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Boxing: Punching tiger, hidden dragon

THE room doesn't notice Ricky Burns slipping in through the door.

Ricky Burns is not looking further than Saturday's fight   Photograph: SNS
Ricky Burns is not looking further than Saturday's fight Photograph: SNS

Most people milling around the Fighting Scots Gym in Lanarkshire are waiting for him to arrive, but Burns is an unobtrusive presence, with a heavy bag slung over one shoulder and wearing thick layers of clothes to protect him from the sharp winter chill outside. The WBO lightweight champion makes a virtue of his modesty and low profile, and this lack of vanity remains one of his vital qualities.

The pragmatism comes naturally, but its value is pronounced. Burns spent almost two months preparing to defend his world title against Liam Walsh, the Commonwealth lightweight champion, only for the Englishman to have to pull out at short notice after being injured in a car crash. Boxers become conditioned to the upheaval of changes in opponents, since the nature of the sport is traumatic and training alone can be perilous, but Burns' preparations have been significantly disrupted.

He instead faces Filipino Jose Ocampo at London's ExCel Arena on Saturday. The 23-year-old southpaw's career has been so unremarkable that Billy Nelson, Burns' trainer, has only been able to track down video footage from a six-round victory over Thai Tor Silachai in April last year. Burns prefers not to watch his opponents beforehand but Nelson studies them intently and draws up tactical strategies he and Burns work on closely during their training camp.

"I'll just go into the first couple of rounds and suss him out," Burns said. "I'll be going out to set a fast pace. I've been in with big punchers before and I've proved that I can take a good shot. Whatever happens on the night, I'll just get on with it. I don't go out looking for knockouts, but if I'm hurting him then I'll get the job finished. Once you're in that ring, anything goes."

From the short footage, Nelson expects Ocampo to be a fierce opponent, eager to drag the fight into a slugging match. That might be expected from a boxer whose nickname is The Bomber and who has 12 stoppages from 17 victories. There is one draw and five defeats on his record, with the most recent being four fights ago when he lost to Rey Lebao after suffering a cut eyebrow, so he can be considered a commonplace prospect.

The danger for Burns is succumbing to a sense of anti-climax. His last outing against Kevin Mitchell was a devastating display, the most aggressive and overwhelming of the Scot's career. Ocampo is a low-key replacement and the general assumption is that Burns will be comfortable in taking care of him. He is not inclined to become complacent, but his promoter, Frank Warren, has raised the prospect of a bout with Adrien Broner, who has established himself as one of the brashest, and most excitingly accomplished, boxers in America.

Broner defeated Antonio DeMarco to retain his WBC lightweight title last month, a fight that Burns watched, and the American has acknowledged a unification contest could be possible. Burns is at a stage in his career when he wants a defining fight, but he is too self-aware to begin agitating for one. The step up to lightweight has made him stronger and more dangerous in the ring, where once he was technically adept, brave and tactically shrewd, but lacked a decisive blow.

"My attitude towards boxing, especially training and preparing for fights, is to give it everything every day in the gym," Burns said. "If I train hard, I know I'm ready for whatever's going to happen in there. DeMarco is one of the top fighters in the weight division and Adrien made it look easy. There's talk about the fight, but if I don't win this week then that big fight isn't going to happen. So I never look beyond any opponent."

Warren describes Burns as "the No 1 fighter in the country", and those within the sport now readily consider him one of the leading British boxers of his generation. That kind of recognition has not seeped into the wider public, but then boxing remains a minority sport and the lack of network television coverage has reduced boxers' profiles. Only a handful of fighters are well known, one being Amir Khan who is looking to rebuild his career on the same night as Burns' defence.

The two men are contrasts, since Khan was a prodigy who gained fame at the Olympics and has remained an exalted figure despite a series of set- backs, including losing his WBC light-welterweight title to Danny Garcia. Khan, now working with trainer Virgil Hunter after leaving Freddie Roach, faces Carlos Molina in Los Angeles looking, again, to re-establish himself.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking," Khan said. "A lot of talking about styles and what mistakes I make. Molina is going to come forward, [but] we're going to get through this fight and win it in good style. It's all about moving forward, knowing the mistakes you made and not making them again. It's a fresh start."

Burns and Khan are different fighters on different career paths, but it is the Scot who currently has more to celebrate, and to lose.

o Burns v Ocampo is on Saturday, December 15, and will be screened live on BoxNation (Sky Ch. 437/Virgin Ch. 546). Join at www.boxnation.com

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