Boxing: Belter Skelton the heavy hope

In Japan he got kicks out of the game. Now he's home and ready to hit the big time

With Lennox Lewis set to go beachcombing and Audley Harrison flouncing off to do his ring thing in faraway places against opponents with strange-sounding names, British heavyweight boxing is in desperate need of a personality who can punch. For once, breath is being held in genuine anticipation. The buzz is that the game may have unearthed a big man who can do the business.

Matt Skelton is 6ft 3in, a tightly muscled 18 stones, has won all seven of his pro fights with devastatingly quick finishes, is engagingly articulate and, according to Ronnie Davies, the man who trained Chris Eubank, "has the power to send fear right through the division". The perfect pedigree for a champion in the making. That's the good news. The downside is that he's 33, seven months older than Harrison.

No spring chicken, then, but certainly no old boiler, either, as those who have been on the receiving end of his short, explosive punches will testify.

So where has he been all these years? Few may have heard of him here, but he's a huge name in Japan, where, for much of the last decade, he has been fighting with success on the fiercely competitive K-1 kick-boxing circuit.

His decision to go orthodox brings a deliciously unorthodox dimension to the boxing scene here, beginning on Thursday at the Goresbrook Leisure Centre, Dagenham, when he fights the former British champion Michael Holden for a title that has not been contested since the bare-knuckle days of the late 19th century - the English national championship.

This has been revived by the British Boxing Board of Control, and will be the highlight of Frank Warren's "Fight Skool" promotion, the first of a new Sky TV prime-time venture regularly featuring some of his 32-strong stable of young prospects, including the newly signed amateur featherweight sensation Kevin Mitchell. Skelton, says Warren, qualifies as "a mature student". Skelton's co-manager, Eugene Maloney, younger brother of Warren's partner Frank, says: "People keep going on about his age. But in boxing terms he's only a baby." Opponent Holden is himself 35, and has fought only 18 times in a nine-year career.

"Age is only an issue if you party hard and abuse your body," says Skelton. "I've never been a drinker. My idea of socialising is a little coffee and a game of bar football at a café close to me." He abandoned his kick-boxing career, which saw him win 52 of his 57 bouts, including one before a crowd of 68,000 in the Tokyo Dome where Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson, after being called in to spar with a Ghanaian prospect in the Maloneys' Fight Factory gym in London's Old Kent Road. "Matt knocked the crap out of him," says Maloney.

Davies, who was training the African, thought Skelton was "awesome". Maloney persuaded Skelton to switch to conventional boxing, and his debut saw seasoned opponent Gifford Shillingford knocked cold and hospitalised.

After Skelton had won his first four fights, Maloney took an advertisement in a London evening paper offering Harrison £100,000 to fight him. There was no response. "I honestly believe Matt would knock Harrison spark out - and that's not hype." Well, actually it is, but Skelton is having none of it - yet.

"Audley's got a lot of knockers, but I'm not one," he says. "He's won an Olympic gold, which can't be bad. He has done a good job on his PR, good luck to him. He knows what he wants to do. A lot of people out there want to climb on his bandwagon, but I don't. I'm not shouting that I want to fight him. I just sit down with my team and decide who is the best opponent, one fight at a time."

Born of Jamaican parents, the youngest of a family of seven and father of a 15-year-old daughter, former scaffolder Skelton has lived in Bedford all his life. As a youngster, rugby was his sport - he played as a flanker for Bedford Athletic. He began living for kicks at 21, taking up Thai boxing and winning gold in the world amateur championships before joining the K-1 circuit, averaging £40,000 a year in a brutal martial art where he was allowed to use his feet, knees and elbows as well as his fists.

"I initially went to Japan as cannon-fodder, because that's the view they have of most Europeans, but after I won a few fights they seemed to take to me. Kick-boxing is a different discipline, but it's still fighting. You need the same sort of mental approach."

Another oddity for a boxer is that Skelton does not restrict himself to the tradition of sparring, skipping and the punch bag. He swims, goes hill running, and several mornings a week he visits a special gymnasium to train alongside the disabled and the elderly - including one man of 90. "You can draw inspiration from these people," he says.

In a voice as basso profundo as Frank Bruno's, but without the contrived sound-bites, he insists he actually doesn't relish hurting opponents. "I'd never wish to harm anyone. Having been brought up around a Christian background I pray before every fight that no one gets damaged. I don't revel in watching a guy laid out, although I must admit I do train for knockouts. They give me a buzz." The sort of buzz Skelton is now giving boxing.

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