A genuine Jack of all boxing's trades

Wembley tomorrow can bring world renown for an unsung hero
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The Independent Online

If Billy Schwer becomes the first Englishman to win a widely accepted version of the world lightweight title at Wembley tomorrow night, the celebrations will be long and noisy.

If Billy Schwer becomes the first Englishman to win a widely accepted version of the world lightweight title at Wembley tomorrow night, the celebrations will be long and noisy.

Schwer, a bubbly extrovert who has sold £100,000 worth of tickets himself, will deservedly enjoy his moment. For his 70-year-old manager Mickey Duff, who can talk boxing at full volume 24 hours a day, it will be a final triumph that will round off a lifetime in the business.

However, no doubt filled with pride but opting to stay in the background will be the man who has trained Schwer from the start of his professional career, Jack Lindsay.

This quietly spoken, unassuming purist has dedicated himself to his art with relatively little financial reward though with the recognition of a recent award for services to his sport. He was on the payroll of the town council in Luton for years before his gym became a political hot potato, earned his main living as a plumber and now at 67 has a pension. He has seen boxers, from hopeless novices to natural talents, come and go. Mostly, the prize has been the subtle satisfaction of seeing each one take sometimes infinitessimally small steps along the path to improvement.

Champions don't come often for anyone working away from the gyms of the big cities, which makes Schwer special for Lindsay. On top of that, they get along. In spite of an outgoing nature, Schwer relies on stability. He still lives in his parents' house. His mother cooks his meals, his father - an Irish ABA champion in the early 1960s - helps on a day-to-day organisational basis, and Duff, Lindsay and the cutman Dennie Mancini have been constants since Billy began with an 85-second win at Bethnal Green in October 1990.

"He was just a name to me when he appeared at the gym when he was 17," says Lindsay. Already the precocious teenager had won national schools titles at Luton Irish amateur club and before his decision to turn pro represented England at youth and senior levels and reached the ABA lightweight final.

"The first thing I noticed about him was that he was accurate," Lindsay says. "What he aimed at, he hit. Then I discovered his appetite for learning. He never, ever tired of it." And more than that, he could put the theory into practice. It was the stuff of which trainers dream. "Once you got him to a reasonably competent professional level, there was nothing you couldn't teach him," says Lindsay. "He could absorb it all. It was like programming a computer."

Two years after his brief pro debut, Schwer was British and Commonwealth lightweight champion. He had won his first 19 bouts, 16 inside the distance. "Then nature intervened," explains Lindsay. Much has been written of the fair-skinned Schwer's vulnerability to cuts. Lindsay reveals another handicap. "He developed a stiffness in the back and shoulder joints, which took years to overcome."

Away from the limelight they worked on exercises and diet. After he lost his first world title challenge - on cuts to the Mexican holder of the International Boxing Federation belt, Rafael Ruelas, in Las Vegas in 1995 - they also set about making radical changes. Schwer began drinking a gallon of water a day, which is not particularly revolutionary. Quirkier was a decision to have the metal fillings drilled out of his teeth and replaced by plastic. He has had his hair, blood and sweat analysed. The flexibility exercises for his shoulders and back produced progress only at a painstaking rate. But they worked - and, strangely, have made him slightly taller.

This kind of attention to detail has brought him back to the top at the age of 30. "After the Ruelas fight, when he got cut very early on, he just said 'I lost, let's get on with it'," recalls Lindsay. "He's never made an excuse to me about a fight - has never complained about a decision. Billy's never had a negative thought - I mean it, he doesn't have them."

Trainer, boxer and manager have studied tomorrow's opponent, Stevie Johnston from Denver, in detail from ringside and on tape. The American was an exceptional amateur who just missed a place on the 1992 Olympic team. This is his second spell as World Boxing Council lightweight champion. His only defeat was a desperately close split decision to a Mexican, Cesar Bazan, in the Texan border town of El Paso in June 1998. Johnston won the return.

"He doesn't have any obvious faults. He's not a lethal puncher, but he hits hard enough. He's very good, but I set about thinking about how Billy could beat him and we think we've found the way," Lindsay says. From others, this might be construed as typical pre-fight talk. Lindsay is too analytical and straightforward to bother with verbal flannel.

Lindsay's life in boxing is typical of so many devotees in so many sports. He was an amateur performer from a schoolboy, through years in the RAF until he was 33. He ran a gym for English Electric in Luton, the town to which his family moved from London. "We stayed in London through most of the blitz. We got bombed out, moved around, we were in Kingston, in Bow, in Putney..." He used to spar with Billy Schwer senior. He remembers seeing Duff box as a teenager on the boxing booths.

I first spent time with Lindsay in the snow-bound Austrian town of Dornbirn 20 years ago, where the British welterweight champion he trained, Henry Rhiney, was challenging for the European title held by the local favourite, Josef Pachler. Rhiney, a big outsider, pulled off a sensational win with a right uppercut in the 10th. "Rhiney did the business, overcoming a points deficit to win in the 10th round with a right hand - and strangely years later I was with Billy Schwer in Zaragoza when he won the European lightweight title. He was behind on points - and won in the 10th with a right hand."

A fortnight before that victory against the unbeaten Oscar Garcia Cano, Schwer had gone through the trauma of seeing a sparring partner, Carl Wright, suffer a brain injury in a British championship fight. "Billy wanted to see him, and although we pointed out that it might not be the best thing to do just before his own fight, he insisted.

"Carl was in a coma. He was a terribly distressing sight. A nurse said they didn't hold out a lot of hope, and Billy held his hand and spoke to him for 20 minutes, telling him he could pull through. He said he felt the message had been getting home and as we came away, he just said quietly 'I am glad I did that'."

These are the things trainers value. The boxer is important, the man more so. It pleases Lindsay that Rhiney, who lives in Florida, still contacts him. He still sees some of the others, like the solid pros Roy Commossioung and Noel McIvor.

Now the years of putting in time and expertise may reap the reward tomorrow night. "Billy's perfectly aware that if he loses it might be the end, but he will have an absolutely steely determination to win and I think this time he will do it."

Boxing has little space for sentiment, but if Schwer does pull it off, it will demonstrate that once in a while, even in this most cynical of sports, nice guys do win.