Reid smoulders with desire

One world champion lives off his wits as another continues his regal progress. Harry Mullan reports
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Giuseppe Corrora was one of the best featherweights and junior- lightweights of the 1920s, but you won't find him in the record books unless you try under "Johnny Dundee". His manager decided early in Giuseppe's career that there were too many good Italian fighters competing for the fans' affections, so he reinvented him as a Scot, changed his client's nom de guerre and billed him, in those days before political correctness, as "The Scotch Wop".

Robin Reid worked the trick in reverse when he went to Milan last October to challenge Vicenzo Nardiello for the World Boxing Council super-middleweight title, which he defends against Henry Wharton of Leeds in Manchester on Saturday. Italian crowds are notoriously hostile to visiting fighters, and can have an intimidating effect on judges and referees, so the English camp told the local press that Reid's striking looks and swarthy skin came from his Italian father. They got away with it: Reid was cheered from the ring after battering Nardiello to seventh-round defeat and was safely back in Lancashire before his new-found compatriots learned that his father was actually a Trinidadian.

On the scale of what Don King calls "boxing trickeration" it was a small deception, but the fact that he carried it off suggests that, at the age of 26, the quiet man from Runcorn has mastered the art of survival in a business where things are rarely what they seem. As the glamorous and highly marketable world champion, he will need such street smarts to go with the sharp intelligence which earned him six O levels and an A level in art.

Considering his unpromising beginnings - a mixed-race child put up for adoption at six months - he has prospered in life as well as in sport, thanks to the solid roots offered by a large and close adoptive family. "I was in a home until I was two," he said. "It's sad to think that I have blood brothers and sisters I'll never know. I've changed my name and I don't have any contact with my natural family. There are six of us in my adoptive family but there's been more than that sometimes as my parents were always taking in foster children as well." It was a happy upbringing and his mum was a highly vocal and emotional presence at ringside on the night in Milan when, without having gone through the usual developing process of British and European titles, he went straight for the world title.

"Nardiello was looking for an easy defence, and picked me because I'd not beaten any decent names," he explained. "He thought I was just a kid, but I was more professional than him and kept my composure." There was a welcome bonus when Marvin Hagler, long one of Reid's heroes, ducked through the ropes to shake the new champion's hand and tell him: "You did it the hard way. You have the hunger."

It was an unexpected triumph. He always had the pedigree - an Olympic bronze medal in 1992 proved that - but professional progress was frustratingly slow. Remarkably, the fight in which he won the WBC title was the first time he had even topped a bill. "There were times when I felt I was getting nowhere," he admitted. "It's hard to get keyed up for unimportant fights, and sometimes it showed in my performances. I signed with Frank Warren when he was rebuilding after his shooting, when he didn't have many fighters, but once he started signing big names like Benn, Eubank, Bruno, Hamed and Collins, it was harder for me to get noticed.

"I felt I'd been pushed to the sidelines a bit, but in a way it did me a favour, as I was able to develop gradually and without being rushed. But Frank knew how good I was, and when the Nardiello fight came up I was ready and available."

Serendipity has played a large part in Reid's ring career. He could have chosen any sport, but picked on boxing by chance when his adoptive parents took him to a local recreation centre where, "just to be different", he chose boxing from the list of activities on offer. He had previously tried karate, but abandoned it because "I wasn't any good". He was not an instant success at boxing either, and his early career - which began at 11 - was littered with defeats before he began to make an impact.

He reached the final of the 1989 world junior championships, where he lost a close verdict to the Cuban Leonides Bedey in front of a 10,000 crowd in the Bayamon Stadium in Puerto Rico. It was an early taste of the big time, and the experience helped to make him Britain's only boxing medallist at the 1992 Olympic Games. His three victims there included the Norwegian Ole Klemetsen, now a world title contender at cruiserweight.

In those days Reid was nicknamed "The Grim Reaper" and he used to enter the ring for his early professional fights with the motif emblazoned on a bandana and gown. The series of calamities which afflicted British boxing in recent years rendered the image inappropriate, and it was quietly dropped.

At present, he is searching for a new look which will bring in the endorsement and advertising packages which have so far eluded him. One insider suggests that the offers have been slow because "every time you see a picture of Reid, he's got a half-naked bimbo on his arm. He needs to push his image up-market a bit - at the moment, he's too Daily Sport for the industry's taste". There is some truth in that assessment, but also a degree of irony in that Reid, for all his smouldering good looks, has been in a steady relationship for several years and lives unpretentiously in Bolton, hardly a celebrity hot-spot.

Maybe he acknowledges the problem that he is too down to earth, too unwilling to move in more glamorous circles. He refuses even to follow the examples of Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn and Saturday's opponent Henry Wharton by training abroad, preferring the grim and functional environment of the Collyhurst Lads' Club in Moss Side, Manchester. That is the closest boxing's reluctant pin-up gets to the laddish lifestyle.