Schumy stalls, Naz gets a fright

 

When the gloves went on, it all started to go downhill fast. In the early hours yesterday, at the end of Sky's three-week coverage of the Naseem Hamed/Wayne McCullough fight, the studio analysts found themselves preoccupied with aspects of the planned build-up to Naz's entrance to the arena.

"The Americans" - presumably just the fight promoters, as opposed to the entire nation - wanted the Prince to stalk his way to ringside via a theatrical graveyard. Given that it was Hallowe'en night, there was no denying the topicality of such detail.

But the ex-fighters back in studio were, understandably, somewhat aghast at the prospect, particularly at the suggestion that the names of the Prince's previous opponents might be etched (well, spray painted) onto the headstones. Even Naz professed reservations about the stunt in a rare bout of sensitivity and basic cop-on, a transitory state undoubtedly induced by jet lag.

While he might, under duress, permit himself to stroll through a ghoulish set, he let it be known that he "objected forcibly" to the idea for the headstone ornamentation.

"It's in very bad taste," noted Gary Jacobs back in studio, though that point was undermined by Gary's ludicrously loud, blue tartan suit and dickie bow, not to mention a red rose.

Wee Barry McGuigan observed that the whole thing smacked of WWF choreography, which didn't allow for the fact that boxing was a genuinely dangerous racket.

Anyway, at ringside, you began to wonder why they bothered with the artificial props at all given that the joint already resembled a graveyard.

Liverpool's Richie Wenton - sorry, that's "Richie Winnnnnnntiiiiiin from historic Liverpool, England" - was warming up for his title shot when news broke that the appointed referee had, it seemed, been drawn by the allure of the casinos. Or maybe he just stayed at home to catch Hallowe'en 3.

Ian Darke, from Sky, disdainfully described the "cellotape and string" feel to the whole promotion. Quickly, a stand-in ref was found, a lad by the name of Tony Orlando, who looked, as he sounded, like someone who spent his non-arbitration hours trawling the B cabaret route in support of the likes of Jose Feliciano.

No sooner had Tony warmed to his task than the real ref arrived, a doe-eyed gent called Eddie Johnson, who, we were told, had learned his trade in state prison.

"Chaos here," sniffed in Ian Darke, rapidly losing patience. Wenton quickly fell to his opponent, Barrera, and more fights followed, most of which you knew would be better than the so-called real thing.

Over in Japan, there were, disappointingly, no plans to have Michael Schumacher burst onto track-side through a collage of previous opponents he had run off the road in critical races.

No, instead, the final grand prix of the year opened with Murray Walker talking about the imminent loss of two close friends. Who was leaving, we wondered. It soon became apparent that Murray was talking about Goodyear and the services they had rendered to F1.

Now, take a Goodyear out, drink brandy with it and sing Auld Lang Syne until dawn and you're still looking at a lump of rubber (unless it's really serious brandy). Kinda hard to summon the tears. It was not the most auspicious beginning to the event, but this was in keeping with the tone of the evening.

Back in Ballys in Atlantic City, the arena was filling up. Naturally, the Irish were there, sporting Irish tops circa the Tony Grealish era. Don't the ex-pats know we wear orange now?

So Wayne McCullough, pocket rocket that he is, weaved his way in to the sound of U2. Neat entrance. The Americans got their way. Prince walked through gravestones, accompanied by Michael Jackson's Thriller. Now, in fairness, there were a number of horror movies showing on other channels which would have, well, killed, to get hold of the set through which Prince strutted his way. This was a set John Carpenter would have been proud of.

The fear was that Naz might take a wrong step and plunge into one of the many crevasses which contained all manner of gory puppet. Either that, or some popcorn-toting American might actually thread on the diminutive boxer on his way back from the vendor. You felt if he could just make it to the ring, he'd be safe.

So it proved. Prince preened and postured and didn't knock Wayne out in three. He didn't seriously hurt him. He did smile and disco dance and taunt his opponent. You envisaged entire pockets of the Untied States reaching for the remote and switching testily to any one of the cheesy horror shows on the other side.

On ITV and Network 2, David Coulthard was saying something about Michael Schumacher often starting poorly. You dismissed it and flicked back to Sky. Wayne went the distance, but Naz won on points.

You wondered if these were accumulated for punches thrown or best variety of steps witnessed since Michael Flatley last played Atlantic City. Whatever.

At the car-racing, Murray was distraught. "And it's Go, Go, Go," he yelled. Except it wasn't. Some eejit had stalled his engine. When in doubt, blame Josh Verstappen. "All that tension," sobbed Murray.

Moments later, he was inconsolable when it became evident that Schumy had been unable to get going. He was automatically dispatched to the rear of the grid, virtually handing the title to Hakkinen. Nice climax to the season.

Back in Atlanta, Prince Naseem was explaining why he hadn't dispatched Wayne to the Hall of Hades in round three. "It was written in the gods that I win it in 12," he proclaimed, at least winning back the American Bible belt.

Meanwhile, Wayne was still being the old pro, talking up a rematch. "Let's get it on back home in front of 50,000 people," he said.

Yeah, let's . . . but no time too soon, eh buddy?