Boxing: The right fight for McMillan

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The Independent Online
IN SOHO this week, in a club long since converted from a Welsh chapel, Colin McMillan smiled pleasantly at Reuben Palacio, a Colombian who will be coming out of the opposite corner at Olympia tonight to challenge for the World Boxing Organisation featherweight championship. 'I chose him out of three opponents,' McMillan said.

As Palacio has lost four of seven contests since being stopped by Luis Mendoza for the World Boxing Association super-bantamweight title a little more then two years ago, it cannot be imagined that McMillan is under any serious threat. However, the privilege of a voluntary defence carries certain hazards.

It remains to be seen whether McMillan's deeply competitive ethic has affected his judgement, especially as Palacio hails from a part of the world where belligerence comes naturally to the aspirants who lay siege to ghetto gyms.

Hence the caution advised by Jim McDonnell, the former European nine-stone champion who stopped Palacio in 1986 after seven gruelling rounds. After meeting up again with the Colombian this week, and watching him work out, McDonnell said: 'He doesn't look at all like a clapped-out opponent. He seems to be in good shape and isn't marked up.'

Along with the toughness, McDonnell remembers tricks Palacio pulled on the blind side of the referee. 'He thumbed me, nutted me and used his elbows. I didn't complain because that's all part of the business, but I knew I'd been in a fight. Afterwards, in the dressing-room, I looked at Jimmy Tibbs, my trainer, and said what a hard game this is. Of course, I can't see Colin losing, but it may turn out to be a harder fight than he has bargained for. Palacio won't be less cunning that he was six years ago.'

As a unifying contest against Paul Hodkinson, the World Boxing Council champion from Liverpool, promises to be worth at least pounds 200,000 to both men, this is no time for McMillan to look vulnerable. In truth you have to like everything about McMillan, who is unquestionably the most naturally gifted fighter currently appearing in British rings. Refreshingly adroit in an era of slugging mediocrity, his contests so far have rekindled memories of a better time in profesional boxing.

In McMillan's mind it is an art form, as much about avoiding blows as being in position to deliver his own. 'From what I know about this fella, he likes to come forward,' he said this week, glancing across to where Palacio sat alongside his agent and trainers.

When this was interpreted for the Colombian he nodded in agreement, but he did not smile. Perhaps this was because his share of the purse picked up by Boxing of the Americas Inc will not amount to much more than dollars 20,000 (pounds 12,000); perhaps because he does not reckon to have any friends in the ring.

Autumn had laid a damp hand on the pavement outside, and Palacio, in dark slacks and a green jerkin, stood there in the drizzle. Somebody wished him good luck, and he understood. 'Gracias,' he said. On the ascending curve all boxers imagine for themselves, Palacio had thought of better than 11 defeats in 57 contests, three unsuccessful attempts at becoming a world champion.

'I am grateful to McMillan for this opportunity,' he had said. All the evidence suggests that the champion has got Palacio absolutely right. Good enough to make him work, but no longer good enough to raise fears of a bad night.