was a different time in Tyson's career. 'Mike was there to be taken,' Ruddock said.

Another question relates to the idea that Ruddock, who in the Las Vegas casinos is around 2-5 to defeat Lennox Lewis at Earls Court tomorrow, is an improved fighter. 'I know it,' Ruddock said the other day after completing an impressive work-out at a gymnasium in north London. Like Lewis, an emigrant to Canada, and at 29 two years the older man, his accent still carries echoes of a childhood in Jamaica.

For such a large man, 6ft 3in and weighing a touch more than 16st 6lb when he stepped on the scales, Ruddock had looked so forcefully mobile when punishing two sparring partners that the sense of awe detected in some of the spectators was understandable.

As tommorow's contest is a final eliminator for the championship that Evander Holyfield defends against Riddick Bowe in Las Vegas on 13 November, the great prize is never far from Ruddock's mind. 'I know what I am, I know what I've got,' he said confidently, wiping the sweat from his face with a large towel. 'You're looking at the man who will become the heavyweight champion.'

This is a thought that flourishes in the mind of Murad Muhammad, a strident presence as Ruddock's promoter and principal associate. 'Awesome,' he ranted last week, like a barker inviting all comers to a fairground booth. 'The strongest, best equipped, quickest and most dangerous heavyweight in the world. He can take a man out with either hand. Look at the jab, the left hook, the right uppercut.'

Ruddock is not inclined to dispute the assessment. Arrogance has been one of his problems, a mind foolishly closed to advice. 'I've got over that,' he said. 'I listen more. What they tell me sticks.'

Last year in Las Vegas he looked diffident when sitting along from Tyson on a stage. 'Thoughtful,' he now insists. 'Even though Mike was no longer the champion and people didn't think him to be the force he had been, it was a big thing to fight him. But going in with him twice, to take his best shots and to know that I hurt him, did a lot for my confidence. If Mike came out of prison now and got into shape, tell me a heavyweight who wouldn't be nervous coming up against him.'

Ruddock's only other defeat in 31 professional contests came in April 1985, a persistent asthma condition, subsequently controlled, causing him to be stopped in eight rounds by the hugely anonymous Dave Jaco. That, and a feeble draw with Phil Brown two years earlier, have disappeared from his mind. 'What's gone is gone,' he said.

You only have to look at the photographs to see how much a part of Ruddock's presence his eyes are. They do more than accentuate a handsome face; they flicker with the electricity that allows no emotion to remain a secret for long.

Of course, he was not shy about recalling a victory in their amateur days and claims two knockdowns when helping Lewis prepare for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. 'That is a fact,' he said. It is also a fact that Ruddock looks an extremely dangerous proposition.

(Photograph omitted)