Hale's world title challenge gathers pace

Nick Halling on the Bristol boxer who is one fight from the big time
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The Independent Online
The focus of interest at Shepton Mallet this evening will inevitably be on Frank Bruno, but the most interesting story is likely to be on the undercard.

Ross Hale defends his British and Commonwealth light middleweight titles against the Midlander Malcolm Melvin, in the knowledge that victory is likely to lead to an assault on the World Boxing Association championship currently held by the American Frankie Randall. If, as expected, Hale prevails, it will be the culmination of a remarkably rapid change in fortune. This time last year, he was just another club fighter dreaming of the big time: now, barring any unexpected mishaps against Melvin, Hale stands to join the lite.

Last May, Hale earned the distinction of becoming the city of Bristol's first boxing champion, when he claimed his present titles at the expense of Liverpool's Andy Holligan. Despite having been beaten by the legendary Mexican Julio Cesar Chavez, Holligan was perceived as the man with a future. Hale, a big-punching crowd pleaser, could have his moments, but like so many Bristolians before him, was reckoned to lack the class necessary to achieve championship status.

Class never came into it, and such is the stark simplicity of the fight game that after three brutally one-sided rounds, the picture had changed irrevocably. While Hale celebrated his unexpected arrival on the international stage, Holligan was left to contemplate obscurity.

On that showing, the Bristol fighter should have few problems today with Melvin. The prospect of a tussle with Randall, however, is fascinating and while common sense suggests a relatively trouble-free defence for the American, the only man ever to have beaten Chavez, Hale fancies his chances. As George Foreman confirmed so emphatically against Michael Moorer, when you can punch, you always have a chance. And Hale can certainly punch.

"Frankie Randall is the best light-middle in the world, an outstanding fighter," says Hale's manager, Chris Sanigar. "Ross is taking a big step forward, but he's ready for it. Already people are saying I must be mad, that Ross has no chance, but I heard all that before the Holligan fight as well. When you can knock someone cold with either hand, like Ross can, then anything can happen."

Hale turned professional in 1989 following a competent but undistinguished amateur career. Since then he has lost just once in 24 appearances when another heavy-hitter, Andreas Panayi, broke his jaw. Even then Hale continued for a further two rounds before retiring to hospital, where he remained for four days while the jaw was wired and wisdom teeth removed.

That one blemish aside, he has made steady progress away from the mainstream of British boxing, in small-hall promotions around Bristol and the West Country. The former dustman first came to prominence last January when he overcame Michael Driscoll in a gripping British title eliminator, subsequently voted fight of the year by the Professional Boxers' Association, which earned him his chance against Holligan.

"I always felt I could be British champion," he said. "I'm a very determined character, with a good punch in either hand. Other than that, there's no real strengths, I'm average at everything to be honest. People say I'm too modest, but I prefer it this way. If you're cocky and arrogant, and something goes wrong, there's a long way to fall."

So what makes him special? Nobody who has witnessed him in action would champion Hale's credentials as a gifted exponent of the sweet science. Nor does he purport to be a hard worker, no great lover of gym or road work, opting instead for a life of travelling indolence. The Bristol fighter has worked diligently on developing his tan on beaches from Australia to Florida, Greece to Indonesia.

Blessed with a technique perhaps best described as uncomplicated, and despite his dislike of the spartan disciplines of the gym, the West Countryman's chief asset is his strength of conviction. He absorbs punishment well and possesses an unquenchable desire to succeed, a combination which has enabled many a limited fighter to prevail against more technically gifted rivals. Much as he likes to talk himself down, Hale's preparation is always thorough, his determination never in doubt.

Since defeating Holligan, Hale has experienced the frustration of having one world title opportunity slip through his grasp. In October, he was to challenge Zack Padilla for the World Boxing Organisation championship in Hong Kong, only for that ill-fated promotion to be scrapped at the last minute.

The experience was sufficiently unpleasant to strengthen Hale's resolve not to miss out on meeting Randall by making a silly mistake against Melvin. "I'll get it right on Saturday, then hopefully it's on to the big one," he said. "I know I'll be a big underdog against Randall, but I fight better when nothing is expected of me. I have nothing to lose, and that's the way I like it."