If Clinton Woods and Rico Hoye are feeling the pressure ahead of Friday’s IBF light-heavyweight title fight they’re certainly doing a good job of hiding it. The contest represents Hoye’s first chance of breaking in to the 175lb elite but is the last chance saloon for Woods’ world title ambitions. So both could be forgiven if they were suffering from nerves. But, judging from the pair’s air of supreme confidence in the build up, nerves will not be a factor on fight night.
Hoye arrived in England with an unbeaten 18-fight professional record and a reputation as a devastating puncher, having seen off 14 opponents inside the distance. A fourth-round knockout victory over three-time world title challenger Richard Hall and a points success, albeit a controversial one, against ex-WBC champion Montell Griffin earned Hoye his shot at the vacant IBF belt and marked him down as one of the rising stars of the 175lb division. With recent victories of that calibre it was no surprise the Detroit puncher had no qualms about travelling to face Woods in front of what promises to be a vociferous crowd at Rotherham’s sold out Magna Centre.
Buoyed by his trainer’s assertion that all the pressure is on Woods in his fourth world title challenge, a relaxed Hoye said: “I’m definitely looking forward to my first world title fight. I’ve seen a couple of tapes (of Woods in action) and he’s been in with (Glen) Johnson and (Roy) Jones, so it’ll be good to measure my performance against those fighters. Training and sparring have gone well, so I’m just looking forward to Friday.”
The American also rubbished suggestions inexperience could be an issue against 40-fight veteran Woods. “Of course (I’ll cope), this is what I’ve been fighting for, this is what I live for,” he added. “I want to show the world I am the next champion. First, Friday and then it’s on to beat the rest.”
Hoye’s seemingly fearless nature is no real shock, not because of his boxing career but because he has a ten-year prison term on his CV. Running with the wrong crowd as a teenager proved costly for Hoye as he finished up shooting dead an assailant during a street fight. The shots were fired in self-defence but that did not prevent him spending most of his youth behind bars.
Bernard Hopkins used much of the build up to his recent victory against Howard Eastman explaining at length how the combination of prison and boxing had shaped his adult life. Comparisons with Hopkins are inevitable, but Hoye is much less effusive on the subject than the undisputed middleweight champion. “It taught me a lot. I’m a stronger person for it,” he said of his incarceration, seemingly neither proud nor ashamed of his past. “But boxing has enabled me to stay off the streets.”
So it appears Woods faces another giant hurdle if he is to claim a respectable version of the world title at the fourth attempt. The Sheffield man is used to mixing it with top-class fighters after facing Roy Jones Jr and taking on Glen Johnson twice within the last three years, and that experience will stand him in good stead against Hoye. However, if you were choosing an opponent for a fourth, and almost certainly final, shot at a world crown then a renowned big-hitter with a lightening quick jab might not be top of the list.
Woods’ fans should not despair though, because although Hoye comes with a fearsome reputation, there are chinks in his armour. The American has struggled to keep up when opponents have set a high tempo and there are also question marks about his stamina if the fight goes to the latter stages. Most worrying for the Hoye camp was his display against Prince Badi Ajamu in June 2003 when he was put down heavily in the second round - he can be hurt.
For Woods to take advantage of Hoye’s flaws he needs to make sure he survives the likely early barrage. The Yorkshireman is blessed with a great chin but has taken no chances and has been sparring with some good cruiserweights, including WBO champion Johnny Nelson and British & Commonwealth champion Mark Hobson, in preparation. And by all accounts Woods is in fine form and has been getting the better of his bigger sparring partners.
Trainer Richard Poxon explained: “Clinton’s had excellent preparation. He’s been sparring some big cruiserweights. The other guys have been leaving the ring with bloodied noses, but Clinton never had a mark on him.”
Woods was in complete agreement with Poxon’s positive assessment of his training camp and his comments echoed the buoyant mood among his team.
“I’ve come up short a couple of times,” Woods said of his three previous world title shots. “They were bad performances and I made mistakes in both fights (against Johnson), especially the second.
“But now I feel like I did four or five years ago when I was winning the European title belt. I’ve been sparring with some good cruiserweights and feel strong. I feel good. I’m ready to make everyone in Sheffield proud.
“Everything feels different this time, my nutrition is right, my preparation’s gone well and even the way I’m relaxing at home feels good. I’ve got to grasp this chance, there’s no way I’m going to let it go.”
Poxon backed his man, adding: “As long as Clinton believes in himself I can’t see anyone beating him on Friday.”
The stakes will be high in Rotherham, not least because fights against the likes of Glen Johnson, Antonio Tarver, Joe Calzaghe and even Bernard Hopkins could await the winner. But looking too far into the future could detract from the importance of what promises to be an intriguing contest between two evenly matched boxers. Fight Academy has named the show ‘Destiny’ but it would take a brave man to predict whether it will be the day Clinton Woods finally fulfils his or the day when Rico Hoye announces his arrival on the world scene.
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