Boxing: Skelton fails to bridge gulf in class

Matt Skelton's dream of being a real-life Rocky evaporated in Düsseldorf last night. The ex-bouncer from Bedford fought as gamely, and as ingenuously, as the celluloid hero but failed in his quest to become the sixth Briton to hold a version of the world heavyweight title, losing on a unanimous points decision at the more sophisticated fists of the World Boxing Association champion Ruslan Chagaev.

Nudging 40, and always an unlikely contender for sports' biggest prize, Skelton gave the champion from Uzbekistan a tougher, rougher fight than was anticipated but was outgunned and outworked over 12 messy rounds. Two ringside judges gave Chagaev the verdict by six rounds (117-111) and a third by seven (117-110), one-way scoring that was hard to argue with despite Skelton's admirable tenacity and aggression.

The fight was fairly even going into the second half but the turning point came in the eighth when, after repeated warnings by the Panamanian referee, Skelton, not the most disciplined of fighters, had a point deducted for laying on and holding.

Skelton was never intimidated by Chagaev's reputation, moving forward relentlessly from the start. But the limitations of his technique were exposed by a younger but more accomplished fighter who took time to settle after Skelton had initially robbed him of his rhythm.

Taller and heavier than southpaw Chagaev, Skelton harnessed his limited skills for the ultimate challenge in an orthodox boxing career which began less than six years ago. But ultimately he is simply a mature student of the noble art despite his British and Commonwealth titles.

"My aim was to come here and win, not make up the numbers, so I'm really disappointed," he said. "I feel I've let everybody down. My corner said I fought better than any time in my career but I don't know about that. It just wasn't my day. In the latter half he started picking me off and I knew it was going away from me because he's such a clever fighter."

Chagaev is one of the quartet of Eastern Bloc fighters who have ripped away the American grip on the heavyweight division. A decade younger than Skelton at 29 and now based in Hamburg he is a double world amateur championship and is undefeated in a professional career of 23 contests, beating two world heavyweight champs including Russian giant Nicolai Valuev.

But he was not at his best, perhaps because he recently recovered from hepatitis, and as world heavyweight champions go he may be the best of the modern bunch but he would have looked ordinary against the likes of Ali, Lewis or Tyson.

Skelton's birthday falls in a week's time and he insists he will be blowing out 40 candles and not the 41 or more popularly supposed. At least he can celebrate a remarkable achievement in actually fighting for a world title, though not the fairytale victory which would have been the icing on the cake.

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