Saturday, July 07, 2001

Donald's big chance also his last chance

        BROOKLYN, N.Y. — On the eve of the bout that will clarify his career, Larry Donald was fighting a losing battle with the yawns.

        The Cincinnati heavyweight sat slumped on a hotel couch, virtually motionless except for the involuntary opening of his mouth. He had slept too much to affect the brittle nerves boxers customarily convey before a big fight. He looked like a man in dire need of a nap.

        “When I'm out of the ring, I'm relaxed,” Donald explained. “When I'm in the ring, I can't even describe myself. I'm just like the Incredible Hulk.”

        Donald's body language defines languor, but he's never more than a phrase away from some high-octane hyperbo
le. Tonight's bout with Canadian Kirk Johnson will either establish Donald as a serious contender for the heavyweight title or deflate what a lot of boxing people believe is the division's ranking hot-air balloon.

        Tonight, at KeySpan Park in Coney Island, Donald will reveal whether he has as much muscle as he does mouth.

        The former Olympian is 34 years old and yet to achieve a consensus about his ability. He has won 38 fights against one defeat and two draws, knocking out 23 opponents, yet he has persistently been painted as a pretender buoyed by bad competition. Donald faces the undefeated Johnson for the right to be designated the World Boxing Association's mandatory challenger for the heavyweight crown, for a shot at the title no later than next March, and for the validation he has been unable to earn in nine years as a professional.

        The winner moves to the front of the line for a big payday against the winner of John Ruiz' Aug.4 title defense with Evander Holyfield. The loser, wrote New York Post columnist Wallace Matthews, “should begin looking for work as a bouncer.”

        “Larry understands the big picture,” trainer Aaron Snowell said. “It's why he wanted to fight this fight. You get tired of people saying he hasn't fought anybody. He said, "Get me one of those guys who they say can fight.' ”

        Like Donald, Johnson's record exceeds his reputation. He is 31-0-1, but Snowell says he's not ready for a fight “at this level.” Johnson's promoter, Cedric Kushner, says Johnson passed up a chance to fight for a title against former champion Lennox Lewis because his share of the purse (purportedly $1 million) was too paltry. This led to the less lucrative elimination bout with Donald, in which the fighters will split $679,000.

        “It's a shame that we're fighting for the No.1 (contender) spot,” Johnson said earlier this week. “We should be defending our titles by now. We should be fighting to unify the titles. We should be fighting for $10 million each.”

        That they have not already fought reflects the circuitous path favored by boxing contenders. Instead of risking defeat against other ranked fighters, promising boxers tend to pile up easier victories until they can command big purses. This makes for long apprenticeships and dubious rankings and underscores the need for more rigorous regulation.

        It makes fight fans yawn when they might be yelling. Fighters, too.

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