Six weeks after claiming the IBF World Bantamweight title, Stuart Hall is preparing to return to the ring to defend his crown at the end of next month. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson caught up with Darlington’s first world champion to discuss life in the limelight

The Northern Echo:

BIG TIME BOXING: IBF World Bantamweight title holder Stuart Hall, left, and challenger Martin Ward when they formally announced their fight

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REALITY can hit at the strangest of moments. It is more than a month since Stuart Hall became only the second North-Easterner ever to win a world boxing title, but it was only while he was pounding the streets of his native Darlington yesterday morning, that the effect of his new-found status kicked in.

“There are days when you don’t think about it all, but then every now and then there are moments when you remind yourself that you’re a world champion,” said Hall, who will make the first defence of his IBF World Bantamweight title against fellow North-Easterner Martin Ward in Newcastle on March 29. “I’ve only been training four days, but I was out running and could feel myself blowing as I started to go up a hill.

“It was hurting a bit, but from nowhere, something in my head seemed to say, ‘Listen, you’re an elite world champion now. Get on with it’. And I went to another level. I could push myself even more.

“If I was a horse, then I’d be a thoroughbred now, and I have to remember that. I’m the champion of the world, and I know I have to live up to that billing.”

In the ring, that means brushing aside Ward, a worthy opponent undoubtedly given that he is the reigning Commonwealth champion, but hardly a fighter with a comparable pedigree to Vusi Malinga, who Hall so memorably outpointed to win the world title in Leeds in December.

In many ways, however, returning to the ring is the easy part of Hall’s existence; it is the external pressures and responsibilities of being a world champion that often present the greatest challenge.

Raised in Darlington’s Skerne Park, and with a back story that features a five-year hiatus when, by his own admission, he went completely off the rails in Ibiza, Hall now finds himself inhabiting a completely different world to the one he experienced prior to his world title.

Last month, he was the guest of honour at a civic reception at Darlington Town Hall. He has hosted talk-in events with star-struck supporters hanging on his every word and appeared on a number of boxing television shows. Last night, he was one of the main attractions at the BBC North East Sports Awards.

Fame can do strange and unexpected things, but Hall remains as grounded, level-headed and thoroughly decent as ever. Prior to discussing his world-title defence yesterday, he was complaining about the price he had been quoted for a new set of living-room curtains.

“I know how big a deal all of this is, but it hasn’t changed me,” he said. “I’m still just me, Stuey Hall from Darlo. There are some people who win a world title and then lose the plot and really think they’re it, but that was never going to happen with me.

“I don’t think I’m bigger than anyone else, although I’m enjoying being in the limelight for all the right reasons. I’m enjoying being able to go into schools and help out with the kids. I want to keep winning because that then enables me to keep giving something back to the people who have helped me along the way.”

Next month’s voluntary defence marks another major staging post in Hall’s career, with the prospect of fighting in front of a capacity Metro Radio Arena crowd leaving him understandably excited.

Glenn McCrory, the North-East’s only other world champion, made one successful defence of his title, and Hall will start as favourite to repeat the feat when he takes on Ward in seven weeks time.

Beyond that, the world is potentially his oyster, although he has already begun to map out a career path that would see him hang up his gloves before time and ailing health got the better of him.

If all goes to plan, that path will lead him to Jamie McDonnell, a former adversary whose career is intrinsically linked to Hall’s.

The pair were due to fight in December, only for McDonnell to sever his ties with promoter Dennis Hobson as he was stripped of the IBF title for refusing to make a mandatory defence.

In McDonnell’s eyes, he remains the rightful champion. Understandably, Hall disagrees. But with McDonnell due to face Randy Caballero in an IBF eliminator in April, the North-Easterner is hoping a win of his own against Ward will lead to a showdown that most boxing fans are clamouring for.

“I want bigger fights, and I still want a rematch with Jamie McDonnell,” said Hall. “I want Jamie to win his fight, and then I want to fight him. I’ve got to take care of business here, but if I can take care of him (Ward) and Jamie comes through, then I want that fight.

“Everyone wants it. He didn’t want it, but now he does because I’ve got his belt. Well, my belt, but he thinks it’s his. That’s the fight I want.

“I want to get this job done, and then I want to fight Jamie McDonnell. I really hope he wins against Caballero. Then we can get it on for a massive showdown.

The Northern Echo:

“I can see me beating him, and then retiring on an absolute high. You can’t box forever, and that’s my goal. People will say, ‘Well, why would you retire?’ But trust me, I could retire after beating him and then think, ‘Well, I’ve done what I wanted to do’.”

* Tomorrow – Why West Rainton’s Martin Ward is out to make boxing history of his own