Boxing: Williams strips away false images in search of champion or coward within

Danny Williams, in this low-rent district where the inhabitants might be a thousand miles from the glitter and the big, easy money of Las Vegas Boulevard

The little house on the edge of the desert is on the other side of town - and reality - from where Mike Tyson had his tigers and fountains and flunkies. And all those dead hours to refine his work of self-destruction, which appears quite relentless with the latest news that the former world champion has been charged with damaging a fellow patron's car outside a nightclub in Arizona.

The little house on the edge of the desert is on the other side of town - and reality - from where Mike Tyson had his tigers and fountains and flunkies. And all those dead hours to refine his work of self-destruction, which appears quite relentless with the latest news that the former world champion has been charged with damaging a fellow patron's car outside a nightclub in Arizona.

It means there is more than a little poignancy when you find Tyson's last conqueror, Danny Williams, in this low-rent district where the inhabitants might be a thousand miles from the glitter and the big, easy money of Las Vegas Boulevard.

This makes Williams, who challenges Vitali Klitschko, the World Boxing Council and linear world heavyweight champion here tomorrow night, possibly unique in his temporary neighbourhood.

For when the man who finished off Tyson engages not the last pickings of his victim's old aura but the big man from Ukraine who helped usher one of the great, working heavyweight champions, Lennox Lewis, into retirement, here is the owner of a real dream, however frail it may be.

On the final strokes of the countdown to the fight that will define his career and his life, Williams admits: "My mind does escape sometimes towards what will happen to me if I beat Klitschko. It happened when I was watching a video of Chris Byrd [the International Boxing Federation champion and, with Lewis, the only man to have beaten Klitschko] and Andrew Golota and I was thinking, 'I could take these guys out, no problem. I could be the undisputed champion like Lennox was'. It is an amazing thing for me when I think of how it was before I beat Tyson - how I piled so much pressure on myself I once burst into tears at some traffic lights, and was so embarrassed I pretended to be wiping my eyes."

Maybe it is something better to think than, say, maybe something you shouldn't even think so close to such a moment of lasting truth but it would be a hard spirit indeed that would censure too heavily a spurt of vaulting ambition in the man who, against Tyson in Louisville a few months ago, so successfully confronted his own worst fears.

"I feel like a new man," Williams was saying earlier this week. "When I was a boy in the gym they said I could be the champion of the world and that drove me crazy, I just walked in the streets trying to shut out the idea and the expectation that came after my father said I had to be a fighter. But I believe it now. I believe I can do anything in the ring. It feels right to be in Las Vegas. It feels like it is my time."

Williams' trainer Jim McDonnell, the former British and European featherweight champion who gamely endured his most critical hour when he was pounded mercilessly by the great Ghanaian fighter Azumah Nelson at the Royal Albert Hall 15 years ago, is desperate that Williams does not allow the possibilities of the future to cloud the imperatives of the moment.

In the house they have been sharing for the last five weeks, and from which they have been emerging for the morning run before the first sunlight streaks the desert, McDonnell pinned up shorthand versions of the message that the fighter cannot stray for a second from the zone of war: "Destruct"; "Kill or be killed"; "Find the Yellow Streak". These are some of the McDonnell instructions.

The trainer brought a flash of anger to the normally impassive face of Klitschko when he threw down the autobiography the champion had presented to him and told the big press conference that his man's talent did not need drug assistance - a sneering reference to Klitschko's admission in the book that he had failed a drugs test before the 1996 Olympics after a doctor had given him a steroid to treat an old injury. McDonnell has also been talking Williams into the belief that he is indeed facing a coward.

He says: "The yellow streak is in Klitschko and that is going to come out. But Danny is a true soldier. The early rounds will be similar to the storm he had to weather against Tyson. That is when Klitschko will be at his most dangerous. Vitali thinks it's going to be an easy job because it is not a mandatory defence of his title, but the Danny Williams who fought Sinan Samilsam and Michael Sprott is the not the same guy who fought Tyson. I don't think it's going to be pretty. After a few rounds Klitschko is going to be thinking of survival. That's why he is already talking about how he is distracted about what's going on at home in Ukraine. The penny has dropped that Danny is the real deal. This fight is going to be about will and intensity and heart."

