Sussex passion inspires new idol

Andrew Baker savours the atmosphere as a British title changes hands in Brighton
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a big night at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton on Friday. Great banners draped the railings outside the hotel announcing the main attraction of the evening: a local Rotarians' convention. A sheet of A4 paper sticky-taped to the same railing pointed the way to another event taking place at the hotel that evening: the heavyweight boxing championship of Great Britain.

It was an indication of the decline in status of a title once held by Henry Cooper, Brian London and Joe Bugner, and more recently by Herbie Hide and Lennox Lewis. Frank Maloney, who manages last Friday's defending champion, James Oyebola, admitted before the fight that the title had lost some of its glamour. "The British title has been devalued down the years, let's not kid ourselves," he said. "But it is still a useful thing to have when you're negotiating for a fighter. And it brings along the television companies."

Maloney claims that winning the British title was the turning point for Oyebola, a gigantic Nigerian-born veteran fighter who is now 35 years old. "It totally changed him as a character, gave him great pride and confidence," Maloney said. On the morning of the fight day Oyebola confirmed how proud he was of the title. "Let me put it this way," he said. "Every man likes to be champion of his own house, of his own home."

The home of the British heavyweight championship was a characterless hall down the aptly named if inaptly spelt Queensbury Mews behind the hotel. Normally it hosts sales conferences, but on Friday night it was colonised by the fight fans of Sussex, rooting for the challenger, a local old people's home manager called Scott Welch.

His fans were an amiable, beery bunch, wise-cracking with friends and strangers alike, chug-a-lugging lager from plastic beakers. The men wore earrings and carried mobile phones. The women wore little black dresses and toted Chanel handbags of dubious provenance. In the lobby a solitary stall sold Mike Tyson T-shirts at pounds 10 a throw.

Welch, bearded and intense, was first into the ring, to the deafening cheers of his followers. "Sussex!" they screamed, "Shoreham! Do it for Shoreham, Scott!" - not an exhortation that is commonly heard in Las Vegas. Then came Oyebola, bobbing to a thumping reggae beat, head and shoulders above the booing crowd.

At ringside, Naseem Hamed chatted to the evening's promoter, Frank Warren. Close by them two blondes, the round-board girls, giggled and adjusted their skimpy costumes. The younger of the two had a ladder in her glossy tights. Apart from Naseem, the celebrity count was low: Nicky Piper, Glenn McCrory, Herbie Hide and an actor from The Bill.

The fight was scrappy but passionate. The difference in physique between the tall Oyebola and the stocky Welch meant that inevitably a great deal of holding went on: many of Welch's forward lunges ended with his head jammed into his opponent's armpit.

When he was not thus immobilised, Welch landed some effective blows. He had Oyebola down on the bell - or marginally after it - in the third round, again (with a push) in the fourth. By the 10th round both fighters were totally tuckered out, trading unaimed blows and gasping for breath. The crowd screamed "Scott! Scott! Scott!" and repeatedly chanted the size of the purse for the fight, as if to remind the boxers to give value: "Sixty grand! Sixty grand!"

Oyebola marched doggedly across the ring like a zombie, straight on to a Welch combination. Slowly, almost gratefully, the champion sat on the canvas in a neutral corner, his hands on the lowest ropes, his spirit broken. He got up in the end, but not for long. The referee stopped the fight, and Welch's ecstatic fans thronged around the ring. Oyebola was warmly applauded in defeat.

Naseem Hamed sped away from the hotel in a huge Mercedes, pursued by a little posse of waving fans. Behind the windows of the hotel, the Rotarians looked up from their dinner, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Welch's fans were easily carried away in their jubilation, speculating wildly on what the next target should be for their local hero. Welch, who is a sensible and amiable man, kept his feet on the ground. "Whatever my promoter Frank Warren plans for me," he said. "I am ready. I don't mind what it is." The 26-year-old is most likely to show up next on the same bill as Naseem Hamed at the London Arena on 9 December. But the only way he is likely to get close to Mike Tyson is to fork out pounds 10 for a T- shirt.