Peak time is beckoning for Collins

Harry Mullan says that a confident Irishman can be the man to topple Eubank
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The Independent Online
WHEN there is a big heavyweight fight in town, even world champions can seem anonymous. Steve Collins, the WBO middleweight title holder who challenges Chris Eubank for the super-middleweight crown on Saturday, stood virtually unrecognised in the lobby of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last week, collecting autographs on a boxing glove to be auctioned in aid of the Third World charity Goal, of which he is a long-time supporter.

He was still fuming about the former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield's refusal to sign it, on the grounds that he had an exclusive contract with the manufacturer of a rival glove. "He's got all those millions, and it wouldn't have hurt him to do a little thing like this," Collins said.

It is not possible to imagine the likeable Collins being so petty-minded, which is one of the reasons why all 6,000 seats at the Mill Street Arena in County Cork were snapped up within two hours of going on sale. The other reason, of course, is that this pairing of rival WBO champions, who are also stable-mates under Barry Hearn's promotion, is perhaps the most attractive match to be made on the domestic scene. There is, additionally, the very real possibility that the Irishman will win.

Collins himself has no doubts. "This is the gateway fight for me, the one that will open the door to the big money," he says. The Eubank-scale paydays have so far eluded the 31-year-old Dubliner in a hard career which includes WBA title challenges against Mike McCallum and Reggie Johnson before he finally became WBO champion last year by beating Chris Pyatt. He is a throwback to the great era of the middleweight division, the period spanning roughly 1940-60. Collins would have been perfectly at home with the quality contenders and near-champions of that era.

He is an unspectacular, workmanlike pro who thoroughly mastered his trade in tough years on the American circuit, fighting under the guidance of the Petronelli brothers in Boston. Many less talented fighters have out- earned him, but few have served such a complete apprenticeship. Collins has paid his dues and Eubank's posing and posturing will do nothing to shake his conviction that his time has finally come.

Collins has a cold, analytical intelligence, which he has applied to the practical problem of beating the world's most unorthodox and unpredictable champion. "I'll hit him and when he goes to hit me back, I won't be there," he says, and chuckles at the blinding simplicity of it all. "Maybe I'll even knock him out - everybody gets knocked out, even Mike Tyson . . . everybody except me."

Eubank, often criticised for below-par displays, comes into the fight off an impressive win over his mandatory challenger Henry Wharton, whom he comprehensively out-boxed in December. But that cuts no ice with Collins. "Wharton is the strong young kid and a good puncher, but he's uneducated; nobody ever taught him how to fight."

The clash of wills is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the fight, since both are fiercely proud, independent and self-managed men who refuse to admit the possibility of defeat. Eubank has faced hostile crowds before and won, notably in Berlin over Graciano Rocchigiani and in the King's Hall, Belfast, when he squeezed home over Ray Close. This time will be different, though. Unlike Rocchigiani, there is no danger that Collins will freeze on the big occasion, and, with due respect to Close, he is not the craftsman that Collins unquestionably is.

Collins gets this opportunity through Close's misfortune. The Belfast man had been due to face Eubank for the third time, but failed a routine brain scan which ended his career prematurely. Collins got the call to substitute, but Sky TV dithered about his suitability before finally accepting him. The delay will have worked in the Irishman's favour, since it has given him six vital weeks in which to bring himself to the peak of preparedness.

"Everything has slotted into place perfectly for me," he said. "I've been training here in Vegas for four weeks, and I've worn out five sparring partners. I'm in perfect condition, and I'm convinced this will be the best performance I have ever given.

"Normally, I'd be struggling to get down to 11st 6lb, since I walk around at 12st 7lb," Collins said, "but it's been a real treat for me not to have to walk past the buffets here."

There had been a degree of animosity between the pair in the build-up, but the easygoing Irishman is dismissive of it now. "That's the way Eubank is, and I'm glad, because that's what makes this such a big fight. Eubank's OK - he's just not in touch with reality. I'm going to do him a big favour and bring him down to earth."

Six thousand Irishmen expect no less, and I don't think he will disappoint them. It will be tight, but Collins could indeed be the man to end the Eubank era.