- Brian Doogan
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Matt Skelton used to grapple and go to ground, try to break leg locks and lock on choke holds.
As a leading participant in the Japanese combat sport, K-1, which combines technique from boxing, Muay Thai, karate, Taekwondo, Savate, San shou, and kickboxing, he reached the final of the K-1 World Grand Prix and performed in front of 66,000 people at the Tokyo Dome -- the arena in which Mike Tyson fell to Buster Douglas.
He has even stepped into the arena of mixed martial arts.
When he steps into the ring next Saturday at the Burg-Waechter Castello in Dusseldorf, Germany, Skelton will challenge Ruslan Chagaev for the WBA heavyweight title, a remarkable transformation for the 40-something-year-old from Bedford, England.
"It's hard to believe that I'm getting this chance but this is the reality and I'm going for it," the Commonwealth heavyweight champion declared ahead of his departure for Dusseldorf. "Somebody mentioned to me about how George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer when he was 45 [to win the world title] and, although that's never really crossed my mind, it does reinforce the fact that age is just a number."
While there is some confusion about how old he really is -- he insists that he will only turn 40 four days after the fight but most records suggest that he will be 41 and some observers have him older than that -- it is his background in kickboxing which makes him an unusual suspect to be challenging for an alphabet heavyweight title.
The two disciplines just do not mix.
When Muhammad Ali "fought" Antonio Inoki, a professional wrestler, in 1976 in Tokyo, the 15-round charade was degrading and horribly boring. Skelton has suffered unflattering comparisons.
But the heavyweight championship has become a cheapened, much-maligned prize since the days when Ali reigned supreme and even since the destructive reign of Mike Tyson. Skelton is no Lennox Lewis, Britain's world heavyweight champion at the beginning of the new millennium, nor does he need to be in order to be a player in the current, desolate scene.
When he embarked on his professional career in 2002, Audley Harrison, the Olympic Games super heavyweight gold medallist in Sydney, was still unbeaten, as he waxed lyrical about how his destiny was to succeed Lewis.
Publicly, Skelton never expressed his scepticism because this has never been his way.
Instead he worked quietly under the careful eye of Kevin Saunders, who trained Nigel Benn for his fateful fight with Gerald McClellan and saw potential in the 6-foot-3 kickboxer and part-time barman and bouncer who had knocked on his door to work on his hand speed.
"Kevin put me in sparring with Derek McCafferty [who went the distance over six rounds with Harrison in 2001] and he was catching me with punches on the inside, but I was fascinated by the science," Skelton recollected. "I started to analyze the foot placement and the movement, and I improved. Soon I was getting the better of Derek in sparring. Then Kevin sent me up to Blackpool [a town in England] to spar with Mathew Ellis [who was stopped in two rounds by Harrison in 2003] and by the second week I was dominating him, so I decided to give boxing a go."
Skelton stopped each of his first 11 opponents before Julius Francis, a quick victim of Tyson's rage, took him the 10-round distance for the first time in 2004 in a fight which secured for Skelton the English heavyweight title.
Then he knocked out Michael Sprott in his next fight to become British and Commonwealth champion and soon he was making real inroads. His mauling style has never been pretty but his reputation as a heavyweight with real heart, authentic power and a stout chin was forged in a tough 12-round battle against Danny Williams in 2006 at London's ExCel Arena, a bout which Williams won on points -- but only by split decision.
Skelton prevailed on points in the rematch five months later and won a majority decision over Sprott in another rematch in July 2007, his only appearance -- a disappointing one, too -- in the past 18 months.
"That fight was supposed to be an eliminator for a world title shot but, because it was so poor, the title fight was forgotten about. So I'd been hanging around since July last year," Skelton explained. "Then we got the call from Frank Warren [his promoter] saying that Chagaev was available and I took it without a moment's hesitation. This is a big chance for me."
Through his work as a doorman and barman in Bedford, he had been able to supplement his income for many years on the kickboxing circuit. In Japan he was treated almost like royalty whenever he would enter a club or restaurant but his trips were usually only for six weeks at a time. The biggest purse he ever earned was $120,000 for reaching the final of the K-1 World Grand Prix. But boxing offered him the chance of recognition and something more: Validation of his worth as a fighter.
But Chagaev, from Uzkebistan, will be a formidable opponent. In 1997, he beat legendary Cuban heavyweight Felix Savon to win the gold medal at the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, and his amateur pedigree was outstanding.
Early in his pro career, he based himself in Las Vegas and got his first real exposure in America when he outpointed Christopher Isaac over eight rounds on Showtime TV's ShoBox series and, by the end of 2003, he was being groomed to take over from Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, who were then the stars of the Universum Boxing Gym in Hamburg, Germany.
His big moment came in April last year when he gave away 11 inches in height and over 100 pounds to successfully challenge Nicolay Valuev for the title.
For his part, Chagaev isn't looking past Skelton and has already lined up a plan of attack.
"Matt Skelton should not be underestimated; he's a tough fighter," Chagaev said. "In comparison to my victory against Vauluev, my tactics will be very different against him."
Skelton won't be looking past Chagaev either.
"He's [Chagaev] a good boxer and I don't underestimate him but I will outwork him, take him into the late rounds and stay on top of him," Skelton vowed. "I'm the underdog but I won't be paying any heed to that."
When you have been in a leg lock and a choke hold, sometimes boxing must seem like child's play -- even for a 40-something-year-old.
Brian Doogan covers boxing for The Sunday Times and Ring magazine.
15hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler