World Judo Championships: Explosive Allan looks to prove her worth

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SUMO WRESTLERS dominate with their eyes. Judo fighters dominate with their grips - you can feel how dangerous your opponent is as soon as the fingers curl around your judo jacket. And, at the moment, very few people in the world like Debbie Allan getting her hands on them.

SUMO WRESTLERS dominate with their eyes. Judo fighters dominate with their grips - you can feel how dangerous your opponent is as soon as the fingers curl around your judo jacket. And, at the moment, very few people in the world like Debbie Allan getting her hands on them.

Of all Britain's leading judo exponents, she is perhaps the least known even though, as the current European featherweight champion, she looks the one most likely to get into the heart of the medals at the World Championships which run from tomorrow to Sunday at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. But, being also the most temperamental, you just never know.

Since formally dropping from the lightweight category (57 kilos) where Nicola Fairbrother, the former world champion, is the incumbent, to featherweight (52k), earlier this year, she has not lost a fight anywhere in the world. This is unusual because it normally takes time to adjust to the faster speeds at lighter weights.

"I find that I am much stronger than most of the girls I fight, and the extra speed doesn't worry me," said Allan, who is 24. And that is where the grips come in. Her opponents feel she does not so much as grip as exercise mechanical clamps which, before it takes any physical effect, drains them psychologically. In brief, they get a terrible shock. And that is when Allan spins in with a strong uchimata (inner thigh throw) or tai-otoshi (body drop), or tumbles them to the ground to slide on a fierce strangle.

And that means curtains.

It is what she did in the European Championships in Bratislava in May - one opponent after another succumbed to this onslaught. Whereas Fairbrother's style is fluid, and the predominant character of the world middleweight champion Kate Howey is explosive, Allan, at her best, is a ruthless, pragmatic executioner.

Curiously, it is totally at contrast with her personality off the mat. Mark Earle, Allan's coach and mentor, who has known her since she was four, and guided her career, has enjoyed the fruits of her success and suffered from it. In a much- publicised fracas between the two, which ended with a sharp physical interchange at a training camp, Earle temporarily vacated his position as coach of the British team. Not an event that either of them remember happily, but the fact that they can still work together professionally demonstrates their mutual respect.

Allan lives and trains with a squad of full-timers (including the world junior champion Karina Bryant and the British bantamweight John Buchanan) at Camberley Judo Club, which was set up as an elite training centre by Earle and his wife Bernie.

They live on the premises with their charges - a hothouse environment which suits some but not others (Danny Kingston, the 1996 European lightweight champion, who also fights in Birmingham, left a few years ago).

Allan shares a room in the main dormitory block. By her bed are the personal items which take her away from the main focus of judo - her embroidery at which she is also expert, and the books (Patricia Cornwell and others) which demonstrate her fascination for murder and forensics. Her room-mate, fortunately, has a sense of humour.

Diane Bell, the British women's coach, has known and trained with all of Britain's many world and European champions over the past 20 years, and clearly regards Allan as in a category of her own. "Most of the girls on the squad are good at other sports, whether it is running, or ball games. But Debbie is only good at judo."

Earle says this is not quite correct. "She is the best at rock climbing - or anything which requires real bottle. She will stay on the wall longer than any of the others."

So a picture begins to emerge of one of Britain's best chances at the World Championships, and at the Sydney Olympics, for few seem better placed to bring back a medal that eluded the British squad so embarrassingly at the Atlanta Olympics.

But... and there is always a great but with Debbie Allan. As a teenager she won a bronze medal at the European Championships in Gdansk in 1994. It looked then as if she was on the same road that Karen Briggs, Loretta Doyle, Bell and all the others trod to world titles.

But, then came a period of uncertainty. She lost matches; she was prone to odd injuries (she displaced her pelvis stepping off the scales on the day of a competition); she gets bugs mysteriously which make her pull out of competitions - as recently as last month in a warm-up match in Germany.

However, on this occasion she insists she is ready for her opening fight on Saturday. "I feel a bit nervous, but I am looking forward to it." She goes in knowing she has beaten Marie-Claire Restoux, the French Olympic champion this year, and it was easy. "I will take each fight as it comes - the difficult ones will be the Cuban [Legna Verdecia], who is tricky, and the Japanese [Noriko Narasaki], who is very technical."

But they will know it is never easy to beat Allan - a strong, highly skilled fighter with no fear, occasionally emotionally volatile, and with a fondness for forensics.

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