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Brixton's pearl on the brink

FACES FOR '96: Two young sportsmen are at the vanguard of emerging British talent; BOXING; James Reed on a heavyweight with shoulders broad enough to bear the acclaim
At night Danny Williams winds his way carefully through the flats near Brixton Prison, enters Brockwell Park by the school and runs three times round the silent grounds, passing the secret windows of a thousand council houses, the distant parade of shabby stores at Herne Hill, before heading back towards the glow of Brixton's lights. When Williams - 22, 16st 11lb and 6ft 2in - goes running, the street life wandering the park's dimly lit corners pauses.

As a child he walked the same route on his way to the gym above the Half Moon at Herne Hill. He was big then, big and lazy. Williams often missed training and it was hard to match him because of his size; slowly his flesh turned hard and men at his new club, the Lynn near Camberwell Green, started to get very excited. However, in the domestic championship he failed on four occasions but the national coach, Ian Irwin, tucked away with his formulas and ideas behind closed doors at Crystal Palace, developed the fighter's natural jab and took him to tournaments all over the world. Williams fought 19 times for England, losing just four bouts, won gold at various events and bronze at the European and Commonwealth Games.

Since 1992, hawkers from the professional business have shown an interest, but once the sweet promises started they were broken. Yet still the assistant dreamers showed up at Williams' door to stake bold claims. Boxing has too many wise guys, experts who pray on innocent amateurs, and Williams met them all. Frank Warren watched the situation from a safe distance, knowing that Williams wanted to box in Atlanta next year. But finally in September, after Williams decided that the dole and amateur boxing's politics were not conducive to podium strolling, a deal was done. "Danny has the speed, the power and skill to become a very wealthy man, because he is a very dangerous man," Warren warned.

In 1994 Williams demonstrated just how dangerous he can be when he met the English amateur champion, Danny Watts, in the final of the Liverpool Multi-nations Tournament. The bout was an unofficial box-off for a place in England's Commonwealth Games squad. It lasted 32 seconds: one left hook put Watts down and out. Silence greeted his fall because he was the favourite. "I didn't enjoy it; Danny is a friend of mine," said Williams as he cast a casual glance at Watts who was changing right next to him. "It was me or him." It was a perfect punch, smooth, accurate and quick. Not the work of a 20-year-old boy.

Part of the problem when Williams was an amateur was his weight. For three years he tried to compete at heavyweight - the equivalent of the professional cruiserweight division -before moving up to super-heavyweight, or professional heavyweight, just a few months before beating Watts. There were several occasions when Williams was stuck in a sauna to lose excess pounds.

Williams has now boxed twice as a professional. On both occasions he beat men who accepted the fight knowing they would probably lose. However, he ended both contests with style by using simple tactics, basic punches and staying calm. Williams has more poise at this stage of his career than Lennox Lewis, who cuffed and flapped his way past a variety of domestic sacrifices, or Frank Bruno, who sent dozens of foreign performers helter- skeltering to early showers at the start of his career after most had simply wandered into the dreaded slipstream of one of big Frank's swings. Williams is also bigger than either Bruno or Lewis were at 22.

In his last fight against Joey Paladino, at York Hall, earlier this month, Williams stood patiently as Paladino climbed up from two nine counts before he ended it with just a few seconds left in the first round. "These guys are big and, if they get a few rounds, all of their experience starts to show," Williams said.

He is right. This year Williams will test his concentration against the resistance of 10 or 12 more boxers. He can win every fight but his mind must remain focused - young boxers always lose outside the ring. Williams is the first to acknowledge he has just started to learn and now has to show people he is listening. "I have respect now," he insists.

Williams knows he can gain an even higher level of respect if he becomes regarded as Brixton's black heavyweight prospect. Williams has lived in Brixton all his life and he has seen it change. Other things have changed and there was a time when black people stayed away from fights. However, Nigel Benn started to alter the shade of fight audiences, and now Naseem Hamed has introduced even more shades to the once all-white arena. Hopefully it will continue changing. Williams is the great black hope, and the kid knows it.