Boxing: Russians aim to break Cuban dominance

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Two years ago David Haye became the first British or Irish boxer in 11 World Amateur Championships to reach a final. Haye lost to a Cuban but still left with a silver medal.

This weekend at the National Stadium in Bangkok six English, four Welsh and eight Irish boxers will weigh-in and begin six days of competition at the 12th World Championships. This event is judged to be far more difficult to win than the Olympics as it is much more intensive, while the level of skullduggery from some officials often goes unchecked.

Once again the Cubans are expected to dominate but it is unlikely they will repeat their total of seven champions from Belfast in 2001 as this year the Russians have put together a well-resourced team in secret that is is rumoured to be the best since the collapse of the Soviet system.

There will be no threat from the American team in Thailand as they have sensibly decided not to send an inferior squad to the superior tournament. Instead they are putting out their best team at the Pan Am Games in the Dominican Republic next month, which has been upgraded to an Olympic qualification tournament. In 2000 the American squad struggled to reach Sydney, where they failed dismally, but success at the Pan Am games will give them 12 months to get their heads straight for Athens.

In Thailand there will be enormous cash bonuses on offer with US$50,000 (£30,000) awaiting any local boxers who win gold on Saturday week. To add to the competitiveness, the Thai authorities are not the only ones offering incentives with the Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan governments in the habit of richly rewarding successful amateur boxers since the 1996 Olympics.

The British and Irish - but not the Scottish, who declined to travel because of the SARS alert - will also benefit if they reach the later stages of the tournament. Under the élite system of funding in Britain, a medal of any shade should in theory guarantee a boxer an easy ride in the months between now and the European Olympic qualification tournaments next spring. Against that it should be remembered that in 11 championships boxers from the British Isles have won just a total of six medals.

With 421 competitors from 62 countries taking part, to win a gold medal a boxer will have to fight a minimum of four times in a week that will take a deplorable toll on the participants as they edge closer to the podium.

"It is without doubt the hardest and most gruelling week that any amateur boxer will ever spend and I often ask myself why I am doing it instead of going pro and making some easy money,'' said Kevin Evans, who is the Welsh representative at super-heavyweight. Evans will be taking part in his third world championships having won a bronze medal when he lost to the Cuban legend Felix Savon in the semi-finals in Houston in 1999.

Perhaps the best domestic hope for a medal is Ireland's brilliant teenager Andy Lee at middleweight who last year won a silver medal at the world junior championships in Cuba. Yet it would not be a surprise if Repton's Darren Barker came back with something in the new 69kg class. Last year Barker won a Commonwealth gold in Manchester and he will also have the benefit of a few friends from the East End club out in Bangkok as Tony Cesay is boxing for Sierra Leone and Anthony Matthews representing Jamaica. There are, however, few certainties at the World Championships other than several renditions of the Cuban anthem on finals night.

Armour waits for big time

Johnny Armour must be wondering how much longer he has to go on boxing before he is established as one of the best fighters in this country.

Armour, 34, who has lost just once in 31 outings has been near the top for about a decade but has never quite managed to draw the interest enjoyed by other top boxers. He will defend his World Boxing Union bantamweight title for the third time when he meets the Australian Nathan Sting at the Brentwood Leisure Centre tonight in a fight that is unlikely to be very exciting.

Last year Armour fought Francis Ampofo twice and both encounters were watched by small crowds but were also contenders for "Fight of the Year". Tonight, it is back to the business of retaining titles and waiting for something bigger.

In tonight's undercard the local fighter Michael Lomax, who was overlooked for the Commonwealth Games despite winning the Amateur Boxing Association welterweight title, makes his professional debut.