Boxing: Skelton feels weight of history in quest for the ultimate prize
He's the oldest first-time heavyweight challenger. It's not likely to be boring
Funny game, fighting. Six months ago Matt Skelton was booed out of the ring for his tepid contribution to the non-fight of the year, against Michael Sprott. Now he is about to challenge for one of the biggest prizes in sport, and by this time next week he might be a world heavyweight champion. If he gets lucky.
On the face of it, whether Skelton, the Commonwealth champion, who claims to be just on the right side of 40, can wrest the World Boxing Association title from the undefeated Ruslan Chagaev, of Uzbekistan, the most skilful of the fistful of heavyweight belt-holders, in Düsseldorf on Saturday seems doubtful. Professional opinion suggests that the committed Christian from Bedford will be flying to Germany today on a wing but without a prayer.
David Haye, the world cruiserweight champion, remembers Chagaev from his own amateur days, and predicts: "This is a real tough fight for Skelton, simply because Chagaev is very well schooled. He's beaten some great fighters as an amateur, including the Cuban Felix Savon.
"If Matt can pull this off, it will be one of the biggest upsets I can remember. What he must hope is that he can get in that one bingo shot – and that's the great thing about heavyweight boxing, all it takes is that one big punch at the right time."
Southpaw Chagaev is someone Haye himself could meet when he steps up a division after his own forthcoming unification bout with Enzo Maccarinelli. "I think they picked Skelton because they believe he's an easy touch. But Chagaev may have weakened a bit since his recent illness [he had hepatitis], so if ever there was a chance for Skelton to pull it off, it's now."
Skelton, 6ft 3in, may looklike the archetypal nightclub bouncer yet he is no Neanderthal bruiser but pleasant, highly articulate and with a Bruno-like basso profundo voice minus the clichéd soundbytes. In his youth he was a rugby player, a flanker for Bedford Athletic. He began his fighting career in Thai kickboxing before joining the K-1 circuit and starring in the rings of Tokyo. He progressed to the "anything goes" format of Ultimate Fighting, in which he had a couple of bouts before turning to the orthodox game when he was 34.
"The thing with UFC is that it can either be brutal or boring," he said. Boring was the word that fitted Skelton's own last ring appearance against the former Chagaev victim Sprott, 12 rounds of messy mauling which undoubtedly contributed to the eagerness of Chagaev's people to recruit him as "The White Tyson's" next opponent.
Yet most of Skelton's ring skirmishes have been more rumbustious. He is as resilient as a tank and knows that to beat Chagaev he must roll all over him. "I need to take away what he brings to the table. He doesn't waste any shots. And he can be explosive if given the room to work. I'll have to nullify all that and spoil his attacks.
"Look, I'm not taking this fight to earn a few bob so I can put my feet up in the Bahamas. I really believe I can win it and go on to fight in more championship bouts, though I know I'm never going to be in the same league as Ali, Tyson or Lennox Lewis."
Skelton and the younger, shorter Chagaev, 29, have similar pro records. Chagaev has had 23 bouts with one draw, Skelton 22 with one defeat, against Danny Williams, which he later reversed; both have 17 KOs. Both have only fought once in the last 18 months.
The difference is that Chagaev was a twice a world amateur champion and is now a world pro champion after his conquest of the 7ft 2in Nicolay Valuev. Such is the skill differential that this might be a repeat one-way scenario of Mayweather v Hatton, without the dramatic finish.
There has long been speculation about Skelton's real age. But he insists: "Hand on heart, I'll be 40 a few days after this fight. The trouble is the public seem to think that anyone over 35, whatever the sport, is past their sell-by date. I don't know whether it is a British mindset that makes age such an issue. If you look after yourself as I do, age should not be a factor."
Skelton is the oldest man to challenge for the heavyweight title for the first time. Promoter Frank Warren calls him the Bruce Forsyth of boxing. Come Saturday we might be saying: "Didn't he do well?" More likely, it will be Chagaev who's in charge.
Surviving British heavyweight contenders
Sir Henry Cooper (73)
Lost in six rounds on cuts to Muhammad Ali, 1966. After-dinner speaker. Knighted 2000.
Brian London (74)
Lost to Floyd Patterson KO in 11th round, 1959, and to Ali, KO 3rd, 1966. Ex-nightclub owner.
Joe Bugner (57)
Lost to Ali on unanimous points decision 1973. Lives in Australia.
Richard Dunn (62)
Lost to Ali, stopped 5th, 1976. Suffered accident while working on an oil rig.
Frank Bruno (46)
Britain's first modern heavyweight champion, beating Oliver McCall on points 1995. Lost to Mike Tyson twice, Lennox Lewis and Tim Witherspoon.
Lennox Lewis (42)
Most successful: 18 title fights after beating Tony Tucker, points, 1993; lost and regained against McCall and Hasim Rahman.
Herbie Hide (36)
Won little-regarded WBO title, KO 7th against Michael Bent 1994. Lost to Riddick Bowe and Vitali Klitschko. Now cruiserweight.
Danny Williams (33)
Lost to Vitali Klitschko, KO 8th, 2004. Current British champion.
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