Collins not ready to relinquish hard-won respect

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Steve Collins trains in Jersey, where Nigel Benn is a resident tax exile. Benn, a multi-millionaire, leads by a streak in a career earnings contest but, as the defending champion, Collins takes the lion's share of a pounds 2m joint purse from tonight's World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title fight at the Nynex Centre, Manchester. The worm has started to turn.

Collins, aged 32, like Benn, has learned late but learned fast. Since "arriving" by becoming the first man to defeat Chris Eubank in March 1995, and then successfully defending the WBO title against the former champion six months later, Collins has shown a keen eye for business. An autobiography was released within weeks of the first win over Eubank. There was a pounds 10 a head entrance fee to the victory party after the second. When Frank Warren became the man, Collins became his man...

Cynical? Perhaps - but the Cabra-raised father of three cannot be criticised for maximising his earnings from boxing. The last two years have been great for Collins. The previous eight were another matter - Collins has fought long and hard for this late success and intends to maintain his current status far beyond this evening.

Despite the heroics of his nine-year career, Benn is the slight underdog. Collins might be too strong and insistent for the twice former world champion in what may be the last big domestic fight of a golden era in British middleweight, and later super-middleweight boxing that began with Benn's loss to Michael Watson in May 1989. From this series of high-quality showdowns, Eubank emerged as top dog through two victories over Watson, a win and a draw against Benn.

While the British scene was booming, Ireland's Collins was searching for the American dream, having stayed on in Boston after visiting with an Irish amateur squad in 1986. The first 19 fights of his career took place in America, where he was a respected pro, but not highly rewarded.

By the summer of 1990, Collins had taken a part-time job as a barman in Brockton, Massachusetts. Only months earlier he had challenged Mike McCallum for the World Boxing Association middleweight title and had been outpointed. By Collins' reckoning, he took home about pounds 20,000 after deductions and, as a married man with a baby daughter, that was not going to last long. Having his hero, Marvin Hagler, as a gym mate did not compensate for the sense of poverty he felt.

Relocated in Belfast, Collins was unsuccessful in WBA and European title challenges during an 18-month alliance with Barney Eastwood. Then, when Collins attended the first Eubank-Watson fight at Earls Court in June 1991, he wondered why he had not just got on a ferry all those years ago. British grass looked greener. The champions were paid well and looked beatable to a strong, tough fighter schooled in American gyms.

By early 1993 he had joined Eubank and Benn at Matchroom, but first targeted another stablemate, Chris Pyatt, who held the WBO middleweight title. Making the fight was not easy, however, and Collins grew so frustrated during his first year in England that he vowed to quit boxing if 1994 did not bring a world title fight. He now had three children and an undercard fighter's pay did not stretch far.

Nor did Collins enjoy supporting roles: "Boxing to kill time on somebody else's big night, while the television stations were waiting to go live with the main event; in front of a couple of hundred disinterested people who couldn't wait until the fight was over." You can see his point.

Pyatt was finally beaten in five rounds in May 1994 and the door opened for Collins to crash the big time with his wins over Eubank, featuring the controversial assistance of Tony Quinn, hypnotherapist and former sex guru. Two further defences have been negotiated, with Quinn noticeably absent from Collins's corner, at least physically, last time out.

Collins has developed a ragged but highly effective style, reliant on relentless pressure and chin strength. He doubts Benn can stand the pace. "I'm too strong. I've come too far to lose," he says. "I know from looking at him that I can beat him."

Benn has an unjustified reputation for having bad stamina and a weak chin, but when threatened, as by the dangerous Americans Iran Barkley and Gerald McClellan (when Benn was hypnotised by Paul McKenna), he moves up a gear. Benn rises to challenges. He blames over-training for his loss of the World Boxing Council title to Sugar Boy Malinga four months ago - but Benn always struggles against slick boxers like Malinga and a full- frontal brawl with Collins might prove right up his street.

Collins, though, has never been stopped and only Eubank has dropped him in 35 contests. He has had fewer fights than Benn and, crucially, he might be fresher. If Collins can take Benn's best shots and avoid cuts he can outwork the former, champion over 12 hard rounds. Maybe then he would have to consider spending a little more time in Jersey...