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Boxing: Eccentric Eastman will stretch Duddy

By Jack Magowan

The `Birdman of Battersea' we used to call him. For years, he bred parrots as a hobby and walked the streets of South London with one perched on his shoulder.

Moody, eccentric and from the same fruitcake mould as famed poseur Eubank, Howard Eastman can be chatty and friendly one day, and monosyllabic the next. We saw an example of this on the day his King's Hall fight with John Duddy was announced.

That dyed goatee almost bristled with boredom. Ask the wrong question and he would freeze like an ice statue. He had no time for interviews, and made one unsuspecting TV pundit clearly aware of it.

It's two Saturdays from now that Duddy risks an unbeaten record against the ageing West Indian officially ranked No.2 in the world before he tangled with the great Bernard Hopkins.

That was nearly three years ago in Los Angeles, and Eastman gracefully bowed to superior odds (pts 12) for only the second time in a span of ten years and over 40 professional fights.

Since then, he has lost three times, but in good company, twice in world title eliminators.

This, then, is the strength of Duddy's opposition in a King's Hall baptism loaded with risk and uncertainty.

All year fans have been asking "how good is New York's most charismatic Irishman? " Now they are about to find out.

Eastman, 37 on the day of this Brian Peters' extravaganza, has boxed in a bigger league than Duddy.

Once a triple European, British and Commonwealth champion, his deep-thinking aloofness sometimes hinted of arrogance, and cost him dearly. Promoters gave him the cold shoulder as being hard to do business with, and, self-managed, he had a reputation for stepping on sensitive toes.

Like when he split with longtime friend and trainer, John Rooney, only weeks before challenging the American William Joppy for the vacant WBA crown.

" You never know what Howard will do next," said Rooney.

" One day he'll come to the gym all smiles and full of fun; then 24 hours later, he'll be like a monster. He is boxing's great enigma!"

Eastman still has nightmares about the Joppy fight.

"It was my first career defeat, and a cruel miscarriage of justice," frowns the Battersea bomber.

"I was robbed. The decision was a downright insult. I bossed the fight, and floored the guy late on."

It was as a rebellious 15-year-old that Howard came to Britain from Guyana on a single-parent passport, and soon ran into trouble. His dad and he didn't see eye-to-eye, so he left home to live rough, alone and often hungry, sleeping in bin-liners and on park benches before a near-fatal motor-cycle accident made him conform.

Eastman and his father have long been reconciled, yet self-reliance born in those lost teenage years still remains. He had planned to quit boxing, he says, at 26, but ten years on and he's still throwing mean punches, fuelled, it seems, by that long and frustrating wait for international recognition.

Howard relinquished his British title in 2003 to chase bigger things, but won it back a year ago by knocking out Richard Williams in the 12th and final round with a vicious right hook, the punch from which pin-up boy Duddy may have most to fear on December 8.

The formidable looking West Indian may not be a heavy puncher, but, like Duddy, his work-rate is high and he uses the ring smartly. His jab and physical strength look formidable.

Beaten five times in 47 fights, Eastman's shock defeat by Wayne Elcock two months ago in defence of the British crown was surely not in the script, yet he still covets a top-10 ranking among the world's best middleweights. His latest British rating is No.3, with Jim Rock and Banbridge lad, Jason McKay, listed at ten and eleven respectively.

Clearly, Duddy faces his toughest hurdle by far.

Eastman's big weakness, says ex-trainer Rooney, is a low-boredom threshold, but the pride of Derry will need every trick in the book to beat him.

It could be the fight of the year!

Belfast Telegraph

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