Boxing: Weighty test for Rhodes

Harry Mullan argues that the young Englishman is taking the biggest of gambles

The central character of W.C. Heinz's 1950s book The Professional, probably the finest novel ever written about boxing, is a grizzled old ring veteran who finally, after around 100 fights, challenges for the world title. The boxing world has moved on since then, and the multiplicity of championships, together with television's insatiable craving for new stars, means that youngsters now contest titles with less than a quarter of that experience. Thus there is nothing unusual in Ryan Rhodes bidding for a world title in only his 17th fight, but what is remarkable about his meeting with Canadian southpaw Otis Grant for the vacant World Boxing Organisation middleweight title in Sheffield on Saturday is that this will be the Englishman's first big fight at the weight.

The precocious Rhodes, who turned 21 less than a month ago, boxed at middleweight for his first nine fights but has spent the last year collecting championships in the light-middleweight division, starting with a stoppage of the former WBO champion Paul Jones to become the first to benefit from the Board of Control's decision to reduce the qualifying age for British championships to 20. He went on to win the Lonsdale Belt outright in record time (90 days) and then added the International Boxing Federation and WBO Inter-Continental titles before, in October, relinquishing them all to compete as a middleweight.

The extraordinary influence his promoter Frank Warren enjoys with the WBO meant that Rhodes was allowed to jump the queue and box a final eliminator for the vacant world title against a Russian, Yuri Epifantsev, who was himself a light-middle with no track record in the heavier division. That meaningless second-round victory, his 14th inside the distance in 16 starts, has "earned" him the chance to emulate his close friend and stablemate Naseem Hamed by winning a world title at 21.

So far, their careers have run on parallel lines. They won national schools titles on the same afternoon, took their first major championships in their 11th fights (Naseem the European, Rhodes the British) and faced tough opponents in their world title challenges. This week's news that Naseem, with pounds 7.5m, outearned Lennox Lewis in 1997 means Rhodes will be hoping that the parallels continue.

The Jamaican-born Grant, who will be 30 on 23 December, is easily the best man Rhodes has yet encountered. He failed by just one point to win this title from Lonnie Bradley in March, when two of the judges scored 115-113 for each man and the third made it a draw at 114-114. He was due to meet Bradley in a rematch, but the American suffered a detached retina and was forced to retire.

Grant is no short-notice "opponent". He has been here for three weeks and having beaten men of the quality of Willie Monroe, Gilbert Baptiste and James Green, he will have no qualms about facing the untested Rhodes. His solitary defeat in 30 fights was a knockout by Quincy Taylor in 1994; there were only 27 seconds remaining in the 12th and final round, with Grant in front on two cards, when Taylor flattened him with a single overhand left. Four fights later Taylor knocked out the fearsome Julian Jackson to take the World Boxing Council title.

Had it not been for the success Rhodes' manager, Brendan Ingle, has enjoyed with Naseem, it would be tempting to question his judgement in matching his man with such an impressive performer. But Ingle, it seems, can do no wrong these days and would not have taken such a gamble without absolute confidence in his man's ability. One hopes it is not misplaced.

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