Welch's tall order in Nashville

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The Independent Online
In 1959 the British Boxing Board of Control fined the Blackpool heavyweight Brian London the price of a small house for having the temerity to challenge Floyd Patterson for the world title when he was not even the British champion. It is a measure of the decline in value of both championships over the subsequent decades that in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday night, two British heavyweights will contest what purports to be the world title even though one of them, Henry Akinwande, has never fought for the domestic title and his opponent, Scott Welch, relinquished the Lonsdale Belt rather that risk more lucrative matches by defending it.

If the Board, unhampered by the restraint of trade laws, could apply the same rigorous criteria today, Lennox Lewis would be British champion and Saturday's encounter would perhaps involve the Southern Area championship. Instead, Akinwande's World Boxing Organisation title will be at stake on a show which also features Kevin Lueshing's bid for Felix Trinidad's International Boxing Federation's welterweight title.

The lanky Akinwande, at 6ft 7in the tallest-ever title claimant, has prospered since leaving Britain to join the Don King promotional circus. The WBO belt may be the least prestigious of the four "major" championships on offer, but it still commands purses far above what either man could expect to earn at home. This will be the 31-year-old champion's second defence of the title he won by stopping Jeremy Williams last year, and he sees the WBO Championship as his passport to a major money fight with Evander Holyfield or Mike Tyson.

He is an awkwardly effective performer with only one blemish on his 32- fight record, a disputed draw in Germany against Axel Schulz for the European title four years ago. Welch, 28, has not campaigned at that level but avenged his only real defeat in 21 fights when he won the British title from James Oyebola in 1995. (A cut eye loss in his third fight can be discounted.) He owes this opportunity to a combination of what Muhammed Ali used to call "complexion and connection": being white has never been a box office handicap for a heavyweight, and manager Frank Warren's flourishing association with Don King did the rest.

Welch, who won the ABA title in 1992 three years after Akinwande completed his ABA double, remains something of a "gentleman" fighter in that, unusually, he does not rely on boxing for his wealth. He operates a lucrative retirement home in Hove, and his ring earnings would scarcely have paid for one of the luxury cars he favours. But he also trains obsessively, and has shown a marked improvement since working with the former European champion Jim McDonnell, now a trainer with a growing reputation.

Even McDonnell's expertise may not be enough to steer Welch to victory. Akinwande makes the most of his physical assets: his long jab-right cross routine may be predictable and unexciting, but he is desperately difficult to beat and will confound better heavyweights than Welch.

But whatever doubts may be cast on the validity of this match in world title terms, there can be no such reservations about Saturday's other championship pairing when Belfast's Wayne McCullough challenges the veteran Mexican Daniel Zaragoza in Boston for the World Boxing Council's super- bantamweight title. It is a rare clash of champions since the Irishman currently holds the WBC bantamweight belt which, win or lose, he will relinquish on Saturday.

Zaragoza, 38, is a veteran of 19 title fights in two divisions. He briefly held the WBC bantamweight crown in 1985, and is in his third reign as super- bantamweight champion. McCullough won his title the hard way, by out- scoring a tough Japanese fighter, Yasuei Yakushiji, in Nagoya, so will relish the backing he is guaranteed from Boston's Irish community as he attempts to emulate Ireland's only two-times world champion Steve Collins, who, coincidentally, spent most of his career in Boston and had his first world title fight there.

The unbeaten McCullough, who has stopped 14 of his 20 opponents, will earn more than Zaragoza in the richest match in super-bantamweight history. The former Olympic silver medallist lives in Las Vegas and his all-action style has made him an American television favourite. He has been struggling to get down to the bantamweight limit in recent fights and will benefit from the additional four pounds freedom of the heavier division. His ultimate target remains Naseem Hamed, and his bargaining position for that bonanza would be greatly enhanced by a win over Zaragoza.

The Mexican southpaw continues to defy the years, and a serious of horrendous cuts that would have discouraged lesser men. His face is a patchwork of stitching, his eyebrows heavy with scar tissues. Given McCullough's ferocious punch rate, it is inevitable that, sooner rather than later, Zaragoza will start bleeding again. And when he does, he is likely to find that Boston officials can be unusually squeamish when the challenger is Irish.