What a man, What a mighty man

by Derek Cusack

Herol Graham challenges Charles Brewer for the IBF super middleweight title on March 28th on the undercard of Lennox Lewis - Shannon Briggs in Atlantic City. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on whether you appreciate the Englishman's subtle skills) for Stateside readers, the Graham - Brewer match was added to the card for the benefit of British viewers and will not be included on the HBO telecast.

That Graham is challenging for a bona fide world crown in 1998 is, in itself, a phenomenal testament to the determination and perseverance of the man. Should he win, Graham will have proved more 'experts' (count me among them) more wrong than any fighter has in recent times.

Graham's name will doubtless sound familiar to most readers as he spent most of the eighties and the early nineties as a top shelf middleweight contender. He beat the best around - or those who would fight him at least - and only failed to win a world title because a) his prime clashed with that of truly great champions, and b) even then, a world title was a world title. We weren't subjected to the modern spectacle of five or six fighters of varying ability and ego levels strutting around calling themselves "the man" and brandishing a gaudy belt to prove their point. Were he rising to contention now, a young Graham would clean up the middleweight division and its multiple titles.

In his first title tilt, he was narrowly decisioned by a fellow "thinking fighter": Mike Mc Callum. His second, and last, effort finished more conclusively - Graham humiliated Julian Jackson for the first four rounds of their fight in Spain. Upon realising that Jackson seemed unable to land a glove on him, the Sheffield man became cocky. Big mistake: Jackson repaid his folly by putting Graham to sleep in the fourth.

Many regarded Herol as the best fighter in the modern era not to have won a world title when he retired in September 1992. The events leading up to his retirement were ominous: a points loss to Sumbu Kalambay in March 1992 and a ninth round stoppage loss to Frank Grant six months later. Kalambay was a renowned upset artist, but Grant was a man who would have done well to land a glove on a prime Graham. It was a genuine shock to see Graham's talents at such a low ebb, and a greater shock to see him stopped by a fighter of Grant's calibre. So, having lost his European and British belts (respectively) in his last two fights, boxings Mr. Unlucky hung up his gloves.

The boxing world recoiled in disbelief when Graham announced his intention to make a comeback in 1996. Not only had he looked so poor in his last outing, he had spent the intervening four years in retirement. Many feigned genuine concern (you know the type), but most boxing fans were saddened by the likelihood that a young hopeful would bash Graham back to the rocking chair. Being knocked out by middleweight prospect Howard Eastman in one of his first comeback sparring sessions did nothing to further Graham's case, and even his lifelong friend and trainer Glyn Rhodes turned his back on the Graham comeback trail after watching him struggle to outpoint clubfighter Terry Ford over eight rounds in his first comeback effort in November 1996.

Graham had showed signs of commitment however, and maybe we were fools to overlook the trouble he went through to actually make a comeback. He was subjected to what were probably the most stringent tests the British Boxing Board of Control ever required a fighter to take before his license was granted the second time round.

After shaking off four years' worth of ring rust in the Ford fight, Graham outpointed Craig Joseph in another tepid eight - rounder. Next came the crunch: Graham was matched with former Olympic silver medallist and highly - regarded unbeaten prospect Chris Johnson. Considering the recent form of both and Graham's advanced age, Johnson looked set to bomb "Bomber" into submission in double quick time.

One man who didn't concur with the general consensus however was Graham himself. He brought the rising star down to earth like a Richard Branson balloon, flooring him twice and stopping him in eight. Graham, for that one night in August, brought us long - term fans back fifteen years and looked as sharp as ever.

Four months later, in December of last year, it was "The Pazmanian Devil's" turn to try and tame Graham in a clash of the veterans. Though Herol was not as sharp as he had been against Johnson, he survived some dangerous moments in the tenth to clearly outscore Pazienza over twelve rounds. Critics pointed to Graham's hesitancy and negative, defensive style - but what's new?

The Sheffield super middleweight has genuinely earned one more shot at a world title, and he must be grateful that a champion exists who will fight him. Quality opposition and champions have avoided Graham like a plague throughout his career, and not without good cause. Herol is so unorthodox and slippery that it's impossible to impress against him even if you do beat him. When Mc Callum outpointed the southpaw, the scoring was so controversial that people naturally began talking about a rematch. "I'll never fight him again," was Mc Callum's response!

It is difficult to think of a more pleasing prospect than that of Graham finally winning a world title against all the odds and at the age of 38. Can he do it though?

In my view the answer to that question depends on which Graham shows up in Atlantic City on 28th. If it's the more aggressive Graham who beat Chris Johnson, then yes he can. If it's the defensive - minded Graham who beat Pazienza, then no he can't.

Brewer will enter new territory when he meets Graham, and he is bound to have trouble deciphering Graham's unique style early in the fight. Graham's best bet is to do exactly as he did against Johnson: Stay on top of the champion from the start, pepper him with combinations and deny him the time and space he will need to construct a gameplan. Brewer's chin is also suspect, and a stoppage win for Graham is not impossible by any means.

However, the Englishman cannot afford to allow Brewer the same amount of space he gave to Pazienza. Though Paz didn't land many punches in the first half of their fight, he had time to watch the gaps appear in Graham's defence and had Herol in serious trouble in the late rounds when he exploited these weaknesses. Brewer is younger, faster and more powerful than Pazienza at this stage of his career, and I wouldn't expect Graham to survive if he finds himself seriously hurt by the Philadelphia fighter.

Though I wish Graham well, I would be cheering him on much louder were he challenging a fighter I like less than Brewer. Since he earned his "I was ducked by Roy Jones Jr." badge (these badges are collectors items: only 100, 000 have been issued), Brewer seized the vacant IBF crown and is, I believe, one of the few current fighters who will fight anybody put in front of him.

May the best man win!

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