Boxing: Williams' faith tested as beard comes under scrutiny

Britain's world heavyweight title challenger Danny Williams could face an agonising choice here today between his devout Muslim faith and stepping into the ring against the WBC champion Vitali Klitschko on Saturday night.

Britain's world heavyweight title challenger Danny Williams could face an agonising choice here today between his devout Muslim faith and stepping into the ring against the WBC champion Vitali Klitschko on Saturday night.

The potential problem is Williams's beard, which he says he will refuse to remove, and even trim, if doctors of the Nevada Athletic Commission rule that it would be "abrasive" to his opponent.

Williams was emphatic that he would not compromise his religious beliefs ­ "I can trim my moustache but I cannot touch by beard," he insisted ­ but when the Nevada commission's chief executive, Marc Ratner, was told of the fighter's stance, he said: "There is no regulation in place but I will be looking at Williams's beard and the commission doctors will be asked their opinion."

Thirty years ago the former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier faced a similar dilemma to Williams when he fought Britain's Joe Bugner. The British board ordered him to trim his beard and Frazier, whose protests were to do with vanity rather than religion, agreed to the compromise.

For Williams the stakes are considerably higher. Apart from the chance to to fulfill his lifelong dream of being world heavyweight champion, he would also forfeit a purse estimated at £1.2 million. Fight "insiders", pointing out that many Muslim fighters regularly negotiate the problem, suspect that a compromise would probably be reached.

Williams, who talked himself into stepping out of a career-long psychological prison when beating the remnants of Mike Tyson, was applying a similar brainwashing technique before yesterday's distraction.

Williams persuaded himself that the real Tyson had disappeared years before he entered the ring in Louisville. This time the key theory ­ that the big man from the Ukraine has a hollow centre where he once put a steroid ­ may be a little more of a stretch, but the Brixton fighter is advancing it with the same conviction he brought to the terminating of Tyson.

In his rented town house in Henderson, a suburb that sprawls charmlessly into the desert, Williams seized on Klitschko's recent admission in an autobiography that that he was quietly jettisoned from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta after testing positive. Klitschko makes the classic defence that he was unaware a doctor treating him for an old kick-boxing injury had given him the drug, but Williams and his trainer Jim McDonnell believe, even while acknowledging the champion has an unblemished record since turning pro, they have happened upon a point of vulnerability.

They are lumping Klitschko, however arbitrarily, into the company of baseball superstars Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi whose careers are now in danger by the Balco scandal that is currently threatening to consume all trust in big-time American sport.

Said Williams: "It is amazing that some people get away with it for so long. The only thing you can say in Klitschko's defence is that in the pro ranks he has never been caught." McDonnell, however, is insisting that once a sportsman has been involved, however unwittingly, with drugs the psychological damage is permanent. The trainer said, "Danny Williams has got natural talent. What Danny has you cannot buy it or inject it or consume it. He is just a natural fighter Danny is the real deal. People who use steroids can never quite recover the strength that steroids gave them. They are never happy with their bodies after that."

That was the point Williams was hammering most forcefully as he predicted he would score a knock-out victory. However, that was before he learned that he might be asked to go into the ring unhappy with one part of his own body ­ a less hirsute chin.

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