Boxing: Williams has starring role within reach

With King and the BBC in his corner Britain's heavyweight champion intends making title a national treasure again
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Danny Williams spends a lot of time looking in the mirror. Nothing narcissistic, mind, it's just that studying his full-length reflection at the Kronk gym in London's Kentish Town is part of his shadow boxing technique. He reckons it sharpens his movements.

Ironically, there was a time last week when it seemed that fighting himself was all he would be doing, as a succession of opponents turned down the chance to challenge for his British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles on Tuesday.

The indisposed Keith Long was the first to pull out and three other potential contenders declined before Michael Sprott, a 27-year-old from Reading with a passable record of 12 wins in 16 fights, agreed to take the job at short notice. He had just returned from holidaying in the West Indies when he got the call, negotiating a £30,000 purse, significantly larger than anything he had ever earned before.

The cash came by courtesy of the BBC's newly-discovered boxing coffers, for the promotion at the York Hall in Bethnal Green is a crucial date for them, the first midweek boxing to be televised live by the Corporation since Lennox Lewis was a lad. Perhaps even more important, it is the first to be staged in conjunction with Don King, who last year became the promoter and mentor of Williams.

The BBC and the King of boxing seems an unlikely liaison, yet is it one that could be ongoing as Williams makes a name for himself. The well-mannered, quietly spoken and deeply religious former doorman from Brixton is relieved that he finally has a fight. Decent challengers are thin on the canvas these days.

Ask most people to name the current British heavyweight title-holder and Danny Williams would not spring immediately to the lips. That, he hopes, is something King and the BBC will rectify, starting on Tuesday.

"I want everyone to know who the British champion is, just like in the old days," he says. "Being live on terrestrial TV, with millions watching, has to help. I believe the British title should mean something. It always used to. I won't mention no names [though you know who he means, 'Arry] but there were those who weren't interested in fighting for it. Me, I'm proud to wear that Lonsdale belt."

He needs two more notches to earn it outright, which is his priority before King starts maneouvering him towards a world title. He's already won his first bout under his stewardship, a swift demolition of American Shawn Robinson. Out of contract with Frank Warren, he signed with King after being wooed over a fistful of dinner dates. "At first I was nervous about it. You hear a lot of things about him, and I have to say I prayed a bit before deciding it was the right thing to do.

"So far he's treated me good. I've been paid on time and in full. Everything he's promised, he's delivered."

King has assured Williams he will fight for at least one version of the world title, probably the World Boxing Association crown currently held by ho-hum Puerto Rican John Ruiz, as part of their three-year arrangement.

Williams has thus become a bargaining chip in the BBC's negotiations with King. Although they won't admit it, they realise they need a quick-fix big name after their £1 million investment in Audley Harrison has fallen flatter than his early opponents.

"I believe the BBC blundered with Audley," says Williams. "They thought he was going to be bigger and better than he is. Now they have to look at alternatives. I'm disappointed in Audley because I thought he would improve to the point where there was a chance of me fighting him. But I can't see that happening.

"When I watch him now it is not with him as future opponent in mind, it's just for entertainment. He's a good boxer and he has ability, but he lacks power and stamina. He was given too much money from the start and this has taken the hunger and determination away from him. I don't fancy his chances in a hard fight."

In the circumstances, a hard fight is something Williams is unlikely to get on Tuesday though the Beeb must be hoping it won't be a farce. Thankfully there's been hardly any Harrison-like hype, and Williams should do a professional job.

Williams isn't short of confidence, and hasn't been since he avenged his only defeat in 26 bouts, against Julius Francis. "I needed to sort my head out," he admits "My trainer Jim McDonnell helped me to believe in myself."

He also puts it down to his conversion to Islam, becoming a Muslim 18 months ago after studying a number of religions. But he doesn't wear his faith on his robe. "I don't believe in taking religion into the ring. That's not the place." He's 28, 6ft 2in, with a best fighting weight of around 18 stone, and a great left hook off the jab that has helped him win 22 fights inside the distance.

To help keep him away from bad back-street influences as a kid, his father, who worked at the Ford plant in Dagenham, installed a punch bag for him to use in their south London back garden, and sent him to a local boxing club. At first Williams did not take to the sport. "My elder brothers used to drop me off at the club and as soon as they left I'd go off and play table tennis or snooker. Before they came back I'd splash a bit of water over my face and clothes to make it look as if I'd been sweating. I didn't really like boxing, the violence of it. It took me two years to get into it. Now I love it."

He says he has no other interests, apart from his family (wife Zoe and three-year-old daughter Nubia). "There's nothing else I think about. Even when I'm walking along the street, I'm punching, mentally that is, working out moves in my mind."

"Lovely guy," people in boxing say of Williams. "Trouble is he's too nice." Williams doesn't even wince. "It shows I had a good upbringing [the only time he's been in court was on jury service].

"But when I get in the ring I can be as mean as anyone. The trouble with some fighters is that they can't separate the two sides of their lives." Again, no names, but you know who he means.