Enter the new ring master; Boxing's small player brings a big fight to the Big Top, and Liverpool might just have a big future again

Stephen Brenkley samples the drama of a night when a promoter's risk-taking was rewarded
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The Independent Online
DURING six rounds of spellbinding courage, skill and toughness in a circus tent pitched on a car park, two men may have contrived one night last week to change the shape of boxing in Britain and perhaps beyond. This will have occurred neither to Shea Neary nor Andy Holligan in their pulsating light welterweight contest for the outstanding reason that they were too intent on attempting to change the shape of each other.

But the brutal punches they threw and the profound questions they asked of their mental and physical resources as they went to places it would be unwise, not to say impossible, for the rest of us to go, will dramatically influence three facets of the sport's foreseeable future. Neary and Holligan did enormous favours by raising, perhaps well beyond their immediate aspirations, the profiles of both the World Boxing Union and the provincial promoter John Hyland. They also enhanced the prospect of boxing's return on a regular basis to terrestrial television.

The rekindling of the fire in which live boxing once blazed so brightly in the city of Liverpool was almost a side-effect. Still, it was a telling reminder that here was a place which gave considerable help in putting the nobility into the noble art. There were abundant supplies of that commodity on extravagant display from both men in the main, magnificent fight on Thursday. Neary beat Holligan with 18 seconds of the sixth round remaining when, responding to pressure, he unfolded a series of ferocious blows to the head. It was a fight which had divided the city: Neary is a fervent Everton supporter, Holligan is a devoted Liverpool fan, and as a Reds taxi driver observed later: "We still can't beat them in a derby."

If the result was beyond reasonable prediction then so were the triumphs of an organisation which the sport surely did not need and a risk-taking promoter which it was unlikely to get. It remains ridiculous to contemplate that the WBU was formed, little more than three years ago, in a Norfolk hamlet by an obese, bed-ridden man, suffering from diabetes and ulcerated legs, who perched on the end of his king-size divan one morning and decided the planet was in dire need of another boxing controlling authority. But that is how Jon Robinson conceived the World Boxing Union.

"I had been getting very ill, couldn't walk and was in a bit of a way with myself so I decided I had to do something, get back into boxing again," he said. "Boxing is a disease and sitting there I had this vision that I could do something for it. I didn't think it was being served in the right fashion by the existing authorities. I phoned 20 people that morning and that was it, we were started."

From the start, despite all the evidence, Robinson, 55, was fully convinced of the WBU's necessity even though four other bodies - the WBC, the WBA, the WBO and the IBF - were already running the sport and there was a danger of running out of letters of the alphabet. Robinson had a boxing background; in his early days in the East End of London he flirted with being an amateur and did a variety of jobs while holding minor positions with the ABA.

He began to write on the sport for one of the London weekly papers and gave up van-driving to take up with Frank Warren in the promoter's early days. They parted company acrimoniously but Robinson, having developed connections, was offered a job as the IBF's European vice- president. This, too, was a relationship severed angrily but by then Robinson had contacts among boxing power-brokers everywhere. "I'm a bolshie bugger," he said. "I say what I think and I think a lot."

He and his wife moved to rural Norfolk and Robinson, always a big man of around 16 stones, became ill and began putting on more weight. He was forced to take to a wheelchair. He has tremendous trouble in getting to his feet but the bungalow in which they live in Nordelph (the place has a pub and a petrol station and its idea of a metropolis is Downham Market eight miles to the east) is the nerve centre of the WBU.

After a slow start in which his faith and that of his wife Valerie and daughter Jennifer never wavered, he was given a huge fillip by George Foreman. It so happened that the old preaching heavyweight needed a title and Robinson had one to give. "When George Foreman comes along it would be foolish to refuse him," said Robinson, having spent at least an hour depicting the WBU as a model of propriety but conceding that they needed the publicity and credibility Foreman brought.

Britain remained resistant to the WBU's overtures. Perhaps the promotional tie-ups with other bodies had something to do with it, though people were not slow to say the organisation was a mistake. If Robinson's build and circumstances make him seem a touch like Kasper Gutman, as played by Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, he also has some of Gutman's obstinacy and wiliness. He would not be cowed.

The break he sought came last week in Stanley Park. His debt to John Hyland and his fellow Liverpudlian promoters is probably large. Hyland is the sort of fellow who has a rapport with the entire human race. He boxed as a boy, won two ABA bantamweight titles and went on to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics and, as a pro, to challenge Billy Hardy for the British title. On quitting he stayed with boxing and began promoting in a small way. As a fighting man and an open one as well, he won the trust of fighters.

Walking with Hyland in Liverpool city centre it was tempting to believe that a returning Bill Shanklywould not be stopped more often. Hyland has a word for all. The Neary-Holligan encounter has altered his status. They were two strong, popular, exciting, talented fighters from the same city. When Neary first won the WBU title 18 months ago, a match with Holligan, who had been in with the great Julio Cesar Chavez, seemed a worthwhile prospect.

The gamble was not the match but how to stage it. Hyland and his team fixed it, decided on the tent in the park which divides Liverpool and Everton football grounds, secured local authority backing and then, crucially, persuaded television of the fight's merits. Granada bought it and sold it to other northern commercial stations who cannot have been disappointed. Hyland is convinced they will come to the party again.

"It's hard, so hard," he said in the immediate aftermath of the fight at which he wore not the promoter's traditional dinner jacket, but a comfy checked sports coat and black trousers. ("He won't give up, he's got a dream although he's lost lots of money till now," a friend confided.) "Getting television is so important. But without wishing to do down anybody else I think we're here, and the WBU's here and Liverpool's back and we won't be going away."

Shea Neary, 29 and unbeaten in 19 pro fights, is definitely here. Who knows, he may fight at Anfield or Goodison next. He is a fierce, crowd- pulling combatant. Robinson was right on the mark in saying: "I won't forget that it's not the organisation that makes the fighter, it's the fighter who makes the organisation."

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