Boxing / World Heavyweight Title: Bowe moves on with dispatch: All in the Garden is not rosy as Michael Dokes proves predictably unfit to grace the historic arena

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THEY chose the wrong controversy here when they argued over whether the fight should have been stopped so soon. The issue was whether it should have been started at all.

Michael Dokes provided just 139 seconds of (token) resistance to the heavyweight champion, Riddick Bowe, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, with an aggrieved and bloodthirsty crowd of 16,332 chanting, 'bullshit, bullshit', and Dokes's manager, Sterling McPherson, screaming at the referee for rescuing his associate from the gale of Bowe's punches. That Dokes's next stop could easily have been an intensive care unit seemed not to occur to the malcontents.

It was everybody's darkest suspicion confirmed. Dokes is a man ageing in dog years, and no amount of glaring and pectoral- flexing in the pre-fight ceremony could disguise his inadequacy for this task. Much had been made of his 'courage and ruggedness', but if Dokes had once been able to summon such qualities to resurrect his career from dollars 450 undercard fights, his fearlessness rapidly evaporated here under the approaching shadow of the undefeated Bowe.

You could see it in the eyes and the arms. Dokes, not normally a man for doing anything quickly, was an overweight mass of twitching nerves and jerking arm movements as Bowe got to work with his left jab in the first 60 seconds.

Later, when asked what he saw on Dokes's face, Bowe said: 'I saw fear,' but that was before a succession of heavy blows sent Dokes collapsing on to the ropes. From there he was a jelly-legged toddler stumbling into danger, and the expression even of terror was more than he could manage.

In came Joe Santarpia, the referee, with 41 seconds of the first round remaining. The most important heavyweight fight at the Garden since Ali-Shavers in 1977 had ended with Dokes's cornermen shouting indignation at every available official, and McPherson calling (he should win a comedy award for this one): 'We demand a rematch.' The punters, rest assured, were not amused.

McPherson won the reprehensible behaviour award by a unanimous decision, beating even the besuited cynics who sanctioned this ugly mismatch. At the post- fight press conference he again emerged from the shadows to thump a table and bellow: 'That was terrible in there, man. This is the heavyweight championship of the world.' It was, and Dokes, sadly, had been present only as a lumbering target selected from the massed ranks of the unthreatening.

It was not long before the perfect antidote to McPherson's ranting arrived. It was Eddie Futch, Bowe's 81-year-old trainer, who had once cut the gloves from Joe Frazier to rescue him from a crushing fight with Muhammad Ali. Bowe himself provided the sane man's interpretation of Santarpia's decision by saying: 'I think he should have stopped the fight a lot sooner. I want to win, but I don't want to see a man get hurt.'

The New York Police Department had delighted the city on Saturday by reporting that for the first time in living memory last week, a 24-hour period had passed without a major crime being reported. That respite from serious misdeeds ended when Dokes was paid dollars 750,000 to climb into the ring against Bowe.

Boxing, in this mode, is a great choreographed money conspiracy that is rescued from self-immolation only by the credulity of the fight-watching public. Those who felt cheated by Dokes's inept performance must presumably not have seen a newspaper all week, or turned on the television. If they had, they would have learned that Dokes trained just once in the six days preceding the fight, that he was eating heavily, and that he had complained of feeling 'flat' and spent most of Friday laying in bed.

Such is Bowe's unlikely humility that he, too, acknowledged his own relative lack of conditioning when the subject of the Mike Tyson letter was raised after the event. Tyson, according to the Don King organisation, had written an open letter to Bowe castigating him for fighting at such an 'atrocious weight' (243lb), but rather than question the ex- champion's moral authority to make such a judgement, Bowe said simply: 'You know, Mike made a lot of sense, and the next time I fight I will be in the 230s.'

Aside from his apparent laziness in the gym, Bowe is beyond reproach for what happened here on Saturday night. Indeed, he ought to be commended for placing the ruthless desires of the crowd and the hype about 'the homecoming' so far down his list of priorities. 'The earlier I get these guys out of there the less punishment I have to sustain,' he said.

One guy who will not need dispatching by Bowe is Ray Mercer, who was to have been the champion's next opponent but who was defeated by Jesse Ferguson on Saturday's undercard. Mercer complained of having a bad back, but still it was impossible to understand why he turned up at the Garden so out of shape when he had only to beat the journeyman Ferguson to earn a million-dollar bout with Bowe.

But then nothing made much sense at the Garden on Saturday, least of all after the ring announcer had conveyed the news, moments before the Bowe-Dokes fight, that Arthur Ashe had died that afternoon.

The rifling through mental files for a possible next opponent for Bowe was rendered by that announcement as meaningless as the fight itself, particularly as the meeting everbody in boxing clamours for, Bowe against Lennox Lewis, is still many money- making months away.

Of the names that were mentioned - Foreman, Garcia, Stewart, Damiani, Witherspoon, Tubbs and even Frank Bruno were on the list of possibles - only a rematch with the returning Evander Holyfield could excite global interest ahead of a Bowe- Lewis fight, or the reappearance of Tyson, whose appeal against his conviction for rape will be heard in Indiana a week today.

Bowe and Lewis apart, the impression most experts have is of an impoverished division staffed by mountainous relics (Foreman) and mediocre makeweights (Mercer). That we are not awaiting hospital bulletins today on the condition of Michael Dokes is one of boxing's tiny mercies.

(Photograph omitted)