Lift-off for the bird man of Battersea

Boxing: Eastman, the tramp turned champ, finally has a chance to sell his skill to the Americans
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The Independent Online

He has dyed his goatee beard white, which makes him look almost twice as old as his 30 years, and one of his best friends is a parrot. With his bandanna and piratical mien, Howard Eastman needs only the wooden leg to pass muster as a Caribbean version of Long John Silver. A bit of a buccaneer, most certainly, and a fighting man, to boot. Possibly the best in Britain at the moment, although not many people know that.

Frank Maloney, one of his former managers, called him "boxing's best-kept secret". Yet he's been around for years, as a pro since 1994, in fact, and now, it seems the secret is finally out because he's just been signed up by Don King, not a man to waste his time, even more his money, on non-entities.

So just who is Howard Eastman, this unknown warrior? Well, he's something of an enigma as well as being the current British, Commonwealth and European middleweight champion, undefeated in 32 fights, most in small halls and some against obscure opponents with names even more difficult to pronounce than the Pole who was probably the only bouncer to lose a fight in Glasgow last Saturday night.

Right now Eastman is in the Catskill Mountains, preparing to appear in the chief supporting bout to Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas on 17 November against the former World Boxing Association middleweight champion William Joppy, an engagement which King promises him, is a prelude, if he wins, to challenging the new "super" middleweight champion, Bernard Hopkins.

Before he left last week Eastman held his first-ever public workout, on the top floor of a shopping centre at London's Elephant and Castle, a hip-hoppy affair with an audience of a couple of hundred plus, perched imperiously on a corner post, a colourful bird named Tyson. "A close friend of mine," says Eastman of the parrot, not the pugilist. It is is one of 30 birds kept by Eastman in an aviary at home. "The bird man of Battersea?" we ventured to suggest. He smiled. "It depends what kind of birds you mean."

Actually, Eastman's ring sobriquet is the Battersea Bomber, though for obvious reasons it is not a label he will be transporting across the Atlantic at this time. But there was no doubting the explosiveness of his punches when he stopped the redoubtable Robert McCracken at Wembley in April to add the vacant European crown to his collection.

Good judges in the fight game reckon that when he motivates himself, Eastman is the most skilful of all British fighters, an intelligent technician with a touch of devilment. Only three of his bouts have gone the distance. Moreover he brings an air of engaging eccentricity to boxing which it hasn't seen since Chris Eubank hung up his jodhpurs.

Outside the ring he is a bit of a mystery man. No one seems to know what he does, or where he goes once he completes his training stints in the Old Kent Road, though he spends much of his spare time doing community work with youngsters. "There are too many kids out there doing negative things."

He dresses snazzily, even bizarrely, with a penchant for fedoras, high-heeled cowboy boots and motorbike leathers. He's a character, though one who can be spiritedly talkative one day, diffident and difficult next; which may be why he rarely makes the A-list of the sport's celebs.

Born in Guyana, he is the cousin of the former West Indies cricket captain Carl Hooper. After his mother died he arrived in Battersea as a 14-year-old to live with his father and two brothers, but was booted out of the family home when he began to run wild.

"I had a strict religious upbringing so when I arrived here I couldn't believe how youngsters behaved or the freedom they were given. I got involved with some bad influences and was arrested several times for stealing. My father felt he could no longer control me."

So the teenage rebel found himself on South London's mean streets, living rough, sleeping behind rubbish bins or on park benches. Some nights he simply travelled up and down on the tube's Northern Line, dodging the guard, existing on handouts and the occasional kebab or bag of chips.

"Maybe it was the fact that frequently I had no food in my belly that gave me the hunger to be a boxing champion."

Eventually he made a youth hostel his permanent address, joined the Territorial Army and turned to amateur boxing before making his professional debut with Mickey Duff. A few weeks ago he joined the heavyweight Danny Williams as King's second British acquisition.

"I'd no qualms about signing for him," he says. "He's the man who can deliver. He has all the champions at middleweight. It's a great opportunity to showcase my skills."

In his seven-year career Eastman reckons he has never really been tested, and that his hardest fights have been outside the ring. He's been through more managers and promoters than most fighters have gumshields, and shortly before he left for the United States last week he parted company with his co-trainer John Rooney, one of a long list who have worked with him. "The trouble with Howard," says Rooney, "is that he has a low boredom threshold."

There certainly seems to be a touch of Audley Harrison autocracy about Eastman, in wanting to do things his way. Which makes his new liaison with King all the more intriguing."Whatever people say about King, he does the business. Boxing is all about money and putting on a show. The loot. If you put on a good show, you make plenty money. If you make plenty money you stand a great chance of being a good champion. Basically boxing is easy. It's the politics in the game which makes it hard, getting the right fights. You have to cope with the frustration, learn to be patient. You just can't believe everything people say."

Whether that includes the Don of boxing, reputed to be as economical with the truth as some of his former fighters say he has been with their money, remains to be determined. Meantime Eastman seems content to concentrate on beating Joppy, and securing a world-title fight. "He's a crude, rugged sort of fighter. I don't envisage he'll be a problem for me."

Moody maverick he may be, but having gone from tramp to champ, Eastman says he's learned from his mistakes. "A lot of people have helped me and I give thanks to them. God bless them. I've now got to the situation where I can actually say that I'm happy."