In these few breathless sentences, McDonnell covers all the intrigue and the mystery of what is surely the most testing assignment of Danny Williams' fighting life. Who really is the man most likely to falter under maximum pressure in the ring at Mandalay Bay casino hotel? At the very least, the categorising by the trainer is highly contentious. The most persuasive evidence in his branding of Klitschko is the Ukrainian's decision to quit on his stool against Byrd but it is far from conclusive.

Klitschko's gaze is even when he explains how he made a logical decision, one worthy of a doctor of sports science and philosophy. While coasting to victory over the IBF champion, he badly tore his shoulder - he later needed surgery - and Klitschko explains: "I made a very conscious decision to retire from the fight because I was thinking of my future career. I knew I'd done myself damage and I didn't want to do any more. It was not a matter of courage but logic. I was superior to Byrd [he was leading comfortably on every card] and I didn't have anything to prove."

McDonnell also argues that Klitschko's will was suspect when he lost to Lewis on a TKO in Los Angeles 18 months ago, saying: "Klitschko's fight with Lewis would have come down to pedigree and who wanted it more, and Lennox would have won."

The facts of the fight hardly support McDonnell's view. Klitschko was again leading on every card and he was indignant when the ring doctor ordered an end to the fight after inspecting a gaping wound over his left eye.

The Ukrainian's camp point scathingly to the lowest moments of Williams' career, not against reigning and future champions like Lewis and Byrd, but such obscurities as Samilsan and Sprott. Williams' corner threw in the towel last year when the low-rated Samilsan knocked down their man four times. And when the Brixton fighter earlier this year lost to Sprott, who he had beaten twice before, he at one point turned his back on the action.

Williams explains these disasters a little too tritely for some ringside taste. He says that his moment of deliverance came in the days before the Tyson fight: "I figured it out after all the years of doubt. I'd wasted hundreds of pounds on hypnotherapists before realising that I had the solution in my own head. I didn't doubt myself but I did bring on too much pressure in my desire to win. Against Tyson, I knew I had to throw everything else on to one side and just fight the best I could."

Now he insists his confidence is overflowing. He has installed his partner Zoe, to whom he proposed after victory over Tyson, and their two daughters in the Luxor Hotel, next to the Mandalay Bay fight venue. But there will be no physical contact until after the fight. Williams, who moved into the Mandalay with McDonnell last night, will not take the short walk this side of the fulfilment of his belief that on Sunday morning he will look into the mirror and see not a man who burst into tears at traffic lights but an authentic champion of the world.

He is ambivalent, though, about how long he will enjoy such prestige. "If I was a millionaire I would still be fighting because I want to fulfil my potential. But I also want financial security and a good standard of living for my family. I could be out of the sport very soon. Being a Muslim, I'm not supposed to be hitting people for money. Once I get the feeling that enough is enough I'll be off. In Islam you cleanse yourself daily, but I've been in boxing since I was a little kid and so it is something hard to get rid of."

Sometimes there seems no limit to the contradictions in Williams' nature. He talks of a dream in one breath and then a retreat from it in the next. To his great credit he saw through the last of the mythology of Tyson, but there are times now when he seems eager to embrace his trainer's caricature of tomorrow's formidable opponent. One moment he broods, the next - McDonnell reports - he is howling so hard with laughter as he watches his kung fu videos, "You would never think he is about to step in the ring to fight for the world title."

This week, though, there was one moment when he carried you to the heart of a great fighting truth. He was asked: "Do you really think Vitali Klitschko is a coward?" He thought for a few moments and said: "I don't really know, and I won't until I give him my best shot and see the look on his face."

Williams never read that on the wall in the little house on the edge of the desert. At 31, it is something he gets from the entrails of his long years in the toughest and most unforgiving business of them all.

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