Flay per view for Hamed

Two British showmen are poised to fulfil their American dream on boxing's big weekend. Harry Mullan reports
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The Independent Online
Tom Johnson is, according to everyone who knows him, a gentle and God-fearing man - yet calamity hovers over him like a vulture. His father was shot dead before the boy's first birthday, and Tom and his twin brother (youngest of the nine children) were raised by their mother in Evansville, Indiana. His first manager was shot dead in a drugs-related dispute, and his second in a row about a car. It is a harsh background, thrown into even starker relief by the contrast with the idyllic upbringing enjoyed in Sheffield by Naseem Hamed, whom Johnson faces in the London Arena on Saturday night.

It is that rare event: a clash of champions in a unification match, a pairing of the two best in the world at their weight. Hamed holds the World Boxing Organisation featherweight title, while the veteran Johnson represents the longer established and more respected International Boxing Federation. For both men, the stakes are high - although such is the public obsession with heavyweights that a greatly inferior pairing (Lennox Lewis v Oliver McCall) the previous night will be better rewarded than this splendid match.

For Johnson, the issue is simple and clear-cut: win or retire. If he loses, there will not be much of a future for a 31-year-old ex-champion, particularly one like Johnson whose smooth skills have always been more appreciated in Europe than in his own country, where unsophisticated brawling counts for more than technical excellence.

This point was neatly illustrated by a conversation I had in Copenhagen last weekend with the American IBO judge John Podgorski, who had somehow scored the Dane Brian Nielsen such a wide winner over Larry Holmes that he gave Holmes only one of the 12 rounds. I thought the 47-year-old had won by five points, and challenged his judgement. "Don't you score for aggression?" he asked.

"Only if it's effective aggression, and not just throwing your arms."

"Well, one guy was coming forward, making the fight, and that's good enough for me."

Faced with such simplistic assessment, Johnson can consider himself lucky that his second crack at the world title, against Manuel Medina in February 1993, happened in France rather than America. Johnson won on points, to launch a championship reign which, while lacking Hamed's razzmatazz, has been quietly impressive. Eleven defences, including appearances in England, Germany and France against worthwhile opponents, entitles him to more respect than the brass Yorkshireman is showing him, at least in public.

For Hamed, this is truly the moment of truth. Not even the meanest spirited critic could complain that Johnson is a "set-up", as they insist many of Hamed's fights have been. Certainly a few of his opponents did not belong in the same ring as the 22-year-old southpaw, but Hamed's conceit inspires such hostility that even when he beats men of genuine quality like Medina, who gave Johnson three epic fights and beat him once, the begrudgers find fault.

Saturday's fight will be seen live in America, giving the Sheffield showman a wonderful opportunity to showcase his unique talents. Last time he appeared live on American TV he was knocked down in the first round by the Puerto Rican Daniel Alicea, and the chorus of "I always knew he couldn't fight" was deafening. Yet that is to overlook the facts, that Alicea was unbeaten and the former world amateur champion, and more importantly that Hamed bounced straight back up to flatten him in the second round. There were similar complaints about Hamed's performance in stopping Medina, a former two-time world champion, but the Mexican was easily the best man he had yet faced and, despite suffering from a heavy cold, Hamed ground him down.

No one dare complain about the quality of this Saturday's opposition. Johnson has lost just two of his 48 fights (two draws) and boasts one of the best records of any of the ever-growing number of so-called world champions. He has won 25 inside the distance, so while not a puncher in the Hamed mould he clearly hits hard enough to take advantage of any lapses in concentration.

But there have been signs of decline: he was almost stopped in the last two rounds by Jose Badillio in December 1995, surviving a couple of knockdowns, and he had to come off the floor to retain his title in Newcastle last March against Ever Beleno, who dropped him in the first round but was stopped in the last. Johnson had to make three trips to the scales before making the nine-stone limit for that fight, and at 31 weight-making can only become harder.

The indications are that Johnson is a fine champion who is ready to be taken, and the fierce-hitting Hamed (20 quick wins in 22 unbeaten fights) is the man to do it. The equation is simple: Johnson can be hit and floored, and does not punch hard enough to deter Hamed, while Hamed is a thunderous puncher who can connect from any angle and stun with either hand. So Hamed's prediction of a win inside three rounds may not be too wide of the mark.

Ireland's Steve Collins finds himself in an unaccustomed supporting role on Saturday's marathon show, which features four world championships - a record for a British promotion. Collins defends his WBO super-middleweight title against the former European champion Frederic Seillier, a stubborn type who has won 43, lost six and drawn three. After his two adrenaline- charged wins last year over Nigel Benn, it may take Collins a few rounds to crank up enthusiasm for a bread and butter assignment like this, but the Dubliner is a solid professional who will not risk his dream of fighting Roy Jones by taking chances against Seillier.

Collins' WBC counterpart Robin Reid makes the first defence of his title against Giovanni Pretorious, who has boxed for most of his career as a light-middleweight, two divisions down from the weight of which he faces Reid. Pretorious, the son of an Afrikaans preacher, is unbeaten but has faced no one of world class. Reid's trainer Brian Hughes had a chance to vet Pretorious when another of his boxers, the Manchester light-middle Del Waul, lost to him in 1995, and clearly Hughes saw nothing to alarm Reid.

World title nights

Las Vegas, Friday

Vacant WBC heavyweight title: Lennox Lewis (GB) v Oliver McCall (US)

London Arena, Saturday

WBO super-middleweight: Steve Collins (Dublin, holder) v Frederic Seillier (Fra)

WBO/IBF featherweight unification: Naseem Hamed (Sheffield) v Tom Johnson (US)

WBO light-flyweight: Mickey Cantwell (London) v 'Baby' Jake Matlala (SA, holder)

WBC super-middleweight: Robin Reid

(Liverpool, holder) v Giovanni Pretorius (SA)