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Boxing: Tubbs triumphs in three-ring circus: Jonathan Rendall sees a former world champion prevail on a bizarre night in Mississippi

IT WAS supposed to be the promotion of the century - 16 of the world's top heavyweight contenders boxing each other on one night in a Mississippi casino, the winner to earn dollars 1m and recognition as People's World Heavyweight Champion.

It did not turn out quite like that. Half the field dropped out. The backers dropped out. It was a surprise that not more of the boxers dropped out considering that, at 48 hours' notice, the prize-money for the event's winner was reduced to dollars 140,000.

Tony Tubbs, a former World Boxing Association world heavyweight champion, walked off with the loot after coming through three three-round elimination bouts to outpoint a previously obscure Romanian, Daniel Dancuta, in front of a live gate of 5,283 and a pay-per- view television audience that the Canadian promoters Don Arnott and Trevor Wallden hope will come to millions more.

Tubbs and Dancuta, a novice professional, appeared fatigued throughout the lacklustre final, which the almost exclusively white, red-neck crowd at Casino Magic greeted with chants of 'bullshit'. Tubbs, 34, said: 'I like the format but man, my knuckles are sore and next time they're going to make sure the money's there.'

The promotion hit a snag earlier in the week when Arnott and Wallden said their backer, David Lau, a Singapore businessman, had pulled out. The promoters admitted that their contract with Lau had been only verbal but that they had relied on the offices of a former

cover-girl turned agent to guarantee the deal. They said they had had to invest dollars 600,000 of their own money. Casino Magic put up the rest, but the prize pool fell substantially short of the advertised 'dollars 3m' promotion.

The People's Championship attracted national headlines in the US, not only because of the money allegedly on offer and the bizarre format but also because the roster of entrants, in various states of athletic decay, provided columnists with comic possibilities. The preponderance of former convicts - including one, Jason Williams, who was only released from a maximum security prison four weeks ago - and drug offenders in the field caused Tyrell Biggs, the 1984 Olympic champion and himself a former resident of a drug rehabilitation clinic, to say of his fellow behemoths: 'Looking at these guys here I now realise my problems weren't that serious.'

Network television declined to buy the promotion, partly because of the advertised presence in the line- up of Joe Savage, the self-

proclaimed 'British bare-knuckle champion', who had not had a professional fight, strained respectability even by the dubious standards of the boxing world. But after taking part in a promotional tour, Savage, from Stafford, cried off with a hand injury and instead sold his story to the Sun.

British interest was restricted to Derek 'Sweet D' Williams, the former British and Commonwealth champion from Peckham. All week Williams talked a good fight maintaining that he had 'signed for the million' and would be able to tap previously unknown mental resources through his use of 'dianetics', a concept, Williams explained, based on the teachings of the head of the Church of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard.

But although Williams started well in his first eliminating contest against an ancient Cuban, Nino Ribalta, Williams faded and was adjudged a unanimous first-series loser, along with such luminaries as Rocky Phillips, a balding Ohio heavyweight who had earlier weighed in wearing only white cowboy boots, and Smokin' Bert Cooper, the former cruiserweight contender, who failed to ignite.

After 12 three-round bouts, the tournament was down to the semi- finals: Tubbs v Biggs and Dancuta v the venerable James 'Bonecrusher' Smith. It was Smith, another former heavyweight champion, who had represented the interests of the aggrieved competitors all week during protracted negotiations with the promoters. The crowd's favourite, an 18-year-old named Shane 'Kid Thunder' Sutcliffe, had been put out by Biggs.

Thousands of dollars were being bet at ringside by an elite group of high rollers with New Jersey accents who had been 'comped' by the Casino. As midnight loomed, and Tubbs and Dancuta prepared to box each other, the tension became too much and fights broke out in the circus tent that had been erected next to Casino Magic, a lime and pink confection that rises improbably from the flat Mississippi landscape of swamp and scrub.

Tubbs, who is still remarkably fast despite a formidable girth, was able to control Dancuta easily; a task facilitated by the fact that Dancuta, by his own admission, was by then too tired to try that hard. His American trainer, Jesse Reid, fumed: 'I am upset because the man you saw in there is not the real Bazooka Dancuta.'

The crowd was not told of the drastic diminution in prize money, which may have had something to do with the Romanian's motivation. According to Wallden and Arnott there is still a possibility that Tubbs will make a million through his share of television revenue, but they conceded it was a very remote one indeed. Tubbs said: 'I am about dollars 800,000 short, but I'll wait.' Tubbs also pocketed another dollars 20,000 as a bonus for having knocked out an opponent in the first round earlier on. As Tubbs left the ring, his wife called out to him: 'Money in the bank, T'

Similar events are already being planned, but Arnott and Wallden are likely to be spending some time yet fielding questions from disgruntled parties. The draw for the tournament was supposed to have been decided by public vote via a toll-free telephone number, 1-800 S-T-I-F-S. It was later admitted that this had not been the case, prompting allegations of favouritism towards certain boxers, particularly Bonecrusher Smith.

The final pull-out was that of Magne Havna, a Norwegian former cruiserweight champion. His manager, Steinar Johnsen, decided that the financial guarantees were not in place and announced Havna's withdrawal only hours before the first bout. 'We took it as an honour to be invited to the United States,' Johnsen said. 'And because we thought the concept was historic. But I think we have to ask ourselves, if we are prepared to accept dollars 10,000 instead of dollars 1m and forget our principles, are we not in danger of prostituting ourselves?'

(Photograph omitted)