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Thu 7 Feb 2008 05:30 PM

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The ringmaster

Former World Heavyweight Champion Michael Moorer has some unfinished business to attend to.

‘Go up to that guy in the white T-shirt, call him fat and tell him he can't box.' Despite the unassuming facial expression, Time Out suspects someone is saying this to us for personal amusement, considering the guy in question looks like an ox in shorts, is standing in the middle of a boxing ring and has won 50 out of 55 fights, 39 of them by knockout. Oh, and he's a former World Champion in two weight divisions. Reason enough not to be in the mood for humouring anybody's childish dares.

Despite the achievements, 41-year-old Michael Moorer is almost a forgotten legend. Say his name and most will think he's the hirsute documentary filmmaker responsible for Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko; look at him and it's unlikely that memories will be jogged as they would be if Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson had been in the same room. But his latest comeback is being billed as groundwork for Dubai to announce itself as a boxing stage fit to rival Las Vegas, and for Moorer himself to shake up a sport that has lost mainstream appeal.

I’m a fighter, I’m a boxer, and whoever’s put in front of me, I can adjust to. That’s what comes with experience.

We meet at Top Sports Gym in Al Quoz amid punch bags and sweaty towels, following Moorer's latest training session. He looks resolute, pacing around the ring, sparring with his trainer Isaiah Clark, all eyes fixed on him. This is definitely a man still seeking fights with any of the current heavyweight champions.

‘It's part of the game, it's in your blood,' he tells Time Out, explaining why he is making his second career comeback. ‘I see the heavyweight division as wide open and there's a lot of opportunity for me. Me, three-time champ of this division; I feel I have the skills to go out there and be champion again.'

Last time around, in December 2004, Moorer retired after handing Vassily Jirov his first knockout. He recovered from a poor start, which saw the scorecards firmly stacked against him. The two years preceding that fight were full of mixed fortune. Moorer knocked out Brazil's Rodolfo Lobo in just over a minute, but was knocked out before that by David Tua after only 30 seconds. Moorer lost a 10-round unanimous decision to Eliseo Castillo in July 2004. Then he decided to go out on a high after the dramatic knockout of Jirov.

But as Dubai saw last year, when UAE boxer Eisa Al Dah easily defeated the unheard of Larry Foster, the journeyman opponent is a favourite for home-grown talent and big names looking to make a successful return, even if it means a farcical match-up. ‘There are a lot of things going on in the heavyweight division,' Moorer says. ‘You have a big fight coming up on February 23 with Ibragimov against Klitschko, and all these guys are out there doing things, fighting for titles, so it varies and it doesn't bother me, doesn't bother me at all.'

Moorer returns against heavyweight debutant and fellow American Shelby Gross. Delve deep enough and you can find some information about him online, but even Moorer admits he doesn't know a great deal about him: ‘I think I saw him fight one time in Florida and he just got picked apart. I don't really look at tapes, I leave that up to my trainer. I'm a fighter, I'm a boxer, and whoever's put in front of me, I can adjust to. That's what comes with experience.'

Despite the prospect of a tough fight, experience is something Moorer isn't lacking. He's been boxing since he was 10, his grandfather was his first trainer, and by the time he was 19, he was national champion.

Now, at 40, his comeback bout against Gross looks set to serve as a warm-up to regular big-name boxing in the city and as persuasion for long-term rival Evander Holyfield to step back in the ring with Moorer one last time. Moorer overcame a second-round knockdown 14 years ago to beat Holyfield and claim the IBF and WBA titles, only for Holyfield to claim the titles back in 1997 after knocking Moorer down five times before the referee stopped the fight.

But with boxing, especially heavyweight boxing, receiving a bloody nose from the Ultimate Fighting Championships - the almost-anything-goes cage fighting, which Moorer is a big fan of - its mainstream popularity surely can't be salvaged by bouts where the Goliaths always run out victors over the Davids.

And Moorer can't expect to shake the sport up and prove his own worth by fighting relative unknowns. So why isn't he marking his comeback with a fight against Holyfield or George Foreman, the man he lost his undefeated record to in November 1994? ‘These guys don't want to fight,' he says. ‘But I'm sure they'll do it for the right price.'

According to Time Out sources, Holyfield's price is US$1million, a relatively cheap appearance fee that could mean Moorer-Holyfield No.3 will be billed as a ‘loser retires' bout and staged in Dubai. ‘Anything's possible in boxing,' admits Moorer. ‘But you have to realise that Evander looked bad in his last performances, and I don't think the public wants to see him fight. ‘There are a lot of European guys out there who are champions. But there's a possibility,' he finishes optimistically.

It's a fight that would instil excitement back into the heavyweight division between two genuine champions, a label that has been lost in the chaos of the many titles up for grabs.

For Moorer, fighting for one or two of the WBA, WBO, IBF and WBC belts, four of the main titles up for grabs, is confusing for spectators and is merely a way to get recognised:

‘It's people trying to make a name for themselves, just trying to get these titles out there, but we know who the real champions are and the belts that they fight for.'

And it's the genuine bouts the fans want. Boxing is new to Dubai, and these early bouts will establish the city and become, according to Moorer, ‘the heart of boxing in the next six or seven years.' But if things don't go as expected against Gross, it would almost certainly spell the end for Moorer's search for a fight against the big guns, the guys he considers ‘real champions'. ‘It doesn't really matter who I fight, you have to be a very strong person,' Moorer says defiantly. ‘You have to understand this is a winner-loser sport, and if I lose, I lose - it's part of the game. When I lost to Foreman I lost the heavyweight championship, but then I took three or four months off and I won the heavy-weight championship again. I'm too strong to let anything get to me. I'm a wise guy, a big-a** wise guy, but I have fun.'

It might take a few months of patient waiting, but Moorer, Dubai, and the entire boxing world, will hopefully be granted that Holyfield decider. Heavyweight boxing needs it, and with a former champion leading the charge, it'd be hard not to take note. ‘All fights are important,' Moorer says. ‘You will never have to question my mental ability. I'm a very mental guy. I know how to do it and whoever's put in front of me will be in for a fight.'

Moorer's bout with Shelby Gross headlines a five-match schedule, taking place at Sheikh Rashid Hall, Dubai International Convention Centre on Friday 8. Doors open at 6.30pm and tickets are priced Dhs150-950. For more information, log on to www.h2q-events.com or www.timeouttickets.com.

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