22.12.04 – By Steve Mckenna : AS Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe and even the retired Lennox Lewis hog the headlines, one British boxer has largely been ignored – even though he’s poised to take on a pound-for-pound great early next year.
But Howard Eastman won’t be surprised. The ‘Battersea Bomber’ has endured this for most of his career. While 15,000 fans cram into the MEN Arena to cheer on Hatton’s WBU defences, Eastman’s lucky if a fraction of those turn up for his fights. It’s unfortunate because, while he’s not always been the most exciting of boxers, the middleweight is unquestionably one of Britain’s leading talents. And instead of focusing on spurious belts, Eastman has done it the traditional way, winning British, Commonwealth and European crowns.. He blew his first world title attempt, lazily losing on points to William Joppy in a WBA tilt in 2001 – the only blemish on his 41-fight record. But, now, he’s poised to get a second chance against the legendary Bernard Hopkins, holder of the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO middleweight belts. Purses bids for the mandatory WBC clash have been won by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and the fight is likely to take place in America in February 2005. And, while all the focus will be on Hopkins making what will be the 20th defence of his IBF title, Eastman has a big opportunity to spoil the party.
Hopkins will enter the fight as a heavy favourite. He hasn’t lost since Roy Jones beat him in 1993 and has reigned supreme at 160 pounds, overcoming challenger after challenger. Quality operators like Glen Johnson, Keith Holmes, Antwun Echols and Syd Vanderpool have all fallen by the wayside. In recent years, though, Hopkins has entered every fight with a big advantage. He was far superior talent-wise to Robert Allen, Morrade Hakkar and Carl Daniels, Felix Trinidad and De La Hoya were coming up in weight, while Joppy was well past his best. That’s not to decry Hopkins’ displays. Against Trinidad, for instance, many favoured the Puerto Rican to knock-out the long-standing middleweight king, but Bernard gave a boxing masterclass to stop ‘Tito’ in the 12th round. However, the reality is that Trinidad had boxed at welterweight for most of his career, while Hopkins began his as a light-heavyweight. The ‘Executioner’ was always the man. In Eastman, though, Hopkins will be coming up against someone as strong, possibly even stronger, than him. At close to 6ft, the wiry Eastman could probably operate at lightheavyweight, such is his frame. He has good power and certainly won’t be lacking in the strength department. He won’t be pushed around by Bernard. The Londoner’s chin is also rock-solid and, with Hopkins hardly being a devastating puncher, a knockout defeat seems unlikely.
Howard’s big problem, though, is often his work-rate, particularly early on in fights. Against Joppy, he was lacklustre for the first six rounds. He came on strong as the fight progressed and even floored Joppy with a chopping right hand near the final bell. But he left it too late, and didn’t do enough to win, despite his protestations that he was robbed by the judges. Now 34, is Eastman really able to go through the gears any quicker than he did then? And is he really good enough to outwit someone as skilled as the Philadelphia veteran?
Although one can criticise Hopkins’ opponents, Eastman’s haven’t exactly been of the highest standard in recent years. Since losing to Joppy, Eastman has eased past Charden-Juvet Ansoula Mayola, Hussain Osman, Christophe Tendil, Gary Beardsley, Scott Dann, Hassine Cherifi, Sergey Tatevosyan and Jerry Elliott – hardly ideal preparation for taking on someone as good as Hopkins. But Bernard will be 40 by the time the fight takes place. And even though he’s showed no signs of slowing down up to now, the night will come when he can’t do it any longer. That night could be when he faces Eastman. The smart money is that Hopkins will know too much and will boxhis way to an unanimous decision. But you just never know in this sport…