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Boxing: All hail the clobbering cabbie Rogan

Belfast's Rocky has had a rapid and brutal rise from the ranks but he brings a message of peace to the ring

Those old enough to have hidden The Champion in their classroom desks for surreptitious reading during maths will recall the comic book's hero of the ring, a bent-nosed prizefighter stout of heart and hard of chin who resolutely refused to be beaten. Rockfist Rogan they called him, and young boxing fans believed they would never see his like again. But here he is, reincarnated in the form of a brawler from Belfast who in a dozen fights has propelled himself to world-ranked heavyweight status at the age of 37. The name's Rogan too. Martin Rogan.

He's the slugger who stole the Olympians' show in Birmingham, bludgeoning the European and Commonwealth champion Matt Skelton to an 11th-round defeat in one of the most exciting, and certainly most brutal, heavyweight tear-ups seen for many years. And prior to that he had put the kibosh on what was left of the career of the former Olympic champion Audley Harrison.

Now the novice from nowhere, a real-life Rocky ranked No 437 among the world's heavyweights a few months ago, is just a couple of fights away from a world title shot. Yet until recently he drove a cab in Belfast. You suspect there weren't too many fare dodgers. "It's an incredible story," says his veteran trainer John Breen. "He didn't put on a glove until he was in his late twenties and he only turned pro four years ago at 33. If that isn't a Rocky story, I don't know what is. Rogie is capable of beating any heavyweight in the world. All you have to do is fill his head full of belief and he reckons he's unstoppable. I kid you not, he would take on King Kong if you put him in the ring with him."

Rogan says he always wanted to box but his mother wouldn't let him. Instead he played hurling and Gaelic football. "But once he climbed into that ring I've never seen a man so determined about anything in my life," says Breen. "He may look all slam-bam-wham but he's got some boxing skills too, as he showed against Harrison and Skelton. You'd have to nail him to the canvas to beat him. Nothing seems to hurt him. He's a genuine throwback to the hard old days of boxing."

As an amateur, he collected two all-Ireland and three Ulster senior titles, and three of his 12 pro fights were on the same night, in April last year when he won the 'Prizefighter' series. Now he is being hailed as the best thing to happen to Irish boxing since Barry McGuigan, who says of him: "He's a great lad and a remarkable fighter. Everyone loves him in Belfast because he's so affable and gregarious. I always knew he'd have too much bottle for Audley and I fancied him to bully and outbox Skelton, even though he was con-ceding a couple of stones.

"He has unbelievable strength, and while he may have a lot of miles on the clock he's remarkably fresh for his age," adds McGuigan. "Just imagine how good he could have been had he turned pro in his twenties."

There could be no greater contrast than the elegant, quicksilver skills of the former featherweight champion McGuigan and the crashing, bashing Rogan. But they have in common a belief in sport as a unifying force in Ulster, once more a troubled region.

Rogan knows all about the dark side of Belfast, just as McGuigan does, and like him he senses a unity behind his rapid rise. "Living off the Falls Road, I know what the bad times were like. People wonder why I wear the green, white and orange but they should stop and think about the colours. It's the green for the nationalist community, the orange for the unionist community and the white in the middle is bringing them together, it's about peace. Next time I hope to go into the ring with a flag of peace before me.

"I love the fact that I have fans all over Belfast. I was recently on the Shankill Road giving people tickets and one guy from east Belfast, the Protestant end of town, gave up his tickets to watch Ireland [play rugby] against England at Croke Park just to come and watch me in Birmingham.

"I've been through tough times. I remember seeing two gunmen going into a house and, when I went in, there was a man lying on the ground with steam rising out of his chest from the bullet wounds. Those were dark days, and please God, despite what's been happening recently I hope we never go back to them."

Father-of-four Rogan, aptly sponsored by Paddy Power, is the first Irishman in 37 years to hold the Commonwealth heavyweight title. "Honestly, when I turned pro I didn't think I was going to be any great shakes, but I just kept on winning."

Now Belfast's King's Hall is where promoter Frank Warren says Rogan will fight next, on 9 May, either in defence of his new title or for the European championship that Skelton declined to put on the line but has now been forced to vacate. "All this is hard to take in," says Rogan. "But it doesn't matter to me who I meet next. I was born to fight and I'll be ready for whoever Frank says." Even old Rockfist himself. That would be some barney.