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The Atomic Bull and his cast-iron chin

McCall, right, took Lewis' best punches -- then knocked him out -- in his title-winning effort in 1994. John Gichigi/Getty Images

The past has had its share of exceptionally durable fighters. Today, Oliver McCall, the former heavyweight champion, probably boasts the best chin in boxing.

McCall has shown astonishing ability to take big hits and keep coming. Even at age 42, he seems virtually blast-proof.

This is despite McCall having had his share of emotional andsubstance-abuse problems. When he walks toward the ring, he seems on the verge of breaking into tears if not actually weeping. His shaky psyche is in direct, starkcontrast to the reliability of his chin. It is one of the strangest anomalies in modern boxing.

McCall's boxing career has been as tumultuous as his life outside the ring.

There was his stunning second-round win over Lennox Lewis in London, knockout victories over future champs Bruce Seldon and Oleg Maskaev, and the strangely passive performances when he almost lost to an aging Larry Holmes and then meekly surrendered the title to Frank Bruno in London -- all of this topped by his mental meltdown in his rematch with Lewis in
Las Vegas.

The boxing world saw McCall's ability to take a heavy punch and what at the tiume was a fragile temperament juxtaposed that weird night in February 1997, when he was stopped -- on his feet but not fighting back -- in the fifth round.

It was a fight that should not have happened. In the months prior, it was clear that all was not well with McCall. In August 1996, he entered a drug rehabilitation center in North Carolina to be treated for cocaine and marijuana abuse. That December, there was a well-publicized incident in a Nashville hotel, in which an out-of-control McCall threw a Christmas tree across the lobby.

McCall later said in a prepared statement about the hotel lobby incident that he had succumbed to a bout of depression and become distraught when the rematch with Lewis, originally scheduled for early January in Nashville, had to be postponed due to a court battle over promotional rights. Promoter Don King told the media: "He was like a brokenhearted lover because he was not getting the limelight and was on the outside looking in."

Due to McCall's uncertain emotional state, there were very real doubts that the Lewis rematch would take place on its new date, Feb. 7 at the Las Vegas Hilton. McCall surfaced in Nashville in early January, though, to assure the media in a telephone conference call that he now had "God on
my side." He said he was "clean and sober" and getting professional help.

Once in Las Vegas, McCall passed a Nevada boxing commission drug test. Everyone agreed that he looked to be in great shape. Yet, something wasn't right. McCall struggled with his words and seemed confused about the direction he wanted to take his career. He said the reason he came to the ring with tears in his eyes was because "I have to think of all those bad things that have hurt me [including the stillborn birth of a
daughter] … all the pain I've ever felt wells up in me when I go to fight."

The Lewis fight was, of course, a fiasco. McCall walked around with his hands by his sides and tears streaming down his face as Lewis hit him, but with a certain caution, puzzled by his opponent's behavior.

I covered that fight ringside, and it was amazing that, even in his distressed and defenseless condition, McCall took the thumps of a240-pound heavyweight champion as if they were taps. He seemed, as old-time writers would say, impervious to punishment. No wonder McCall was the only regular sparmate of the ferocious peak-form Mike Tyson who always could be relied upon to turn up for duty.

Despite his age, McCall's iron chin and heavy hands make him a threat to the top heavyweights even now. He is always dangerous. Just last June he upset the odds by outpointing Sinan Samil Sam on his opponent's home ground in Turkey. And, although outpointed, he had Juan Carlos Gomez hurt in their elimination bout in October.

Happily, McCall appears to have his emotional issues under control. His older brother and manager, Frank McCall, told ESPN.com this week: "Lately, he's been great. I've been managing him now for a little bit over a year, and I've had a great year and he's had a great year, too. We've got a rematch with Samil Sam coming up, that will be in June, and we look forward to getting one more title run together."

McCall never has been dropped, and I never have seen him wobbly -- although Frank Bruno did briefly shake him with a huge right hand. He will go down in boxing history as one of the true oddities of the sport -- a heavyweight who despite his tearful his ring entrance seems unaffected by the hardest of blows.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.