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Boxing: NEARY BACKS CHAMP RYDER; EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW.

Byline: NICK PEET

SHEA NEARY is backing new Liverpool light-welterweight star Gary Ryder to step up in class and capture the IBO world title this weekend.

The Shamrock Express is confident that his former sparring partner can make the grade when he meets Argentinian world champion Pablo Sarmiento at York Hall on Saturday night.

Neary said: ``Gary is an aggressive all-action fighter and this is his big chance - a good step up for him.

``Gary is big and strong and although,in all honesty,I have never seen Sarmiento in action, I know Gary has the ability to make the grade.''

Neary is recognised as Liverpool's most popular modern day fighter, having held the WBU version of the 10-stonecrown through four glorious years from 1996 to 2000.

During that time he made six defences of his world belt - eventually losing the title to top draw American Mickey Ward - and was the prize fighter during ITV's glory days at the forefront of British boxing.

Now 35 however, Neary, who was linked with a possible clash with new WBU champ Ricky Hatton late last year,insists that his fighting days are now behind him.

But British number one Hatton however, is a realistic target for 10-0 (5 KOs) Ryder.

Neary said: ``There was talk of me and Hatton getting it on last year,but I don't think he was too keen.

``But he is the best domestically right now and therefore has to be a realistic target for Gary.

``I do rate Hatton highly, a lot higher than British champion Junior Witter.He's a great body puncher and is very tough,but I believe that Gary would have a good chance withhim.

``Gary has only had 10 pro fights,but he had a lot of amateur fights and I honestly believe that on his day he could take either of them.''

First up however, is gritty South American Sarmiento and top billing live on Sky Sports in the capital's home of boxing, York Hall in Bethnal Green.

And Neary assured Ryder that the key to success in the spotlight is staying relaxed and listening to those around you.

Neary added: ``Gary just has to do what he does best and he'llbe fine.All of the hard work should be in the bag by now and it's just about doing the job on the night.

``He has to listen to the advice from his corner and not let any prefight nerves get a grip of him,but it really is down to Gary on the night.

``Too many fighters these days waste energy by jumping around on their way to the ring,but Gary is a relaxed man anyway so I am sure he'll be fine.

``Unfortuately I can't make it down for the fight but I'llbe supporting him from Liverpool and I am sure he'll return with the title.''

Both Ryder and Sarmiento, who was due to fly into London from Spain today,breezed through their medicals and check weigh-ins without any problems.

The pair will come head-to-headfor the first time at the official weigh-in in London on Friday.

Merseyside fight fans interested in travelling to London can get tickets, priced between pounds 20 and pounds 30,from the box office on 01708 782200.

The bill also features stylish London light-middleweight Richard Williams in IBO world title action against game Russian Andrei Pestraiev.

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STAR QUALITY: Gary Ryder (left)has a similar style to the one which made Shea Neary the most exciting fighter in Britain during his reign as world champion
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 5, 2003
Words:591
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