Spar town boy's star role

Harry Mullan says Prince Naseem's sidekick has earned his graduation day
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The ripples of Naseem Hamed's success spread wide. Ryan Rhodes, his close friend and stablemate in the Brendan Ingle camp, has won a Lonsdale Belt outright at 20 and is set to become British boxing's next super-star, while Johnny Nelson, the camp's senior pro, has hit a remarkable late- career run of form which has seen him regain the British and European cruiserweight titles and close in on a third world title opportunity. Even the lesser likes have benefited, not least Jonathan Thaxton.

The Norwich light-welterweight, Hamed's favourite sparring partner, has been learning his trade without fuss or fanfare, and after 16 fights (13 wins) holds the Intercontinental championships of the Iinternational Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organisation. Both belts - boxing's equivalent of a second division championship - will be at stake in Thaxton's home town on Thursday when the close-cropped 22-year-old faces the former British lightweight champion Paul Burke, of Manchester, in a fight which ought to show whether he is capable of moving up to the next level of competition.

He has already been at the top in kick boxing, winning the British featherweight super-feather and lightweight titles and the European lightweight championship at 17 before a chance meeting with Chris Eubank steered him into the orthodox side of the sport. "I wasn't making any money at kick boxing, even though I'd only lost three out of 60 fights," he recalls. "Eubank came to Norwich to open a new gym and he advised me to go to Sheffield and see Brendan. As soon as I met him and saw him at work, I knew this was what I wanted."

He started a gruelling schedule of commuting between Norwich and Sheffield, showing a degree of dedication which impressed Ingle hugely. After seven fights he won the Southern Area light-welterweight title, but lost it at his first defence. The defeat caused him to rethink his priorities, and he became a full-time professional, spending five days a week in Sheffield and going home to Norwich at weekends. Even then, he was hardly an overnight success: there was a disputed loss in Holland and a stoppage by Colin Dunne when he moved down to lightweight to contest the Southern Area title.

His big break came when he stepped in as a late replacement and flattened the British champion Paul Ryan in one sensational round on Ryan's home ground in Bethnal Green. That should have earned him a rematch for the title, but instead the Board of Control set up a complicated series of eliminators from which Thaxton stepped aside in favour of the WBO and IBF Intercontinental titles. But victory over Burke, a seasoned campaigner who won and lost the British lightweight title in a pair of thrillers against Billy Schwer, would move the Norwich southpaw to the front of the queue of contenders for Andy Holligan's Lonsdale Belt.

While Thaxton dreams of a British title, the irrepressible Eubank has his mind on higher things: he wants a third world championship, this time at light-heavyweight. The second stage of his strange, self-promoted comeback tour takes him to Dubai on Thursday where he faces the WBO's sixth-ranked contender Camilio Hernando Alarcon of Colombia.

Like his initial comeback effort in Egypt in October, Thursday's affair has been ignored by British television. The Cairo show was a financial disaster for Eubank, and this promises to be no better. The Aviation Club, which hosts the event, has a 5,000 capacity but it is doubtful whether there are that many fight fans in the whole United Arab Emirates. Eubank seems determined to lose the fortune he accumulated during his long and lucrative reign as the WBO super-middleweight champion.

In boxing terms, choosing Alarcon is an intelligent move. The Colombian's ranking is a matter for the collective conscience of the WBO Championships Committee, as he lost his last fight (at super- middleweight) in March 1996 yet mysteriously entered the light-heavy weight list in time to face Eubank. The 30-year-old Colombian has had only 15 fights, winning 13, but at least he has showed durability in lasting the full 12 rounds against the former World Boxing Association champion Steve Littles in March.

Beating him will afford Eubank a quick and easy route into the top 10, but without proving a thing about his world title prospects. His schedule calls for fights in Abu Dhabi in May and Morocco in August. It sounds exotic, but looks like the long road to nowhere, unless he diverts to Britain and accepts a high-risk challenge from the newly crowned European champion Crawford Ashley.

It is an unpalatable reflection for a man of his vast ego, but what happens in the infinitely humbler setting of the Norwich Sports Village on Thursday could be of greater long-term significance for British boxing.