Profile: Fighter against time Dennis Andries

Harry Mullan meets Britain's ageing lord of the ring who has earned res pect the hard way
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The Independent Online
NASEEM HAMED will get the TV attention and the Sunday paper headlines when he boxes in Glasgow on Saturday, but the real story is down the bill, where the indefatigable Dennis Andries attempts to become the oldest ever British champion. Andries, a three-time WBC light-heavyweight champion, faces Denzil Browne of Leeds for the vacant British cruiserweight championship, just a month short of 15 years since his first British title attempt. It would be a good story under any circumstances, but give n Andries' advanced age - whatever that might be - it is remarkable that he is still competing at this level at all.

His strikingly handsome features offer no clue either as to his profession or his age; he could pass for 25, but has mischieviously encouraged speculation that he's 20 years older. Now, he says: "There's no mystery: I'm 41. The press wanted to be funny. I said, `OK, pick a number... Well, make me 46, 48, anything you want.' And then I thought, `You know, this old man nonsense is OK. Maybe it'll bring me more fights, because people want to fight you if they think you're old - but when they get in there, they'll find this is one tough old boy.' Anyway, age don't matter. I've seen guys washed up at 24. One bad beating can make you old overnight."

Boxing's best-known antiques, George Foreman and Roberto Duran, have lasted so well because of their styles: Foreman usually gets rid of opponents early, while Duran is a clever, slippery type who takes comparatively little punishment. Yet Andries, who has had more life-and-death struggles than any British boxer of his several generations, remains unmarked, clear-eyed and precise of speech despite 17 hard years in the professional ring.

He seems genuinely astonished at the suggestion that he has had some tough battles. "Did you ever see me walk in with my face up and take punches all the time like that? No, I'm always covering, blocking. If I can't whup you, I can protect myself. You don't see me with cuts, bumps and bruises."

There is also, he suggests, a genetic explanation for his longevity; his tough childhood in Guyana. "I'm from a hard country, a hard place where you got to think like a man and do man things by the age of 12. We were working-class, country people. My daddy came to Britain first, then my mother and my sister, and when they'd saved the money, maybe eight years later, they sent for me and my brother. My parents had split by the time we got here. I ran away four times in Guyana because I didn't want to leave my cousins and my friends, so they finally caught me and said, `Away you go, 'cause you're too bad for us.' I'm a down-to-earth, quiet kind of a guy now but back then I was a wild kid."

He needed all that self- sufficiency to carry him through a career with more troughs than peaks, in which he had to carve out his own niche as an unfashionable, crude brawler without the financial, promotional or managerial connections needed to make things happen. His illusions did not survive for long.

"I had a lot of setbacks early on, but then I got the Southern Area title, so if anybody wanted the British title they had to go through me first. Trainers would say to me `Why don't you retire, or step aside and let my boy in - I'll give you a grand. You're just holding other fighters back.' I said, `I ain't holding your boy back - if he wants to fight, let him fight me. I'm here, and if I'm in his way he's got to beat me first.' They saw me as the Iron Man of the division, and I couldn't get no fights."

He solved his dilemma by creating the impression that his dedication had faded: he would train for a couple of days in a professional gym, then disappear for a week to make it seem that he's broken training. In fact, he would instead be working out at anamateur club with people whom he could trust with his secret. "I had to con opponents that I wasn't ready, otherwise I'd still be waiting," he remembers with a chuckle.

He got his first major opportunity in his ninth fight, as a short- notice substitute against the veteran British champion Bunny Johnson in January 1979, and even though he lost on points he made a strong enough impression to be granted a rematch for the title a year later. It proved a nightmare experience: in probably the worst championship fight in the division's history. Andries blundered and stumbled his way to a 15-rounds points loss. It was a humiliating experience, and the critics were merciless. He remained unperturbed.

"If you can't take criticism, you're gonna be suicidal. Fighters tell me `I can't take what they're writing about me.' I say `Well don't read it, then. Ten years after, when it's all over, read it and have a laugh.' If I read something about me that I don't like, I'll just cut it out and put it away.

"I've been around, and I've learned from all my bad experiences. I've only had one first-round knockout in nearly 60 fights. They've all been tough. I've always fought guys one level above me. If you put a bum fighter in front of me I'd probably lose, because I wouldn't know what to do with him. I'd be thinking `God, it's Christmas,' because they've given me a turkey."

Andries persisted at his trade, learning from his losses until, having won the British title at the third attempt and put together a 13-fight unbeaten run, he took the WBC championship from the American ex-Marine J B Williamson. It was a short reign: after one successful defence, he was stopped in 10 rounds by Thomas Hearns in Detroit, showing almost superhuman courage and endurance in getting off the floor time and again. A couple of days later Hearns's manager, Emanuel Steward had a call from the ex-champ, asking to join Steward's famous Kronk gym.

"I'd said to myself, `Win or lose, I'm going to Steward,' but obviously I couldn't talk to him before the fight," he recalls. Steward, impressed by his courage, agreed to take him on, but those early days in the ferocious environment of the Kronk were brutal.

"When I went there first, guys were lining up to say, `You think Tommy Hearns done you, we're going to do you worse.' They'd say `We want that British boy. We're gonna whup his ass'. I said, `Let me tell you something. I'm not born in England.' `Then yo u 're English, boy, and we're gonna kick your ass'.

"It was tough, but I had to beat respect into them. They all thought, `Give him a week or two and he'll leave. If we don't beat him out of here the heat will drive him out.' But a determined man is a dangerous man. I stayed on and I commanded respect. There were so many broken noses, ribs, jaws, eye sockets. I might've had a little cut here and there, but that's all.

"The ring in the Kronk used to be slippery with sweat, 'cause there were so many tough-ass people working out hard. People used to come down there to see fights. They'd bring their lunch and their dinners, and sit and watch them. They didn't have to pay money to go to an arena. They'd see guys carried out of there, guys been broken in the ring. That's how tough it was."

Under Steward's guidance he regained the WBC title, lost it and won it back. His three WBC titles earned the trade's respect, and some decent American paydays, but he remains virtually unknown to the wider sporting public. "It doesn't bother me," he insists. "Nothing gets to me. If it did, I'd be cracked up by now. The media and the British people like losers, and all that bullshit. Well, go on your way, man, 'cause I'm not a loser."

His nomadic lifestyle requires an understanding wife, Odette, with whom he has been "since we were kids at school". "She's a strong woman and we love each other. We decided early on we'd be together in this boxing thing and we were gonna do it. If you got someone to support you in what you're doing, you got no problems.

"I lived in Detroit from 1987, and I'm still back and forth. But I've got two boys now. They're getting bigger and I need to be there, to be a daddy for them. I was reared up with no father, and I'm not going to make the same mistake. I got to be there for my own kids.

"I'll know when to get out of boxing. I don't want to push it too much. Give it another year, maybe two, and that's it. I'll let boxing be. For now, I enjoy what I'm doing. Why quit all that to drink and go to the bars? That's when you will get old.

"I'll keep working, 'cause I got to. Some people are born lucky, and then there's the rest of us. You see that guy won £1m on the lottery and wants to give it back? I can't understand that: why play a game if you don't want to win?"