STUART HALL is determined to hold on to his IBF World Bantamweight title when he makes North-East sporting history against Martin Ward at the end of next month.

Having claimed the world title when he beat Vusi Malinga in Leeds in December, Darlington’s Hall will make the first defence of his crown at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle on Saturday, March 29.

The fight, which was formally confirmed yesterday, pits Hall against West Rainton-based Ward, and represents the first ever world title contest between two North-Easterners.

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It will be a historic evening whatever happens, but having battled so hard to see off Malinga, Hall is not about to cede his world title now.

“It was an unbelievable night winning the world title,” said Hall, who has successfully recovered from the eye injury he sustained in December’s bruising win. “But now the hard work starts. Everyone wants this belt, and I've got a lot of respect for Martin Ward. I'm good friends with Neil (Fannon), his trainer.

“I know they are coming to try to take this belt away from me, but I'm going to be ready to keep hold of it and make a successful defence. It’s taken all my career to get to the point where I’m a world champion, so I’m not going to throw it away.

“I’m keeping hold of this belt no matter what happens. He’s (Ward) a tricky fighter, but there’s no chance of him beating me. I’m keeping hold of my title, it’s as simple as that.”

December’s victory showcased all of Hall’s mental and physical toughness, with the 33-year-old dominating the first half of the contest before successfully resisting an attempted Malinga comeback despite being unable to see out of his left eye.

Prior to the fight, a number of boxing experts were decrying Hall’s right to a world-title shot. By the time he was holding the belt above his head, however, all questions had been answered.

“When I look back, I’m glad the fight panned out the way it did,” he said. “If he had stayed down when I knocked him down in the third round, it would have been a much easier night and I might have been able to honour the promises I made of meeting people for a pint after the fight.

“In the end, I wasn’t really in a state to do anything afterwards, but I’m glad that was the way things went. I’m glad he didn’t stay down and that the fight turned into the kind of epic contest it became.

“In a way, I’m even glad my eye was closing the way it did because it shut a lot of people up and proved what kind of a fighter I am. There were a lot of doubters out there, but I gained a load of respect from that win. I haven’t had any bad comebacks from that fight, and I think I got into a lot of people’s hearts by showing how tough I am.”

Ward claimed the Commonwealth crown by beating Ghanaian Gabriel Laryea at the start of December, but while he has recorded more professional victories than Hall – 18 to the champion’s 16 – next month’s fight represents by far the biggest challenge of his career.

The former Birtley ABC 25-year-old has only fought over 12 rounds once in his career, but is nevertheless confident of springing a surprise in front of what is expected to be a crowd of more than 5,000 spectators.

“The pressure’s on him,” said Ward. “He’s got to defend his belt, and he knows I’m a tricky opponent. He believes he can win – obviously, he’s a world champion – but I believe I can win too, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking today, I’d be at home with my feet up.

“I don’t think Stuey Hall’s out of my league. Some people will say, ‘Martin Ward doesn’t deserve it, he’s not good enough’, but ask people who know about boxing, ‘Am I really the underdog in this fight?’ They’ll say, ‘Not really’.”

The chief support fight on next month’s bill will see Birtley’s Jon-Lewis Dickinson attempt to win the Lonsdale Belt outright as he defends his British title against Rotherham’s Neil Dawson.

“I always said I would love to win the Lonsdale belt outright, that was my biggest dream, and then the next one was to fight at Newcastle Arena,” said Dickinson. “It’s all come together and I’m fighting for the belt outright at Newcastle Arena so it couldn’t really be any better.

“I’ve been waiting for this fight to come off. The first date was October, but for whatever reason it’s kept being put back. I’m relieved it’s finally been announced.”

Sedgefield’s Bradley Saunders will also be fighting on the undercard, along with Hartlepool’s Michael Hadfield, Guisborough’s Josh Leather, Middlesbrough’s Simon Vallily and Wearsider Jonson McClumpha.

* Tickets are priced at £35, £55, £75 and £150 and are available from the Metro Radio Arena box office.