New Faces for the New Year / Boxing: Fame fans Holligan's fire to fight: In the last of the series a boxer seeks success: Nick Halling reports on the cash-hungry Liverpool light-welterweight who now has the taste for a world title

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The Independent Online
PROVINCIAL boxers are rarely afforded the degree of profile and celebrity enjoyed by their counterparts in London. Andy Holligan, the British and Commonwealth light-welterweight champion, argues that fame is something he can live without. That is probably just as well because even after five years of unbroken success, Holligan has no need of dark glasses to retain his anonymity: he is virtually unknown even in his native Liverpool.

That may change in 1993, the year in which the 25-year-old Holligan should fulfil the potential first displayed in 1987 when winning the Amateur Boxing Association Championship. Since then, he has compiled an unbeaten sequence of 20 victories as a professional, the high point coming in June 1991, when he ended the reign of Tony Ekubia to claim his current titles. Holligan's exploits may have generated few ripples at home, but have not gone unnoticed by the sport's sanctioning bodies, all four of whom list him in their top 10 contenders.

To justify his place on the fringes of the elite, however, he must pass a searching examination on the Continent. In March, he meets the Zaire-born Frenchman Valery Kayumba for the European title: victory will leave him positioned for an assault on a world title within 12 months.

On the surface, Holligan's progression seems to have been achieved without effort. In reality, his development has been far from smooth. Turning professional in 1987, he joined the Belfast manager Barney Eastwood in what proved to be a stormy and unhappy relationship.

Holligan is reluctant to discuss details about his time in Northern Ireland, but appears not only to have had difficulty settling in Belfast, but also to have found his manager to be distant and aloof.

'I always had the impression that Eastwood didn't think I was going anywhere,' he said. 'The low point came when he tried to send me to Denmark as a sparring partner. That's when I knew I had to do something about it.'

The result was that Holligan was inactive for almost a year while waiting for his contract with Eastwood to expire. Once free of his obligations, he elected to join a long-time admirer of his craftsmanship, Mickey Duff.

'I was sorry to have missed him when he signed with Eastwood,' Duff said. 'Andy is blessed with plenty of natural skills, he's a big light-welter, a good chin, very strong at the weight, and most of the time he has a good attitude.'

Most of the time? 'He's better than he was, but Andy's the type of guy who'll pull out of a fight because he doesn't feel right. He's very honest about it. He'll simply say he doesn't feel like fighting. If he ever gets to the level I think he's capable of, that could be a problem, but I sense that he's maturing and growing out of it.'

Holligan requires the incentive of an important contest to bring out his best. 'I need something to scare me, give me motivation,' he said. 'When I'm training for a title fight I'll set the alarm early and go out for a run. But in the past, when there's been nothing on the line, I'll just turn it off and go back to sleep.'

Since winning his titles against Ekubia, his work has veered erratically between the outstanding and the ponderous. Defences against Tony McKenzie, Steve Larrimore and a return with Ekubia have seen him at his most irresistible: all three bouts ended with decisive knock-outs.

In contrast, his two most recent outings have been laboured points verdicts over imported American journeymen, Dwayne Swift and Mark Smith.

'They were mediocre opponents, and I should have had them out of there in two or three rounds,' he said. 'It's my fault that didn't happen because I neglected my training. When I saw a tape of the last fight, it was so embarrassing, I knew I had to change my attitude. Believe me, it won't happen again.'

Evidence of this growing maturity can be found in Holligan's more businesslike approach to his career. According to Duff, the fighter is no lightweight when it comes to financial discussions. Given the choice between fame and fortune, Holligan is certain of his position. 'I'm not interested in becoming famous,' he said. 'I hope this doesn't sound bad, but I'm in boxing for the money. As far as I'm concerned it's just a job, and as I've never done anything else, I have to make a go of it.'

If Holligan can consistently ally this new professional attitude to his already abundant technical and physical attributes, the European title should soon be his. As broader horizons and more substantial pay cheques come into focus, maintaining the required motivation should present few problems for a fighter who is now sure of what he wants.

(Photograph omitted)