The unpredictable beast in McCall

BOXING: How Frank Bruno's opponent woke up to his world title potential. Ken Jones reports
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The Independent Online
George Benton has yet to figure out whether Oliver McCall is fighting for money, vanity or perverse amusement. "Damndest guy I ever worked with," he chuckled.

If Benton knew what to expect next from the man he has helped train for a defence of the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship against Frank Bruno at Wembley Stadium tomorrow, he would regard it as an improvement in his education.

McCall is unique in his trainer's long experience. For example, Benton thought he had come across just about everything in the fight game until he saw the champion crashing expensive model aeroplanes for entertainment. "Yeah, the damndest guy," Benton repeated, shaking his head and laughing.

Seven years ago, McCall entered a plea for leniency when awaiting sentence on two counts of burglary. Considering him sincere, the judge handed out 60 days and five years' probation. "Given another chance, I knew I could be a success as a fighter and a human being," McCall said.

Somewhere between then and falling into Don King's wide embrace, McCall reached the conclusion that he had more talent than people gave him credit for, that he was better than an example of the theory that fighters should have tough sparring partners.

King was drawing up plans to regain control of the heavyweight division lost when Mike Tyson was sensationally rolled over by James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo, and McCall, naturally strong and durable, fitted into the grand scheme perfectly. "I knew the only way for me to become a contender was to team up with Don," McCall said. "I put my trust in him and he delivered."

Before taking the WBC title violently from Lennox Lewis at Wembley Arena almost 12 months ago, McCall recalled that he took a closer look at himself when Douglas recorded that famous victory. Recently, this came up again in conversation at Henlow Grange, the health farm in Bedfordshire where McCall has spent almost a month in preparation.

"It wasn't that I'd sparred more than 300 rounds with Mike, and knocked him down. It was remembering that I'd gone 10 rounds against Douglas six months earlier without giving myself a chance of beating him. Didn't train a day for it."

With no chance of gaining a decision, McCall went for Douglas in the final round and hurt him badly. "His eye blew up and I heard him squeal," McCall said. "I was holding him up. I knew that if I'd worked for the fight I would have beaten Douglas and he wouldn't have got near Tyson and all those dollars."

Benton's heartfelt interest in the defensive aspect of boxing makes him, some think, an unlikely tutor for the champion but it appears that McCall is diligent in application. "Oliver listens," Benton said, "but you can never be sure of what's coming because he's fearless."

In McCall's mind today there is no precise recollection of what occurred when Lewis presented him with an opportunity that had been worked by Emanuel Steward, who is now the former champion's trainer. "It worked out just as Manny anticipated," McCall said, "but a lot of it was instinct. Once I saw Lewis drop his left and lift his head, I let go. Man, there was no way he could recover."

Allowing for technical shortcomings, fighters fall into two basic categories. There are those, the majority, who cannot wait to get back into the ring and those who are concerned only with an advancement in lifestyle. A suspicion about McCall, who has a wife and six children to feed, is that he represents the latter.

In any case, he is a mass of contradictions. Having suggested that retirement was a serious possibility, he shot off suddenly this week in an entirely different direction. "There isn't anyone out there I can't beat," he said. "Tyson, Bowe, none of them. After getting Bruno out of the way, I'll take the WBA title off Bruce Seldon and go on to become the undisputed champion."

While the hyperbole may sound like everything else you have heard in the boxing business, McCall has to think big because he is now 30 and trying to make up for the years he spent as a hired hand, including helping Bruno prepare for a contest against Joe Bugner. "None of the top guys would give me a chance," he said. "But that don't matter anymore because I've got the title and I'm going to keep it." Long enough, you imagine him thinking, to get hugely rich from going in with Tyson.

Considering the imminence of his title defence, it was startling quite late on Wednesday evening to come across McCall at an art gallery in the Mall looking at paintings of heavyweight champions exhibited by Sandor Camille Szenassy, who has Frank Warren's enthusiastic patronage. Gulping down a glass of what turned out to be cranberry juice, the champion claimed to be in excellent shape. "Never better," he said.

However, there is an aspect of McCall that makes people wonder. Having already been reprimanded by the British Boxing Board for inflammatory statements, he angered Bruno at a press conference earlier this week with remarks that the challenger was entitled to deem racist. "I didn't mean any of those things," he insisted on Wednesday. "Just playing around."

McCall has his lines down pat. A stone lighter than Bruno's 17st 10lb when they weighed in yesterday, he said: "I'll pick up the stone and hit Frank with it." He is consistent, anyway. Makes him feel like what he thinks he has become - somebody special.