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BOXING: HOPKINS v EASTMAN: Eastman: This underdog will spring a big surprise.

Byline: Oliver Holt IN LOS ANGELES

A DVD of On The Waterfront, the film about a boxer who could have been a contender, lies in Howard Eastman's room at the Wilshire Grand Hotel here.

Tonight, a few blocks away at the Staples Centre, the contender whose own life was once a hard-luck story too will get a shot at being a champion.

It's a long shot because Bernard Hopkins, the fighter many experts consider to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, stands in Eastman's way.

Hopkins is an impressive man and the odds-makers here have installed him as a heavy favourite to make a remarkable 20th defence of his middleweight title. But even admirers of Hopkins concede that Eastman, the European champion, is likely to provide the American with his toughest fight since he beat Felix Trinidad three and a half years ago.

And Eastman, unheralded and coming into the fight with an extraordinarily low profile for such a successful fighter, is adamant his opponent is vulnerable and beatable.

The Battersea Bomber, often described as enigmatic, has been in ebullient form this week, eager for his chance to achieve his lifelong dream. He angered Hopkins by claiming he would knock him out in the fifth round. He feels the champion has become boastful and complacent.

"Americans like him have a habit of being loud and braggadocious," Eastman said. "They think they are unstoppable but Hopkins is not unstoppable.

"I just don't share the views of many people where Hopkins is concerned. I don't think he is the best fighter in his division because I know I am. I have lived my entire life as an underdog and I like it that way. I like the idea that I am going to surprise a few people here."

If Eastman wins, it will be one of the biggest shocks in recent boxing history, not least for the American television networks and newspapers who have based all their coverage of the fight on the idea it will be Hopkins' 20th successful defence.

They have anointed him a history-maker before the particular piece of history has happened. Hopkins, too, is talking about his plans to fight for the light-heavyweight title later this year as if Eastman, 34, is merely a temporary irritation.

"It is crazy that Eastman has predicted the knock-out," Hopkins said. "Don't forget there are rounds beyond round five. Now that he has predicted round five, he has pressure to fulfil his promise to you.

"I understand what confidence means but my prediction is that Eastman will have two ice packs pressed to his face on the way home to England on the plane.

"I believe Eastman will respect that Bernard Hopkins is the world's best pound-for-pound fighter in his era.

"History shows that in life or war, when you underestimate your rivals you pay a big price. Hannibal defeated Italy because they underestimated that he could come down from the mountains with elephants.

"I underestimate no man and I hope no man underestimates me. But Howard Eastman has underestimated me by saying he will knock me out in five rounds.

"There's a time to be humble and a time for war. Boxing is war. Boxing is serious. It ain't no joke; it ain't no show. You have to think violent.

"Don't cry and complain to the referee, 'Bernard is hurting me'. We're not in church. We're fighting. If you want to not get a bruise, then go play golf."

Eastman, who is being paid close to pounds 600,000 for the privilege of taking on the man who styles himself "The Executioner," knows that his life will change dramatically if he takes Hopkins' titles away.

This is already by far his biggest pay-day but bigger ones will follow if he wins. More importantly, he will earn the widespread respect that was denied Hopkins for so long, too.

He believes Hopkins has had his time, he has had his glory nights against Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya, and now it is Eastman's turn. Hopkins, of course, believes he is about to make history.

"Howard Eastman believes I am not the best," Hopkins said. "But I have trained the same way that I trained for De La Hoya and Trinidad and he will find that out in the ring.

"To the promoter, history does not really mean anything. Money means more than anything to the promoter. But history means a lot to athletes.

"It is very important. We can make bad money decisions or bad business decisions and we can get cheated or conned but nobody can alter history.

"Nobody can quibble with what I am going to achieve when I beat Eastman."

CAPTION(S):

CONTENDER: Britain's Howard Eastman; BRINK OF HISTORY: Eastman (left) is sure he can pull off a huge upset
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 19, 2005
Words:803
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