Robinson and the fight for respect

`The national press were waiting for me to get beat: they have been waiting a very long time. The same people think that Naseem is their saviour. How do I get respect?'
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Unrated before he became champion and unfancied for Saturday's title defence against Naseem Hamed, a Welshman with an attitude talks to James Reed

Steve Robinson and his girlfriend, Angela, were watching television when they heard the news. Ruben Palacio had failed a routine HIV test, had lost his title and there was nobody to challenge Sunderland's John Davison for the vacant World Boxing Organisation featherweight championship. There were just 60 hours before the first bell and the telephone in Robinson's Ely home started to ring.

The first call was Robinson's manager, Dai Gardiner, then his trainer, Ronnie Rush. It was a frantic evening and when Robinson finally went to bed he knew his name was at the top of the hastily arranged list of potential opponents. His sleep was ruined. It was the break he needed, the one he thought he would never get. It had been a long wait.

The next morning, April 15 1993, Gardiner agreed terms for the fight. Robinson was not ranked by the WBO and had lost nine of his 23 fights, but he was known as a good fighter by trade insiders, and he was hungry for success.

"Three weeks before the Davison fight I quit my job in the warehouse to train full time," Robinson recalled this week. "It was becoming more difficult to compete at the top level because I was working full time. My body wasn't right," said Robinson, who was clearing just pounds 52 a week working for Debenhams. In the ring his best pay day was pounds 3,000, but for the Davison fight he would receive pounds 20,000.

"I was apprehensive about giving up the job but I knew I had to. I needed a regular wage and nobody could guarantee me fights. It was a risk but I had to concentrate on boxing.

"To be honest I was starting to get worried because there was nothing happening, I was just training and there was no money coming in. Ronnie kept telling me to relax and for three weeks before the Davison fight I was in the gym solid."

It was enough to pull off an emotional victory in front of 3,000 of Davison's loyal fans in Washington, Co Durham. Steve Robinson, the Cinderella man, was world champion.

He finally had the success he had craved for so long, but the queue to topple him was forming before the gaudy belt had been strapped to his stomach. For two years all challengers have been repelled, but on Saturday comes the sternest test of all, and his life could change once again. Robinson, the journeyman pro-turned-world champion, faces a mandatory challenge from Naseem Hamed, the most brilliant young talent in British boxing.

The two could hardly be more different. For all his ability, Hamed has been carefully prepared for his world title shot. Robinson did not have that option.

"Before Davison I took fights at short notice against world-ranked boxers. I met boys in their home towns where the decisions go against the visiting boxer," Robinson said. "I knew I won some of the fights I lost but that is the boxing business." Robinson still finishes his pad work in the privacy of Rush's living room on the troubled Ely estate.

If Robinson had not stepped in as Palacio fled in grief - later to be arrested for cocaine smuggling in Miami - it is feasible he would have just become a good overseas opponent, fighting strictly for cash against the best in South Africa and Denmark: a loser with potential and credibility but no future.

In July 1993 the ice rink in Cardiff was full of song for Robinson's homecoming fight. In the opposite corner was Sean Murphy, a dogged fighter from St Albans with tissue paper eyebrows and very little punch resistance left in his honest soul.

It was Robinson's easiest defence, and his last for Barry Hearn, the man who persuaded the WBO to give Robinson the chance in the first place. The split was ugly. There was a contractual problem - there still is - and Robinson recently appealed against a decision that he owes Hearn pounds 160,000 for walking away.

Defence No 2 was against Colin McMillan, whose tenuous grasp on the WBO title ended in pain when he dislocated his shoulder during his first defence against Palacio. "McMillan was supposed to be the golden boy, he was going to beat Steve. What a joke," said Rush, who enjoys mocking his fighter's critics. Robinson won easily.

In March 1994 Liverpool's Paul Hodkinson, a former World Boxing Council featherweight champion, was tipped to stop Robinson. "It was going to end early, so they said down in London but once again the experts were wrong," insisted Rush.

It was a gruesome fight and Hodkinson finally collapsed, his face distorted and his pain evident, in the 12th round. Still respect was not forthcoming, instead boxing insiders believed the quietly spoken black kid from Ely was simply in the right place at the right time.

"The win over Davison was called a fluke, the win over McMillan was questioned because of his old shoulder injury and the knockout of Hodkinson was supposedly because of his inactivity. The national press were waiting for me to get beat. They have been waiting a very long time," said Robinson. "The same people think that Naseem is their saviour. How do I get respect?"

Robinson's sense of injustice has been further fuelled by the tone of BSkyB's pre-fight coverage, which has included the publicity line, "See the Prince crowned King".

Perhaps Robinson should be used to it by now. His British challengers have dismissed him, considering him a plodder, but they have all been wrong so far.

"I should have respect by now, I'm one of the very best featherweights in the world and my achievements as champion should be judged not my early career. Records aren't everything." Robinson's simmering anger at his low profile has led to a series of short post-fight conferences. "Steve is about boxing and not all this American wrestling hype," Rush said.

At a recent fight Hamed arrived to hijack the ringside celebrations. Robinson glared at him, shook his hand when it was extended and told the Sheffield boxer he was out of order. "This is my night," Robinson said. The crowd at the ice rink spat at Hamed. Robinson's profile would probably be higher if he could match the crowd's anger. Instead he has remained placid, ignoring Hamed's lip. However, in private, Hamed has spoken of Robinson's ability. The fight is a sell-out.

After Hodkinson came the durable Freddy Cruz who was beaten on points. A few months later Hamed stopped Cruz; it was the start of the chase. "I want Robinson," Hamed shouted.

In October 1994, Duke McKenzie collapsed from a body shot in round nine. "I believed I could beat Robinson but he is deceptive," said McKenzie, a former triple world champion, whose words echoed the sad thoughts of Hodkinson and McMillan.

Since that night Robinson has beaten two harmless imports. In July, after stopping Spain's Pedro Ferradas, the WBO's president, Francisco Valcarcel, was in Cardiff to issue the champion an ultimatum: 60 days to agree terms for a Hamed fight or lose the title. The promoter, Frank Warren, already had a signed contract.

To many it looked like a ruthless coup but it was just business because Robinson, Gardiner and their solicitor signed the document. It was, in short, a bloodless coup.

At the time Robinson said few words, shrugged and left. A few weeks later he married Angela and less than four weeks ago he returned from his honeymoon to prepare in grim silence for a fight he neither wants or needs.