Boxing: Woes of a Celtic worrier
Harry Mullan explains the dilemmas preying on the mind of retiring Steve Collins
Sunday 05 October 1997
One detected the hand of his new mentor, publicist Max Clifford, in the timing of the news: instead of alienating support among the press by splashing the story in a tabloid exclusive, Collins shrewdly kept them all on side by announcing his retirement at the Board of Control's annual awards lunch, as he accepted the "Best Overseas Boxer" Trophy. These are troubled times for the 33-year-old Dubliner and he may need all the help he can get in the months ahead as he faces legal battles which could severely diminish the fortune he earned so thrillingly in the ring.
No doubt he profited from the bitter experience of his compatriot Barry McGuigan, whose exclusive commitment to the Star resulted in a lack of backing from the rest of the press when he went to war with his former manager Barney Eastwood a decade ago. Collins is in a Dublin court next week against Barry Hearn, one of several managers and promoters with whom he has had a prickly relationship. (Ironically Eastwood, who staged a handful of his fights in 1991-92, is the only one for whom he has unqualified praise.)
Hearn is suing in a breach of contract action, and informed estimates have the Irishman facing a bill of pounds 1m and upwards, including costs, if the verdict goes against him. In November he is back in court, this time with the Petronelli brothers Goody and Pat. He joined their camp in Brockton, Mass, when he launched his pro career in 1986, but left them four years later after they had steered him to his first world title opportunity.
Collins has always been a man of single-minded intensity, which formed an invaluable asset inside the ring but is not always help in the complex, high-finance world of championship boxing. "I became very disillusioned," he acknowledges, "and realised that the only person I could trust was me. I set out to learn as much as possible about how the business works and the way the deals are done. It was very hard to be a boxer at the same time, but over the years you learn how to handle it.
"I don't need to be wrapped in cotton wool now. I pay guys a lot of money to look after business for me, but at the end of the day it's my say. That attitude's got me in trouble in the past, but it's also what has made me a success. If I make a mistake I can live with it, but if someone else makes it I'll never forgive them. If I get screwed now it's my own fault: I should know. If I do a deal and it's a bad deal, it's my problem."
Those problems, which finally swamped him last week, have been looming for some time. He was unhappy about the way he felt he was being railroaded into a fight he didn't want against Warren's undefeated young star Joe Calzaghe, and stormed out of a press conference held in August to announce the match. A series of meetings followed, resulting in an uneasy truce and an agreement to face the Welshman in Sheffield on Saturday, but hints and rumours from his California training camp suggested that his mind was not on the job.
A journalist friend in Dublin told of receiving a phone call from the fighter at 3am California time, which indicated an uneasy mind and an inability to sleep, not good news from a boxer facing a potentially difficult title defence in a week's time. Another Dublin journalist, who is close to the Collins family, reported that Gemma, his wife of 12 years, had flown out to California to discuss the problems. That news sent me searching for my notes of a conversation with Collins in January, in which he said: "If my wife said to me tomorrow 'I want you to stop', I'd stop. I wouldn't have three years ago, but I can say it now because I've achieved my goals, more than I ever deserved to achieve, and I can afford to say it. But I know if she asked me, it would be for my benefit and not for hers, and that's why I'd listen to her." Maybe last week she asked.
Collins's departure, for whatever reason, allows Eubank an unexpected chance to regain the title he held with such distinction for four years and a record 14 defences. He recently signed a 10-fight deal with Frank Warren, having undergone a sea change in his attitude to the sport he once despised. His new outlook, of course, has nothing to do with his widely reported financial problems.
In terms of experience and ability, he is light years ahead of the hard- punching but untested Calzaghe, but the outcome could be decided on the scales rather than in the ring. Eubank moved up to light-heavyweight after failing to regain the 12st title from Collins, and admitted that he had struggled for years to get down to the championship limit. His subsequent fights have been at light-heavyweight and he has been scheduled to challenge Mark Prince for the WBO Inter-Continental title at that weight on the Sheffield show.
It will not be easy for him to shed half a stone in a week and stay strong on a diet of fruit, and the Board of Control have, commendably, insisted that he allow his weight loss to be monitored. If he can reduce successfully, he ought to take care of Calzaghe much as he did another strong young challenger, Henry Wharton, whom he outboxed in the last and best of his title defences before losing to Collins.
But if he is weakened by the effort and the 25-year-old Calzaghe starts thudding home the kind of punches which have brought him 22 quick wins in 23 fights, Eubank may be compelled to agree with Collins that there must be easier ways to make a living.
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