Boxing: Absurd Flintoff fight is disrespectful, says Price


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The Independent Online

Boxing faces the unwelcome prospect of two self-inflicted black eyes in the coming fortnight. On Saturday night Manchester's MEN Arena will be rocking to the roars of "There's only one Ricky Hatton" as the 33-year-old Hitman makes what many consider to be an ill-advised comeback against a former world champion, the Ukrainian Vyacheslav Senchenko.

Six days later, the same venue will witness the ring debut of cricket legend Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff at the age of 34, as a novice heavyweight in an event that even more consider to be a shameful exercise that cheapens the sport. The worrying possibility is that one fight will end in tears, the other in jeers, with both Hatton and Flintoff getting seriously damaged.

Of the two, the Flintoff experiment is the more disturbing. On the same night as he comes out fighting, 35 miles away in Liverpool a genuine heavyweight bout takes place, with the British champion, David Price, following his brutally brief encounter with Audley Harrison, defending his title against seasoned slugger Matt Skelton who, like the giant Liverpudlian, knows how to take care of himself. But can Flintoff? "Car crash television" is how Frank Warren described the cricketer's scheduled contest against the American Richard Dawson which, like the British title fight, will be screened live by BoxNation.

Price is among those who fear for Flintoff. "What he is doing is disrespectful to boxing, especially if it turns out to be a farce on the night," he tells us from his training camp in Portugal. "That would be a dreadful advert for the sport. I am sure he is taking it seriously – and he needs to. At least he seems to be in shape."

Flintoff retired from cricket because of injuries, particularly to his knees. So how can he be ready for boxing, which demands the ultimate in fitness and in which knees are pivotal? "I remember my first amateur fight, I thought I was fit and about 20 seconds into the bout I realised I wasn't," says Price. "I just hope he doesn't get badly hurt. When that first punch lands on his chin is when he'll know this isn't cricket.

"I wish him well but I can't see him making a career out of it. I think this is a one-off, a sideshow."

Actually, it is the focal point of a three-part documentary on Sky One, From Lord's to the Ring, in which Flintoff reveals that since retirement he has battled similar demons to those which have bedevilled Hatton.

Barry McGuigan, who will be promoting the Manchester bill headlined by a Commonwealth welterweight title fight between Denton Vassell and Ronnie Heffron, has been training Flintoff with his son Shane. "I'm not going to put him in with someone who's too good," he had promised.

So step forward a heavyweight from Hicksville. Dawson, 11 years younger than Flintoff at 23, is a two-fight novice who fights out of Okmulgee, Oklahoma. He has won both his hometown contests this year, one by a first-round stoppage, the other on points. They will box over four two-minute rounds.

"This is a stunt which should never be allowed to happen," argues Price's promoter, Frank Maloney. "There are people around it who should know better. Giving Flintoff, who has no experience of boxing, a licence to fight a professional is a joke. It is nonsense – dangerous nonsense."

But McGuigan, who spearheaded a campaign for better safety measures when he was chairman of the Professional Boxers' Association, is confident Flintoff has acquired sufficient defensive skills to acquit himself capably. "I've never seen an athlete who is 34 years old train as hard and make that level of commitment. He understands how tough the sport is and his respect for boxers has gone through the roof."

Having agonised about giving Flintoff a licence, the last thing the Board of Control will want is a farce – or, even worse, cries of a "fix". Hopefully Dawson comes not looking for an easy pay day but as a young American prospect who will not want his record blemished by defeat to the British equivalent of a former Major League baseball player.

He will surely be trying and, as Price says, ducking bouncers is one thing, avoiding big right-handers quite another. Maybe the bookies have got it right, with Ladbrokes making Flintoff 5-4 on to retire hurt.